NBA Christmas Day: One big question about every team

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Christmas is one of the biggest days on the NBA calendar.

We have a slate of five games and a great opportunity to evaluate many of the league’s top title contenders in awesome matchups. But each of the 10 teams playing on Wednesday — beginning at noon ET on ESPN and the ESPN App — is facing at least one big question affecting its short- and long-term trajectories.

Let’s dive into some of those questions facing this batch of Christmas squads and try to find a few answers.

LISTEN: Christmasketball: NBA Christmas Day Preview


One big question: Are they real Finals contenders?

Somehow, despite losing both Al Horford and Kyrie Irving in free agency, the Celtics look better than they did last season.

Kemba Walker is a great fit with this roster, and Boston currently ranks third in the league in net rating. The Celtics are one of just four teams to boast both a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense. (The others — Milwaukee and both Los Angeles teams — also play on Christmas.)

The Celtics have great young talent on the wings and good coaching, and their stats scream contender status, but here’s the thing: Their bigs might not be good enough. The battle for the East will be won and lost in the paint, and if there’s one glaring weakness looming on this roster it’s the state of the frontcourt.

Can the Celtics’ big men match up against the ferocious interior forces in the East? Can Daniel Theis, Robert Williams and Enes Kanter protect the paint against interior monsters such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid during a playoff series?

I’m skeptical. The Celtics are 0-2 against Philly this year, and Embiid torched Boston with 38 points and 13 boards on Dec. 12. Last season, the Celts were blown off the court by Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the playoffs — and that was with Horford.

You can’t come out of the East without answers for Antetokounmpo and Embiid, and it will be difficult for Boston to upgrade at center while holding on to all of its valuable guards and forwards. The Celtics might be stuck trusting Theis and Kanter down the stretch. Nobody in Philly or Milwaukee is afraid of those dudes.

Watch: Celtics vs. Raptors | Noon ET | ESPN and the ESPN App

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0:59

Chiney Ogwumike breaks down the Celtics’ improved chemistry this season, saying Kemba Walker is a good complement to Jayson Tatum.

One big question: How good is Pascal Siakam?

The future of this team rests largely on that question, but the answer seems to change every year. Siakam — out indefinitely with a groin injury — has made the leap at least two times now. The reigning Most Improved Player is still improving at a rapid clip, and while Raptors fans should be ecstatic about that, the emerging star still needs to refine a few things.

Siakam is scoring 25.1 points per game, up from 16.9 last season, but his efficiency is way down, especially inside the arc. Some drop in efficiency should have been expected as Siakam became the centerpiece of Toronto’s offense, upping his usage rate from 20.5% to 29.3%. But this is drastic:

  • Last season, Siakam made 60.2% of his 9.1 2-point tries per game

  • This season, he’s making 48.6% of his 14.1 2-pointers

That huge drop is due to two factors: atrocious midrange/floater numbers and extra attention from defenders.

Consider this Christmas matchup: Last season, as Boston coach Brad Stevens prepared for the Raptors, his defensive game plan focused on Kawhi Leonard. Siakam was an afterthought. This season, Siakam is the focus, and he sees stronger defenders and more double-teams. His efficiency numbers reflect a young player trying to add a bunch of floaters, pull-ups and post moves to his repertoire, while simultaneously getting hounded by more capable defenders.

The league’s brightest superstars blend high usage with high efficiency despite defensive attention, and the next leap for Siakam is clear: He has to recover his shooting numbers with this added load. If he can do that, Toronto will be just fine for years to come.

Watch: Celtics vs. Raptors | Noon ET | ESPN and the ESPN App

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2:42

Chiney Ogwumike analyzes the Raptors’ chances to contend in the Eastern Conference this year.

One big question: Why should we trust this thing?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Bud.

Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks have a top-five offense, a top-five defense, the best net rating in the league and the best record. So what? We said all the same things last season, and none of it mattered when Milwaukee crumbled in the Eastern Conference finals.

Once again, Bud has a regular-season juggernaut on his hands, but this time it’s Finals or bust. The Bucks are approaching potentially the biggest NBA transaction of 2020 when they extend a supermax contract to Giannis Antetokounmpo. The pressure is on to convince him to stay in Milwaukee for the prime of his career.

The Bucks have something to prove to themselves and to their franchise star. Last spring, Milwaukee lost four straight games after Leonard and the Raptors locked down Antetokounmpo.

The good news is that Leonard moved to Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean getting out of the East this season will be easy. Philly and Boston won’t be pushovers, but a trip to the Finals would make that summertime extension much more enticing for the reigning MVP.

Watch: Bucks vs. 76ers | 2:30 p.m. ET | ABC and the ESPN App

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1:22

Jay Williams compares Giannis Antetokounmpo to Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant and believes Giannis has separated from the rest of the NBA.

One big question: Can you build a champion around Embiid and Ben Simmons?

Optimists can point to last season’s playoff run and argue that the team was just a few plays away from the Finals, so the answer must be yes. They can also point to an easier path out of the East.

On the other hand, it’s unclear if Horford and Josh Richardson can replace JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler in the playoffs. Right now, Philly’s offense is on the naughty list. The Sixers have the 15th-best offense in the NBA, and it’s particularly awful in fourth quarters, ranking 26th in the final frame. That’s a big reason Philly has been a negative fourth-quarter team all season long.

If the Sixers can’t execute down the stretch in the regular season, why should we expect them to do so in the postseason?

Last Wednesday, as Butler made his return to Philly, his Heat team emerged with a big win thanks in large part to a clever zone defense, for which Philly’s bumbling offense had no answer. It was another failed test for a squad with sky-high expectations.

The other top teams in the East are strong two-way outfits. If Philly can’t figure out its offense by the end of the season, the questions about Simmons and Embiid will become much louder than they are now.

Watch: Bucks vs. 76ers | 2:30 p.m. ET | ABC and the ESPN App

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0:56

Kobe Bryant breaks down Joel Embiid’s baseline spin and how it compares to his own. For more “Detail” sign up for ESPN+ today at https://plus.espn.com/.

One big question: Can this team play defense?

When you have Mike D’Antoni as a coach and James Harden at the controls, the questions will never be about offense. Once again, Harden is breaking records and the Rockets’ offense is humming along. However, you can’t win the West as a one-trick pony. Right now, Houston ranks 16th in defensive efficiency, and that’s not good enough.

Last season, the Rockets had an incredible defensive awakening. Their defense ranked No. 25 in the NBA before the All-Star break and then ranked No. 2 overall the rest of the year. So we know they’re capable. But will they do it?

If the Rockets enter the playoffs with a solid defense, they are a legitimate threat to win it all. If they don’t, they aren’t. It’s as simple as that. With D’Antoni in the final season of his contract, the next big question for this team might be who is going to be the next coach if Houston falls short again.

Finding a way to acquire Andre Iguodala from the Memphis Grizzlies could make a significant difference here.

Watch: Rockets vs. Warriors | 5 p.m. ET | ABC and the ESPN App

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James Hard