Life after LeBron goes on in Miami, the Wizards like the sweet smell of success, and the Purple and Teal Attack is back in Charlotte
Don’t forget to tune in to Place To Be Nation’s NBA-Team Podcast as Andrew RIche and Adam Murray break down every division for the upcoming season. Click here for the Southeast Division preview.
ATLANTA HAWKS (Last season: 38-44, 4th in Southeast, 8th in Conference)
IN: Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Dexter Pittman, Mike Scott (re-signed), Shelvin Mack (re-signed), Elton Brand (re-signed), Adreian Payne (draft)
OUT: Lou Williams, Lucas Nogueira, Gustavo Ayon, Cartier Martin
Last season was the first one in which general manager Danny Ferry really flipped the switch on reshaping the Hawks’ lineup as he let Josh Smith and Larry Drew walk and built the team around Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Jeff Teague with former Spurs ally Mike Budenholzer as his head coach of choice. The story seemed to be the same for Atlanta at first, though, as they had a losing record but still made the playoffs despite the early loss of Horford due to a torn pectoral muscle. In Horford’s absence, Budenholzer turned the Hawks into a bomb squad from the three-point line (second in the league in three-point attempts) and Teague made major strides at point guard as the Hawks pushed the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games. Budenholzer’s team nearly pulled a magic trick, but the question going into the offseason was whether that type of imbalanced attack can be sustainable throughout an entire season. Now the organization is in even more flux as racially charged comments previously made by Ferry and team owner Bruce Levenson were revealed last month. Ferry took a leave of absence while Levenson is in the process of selling the team, leaving Budenholzer behind to run the team on his own.
Regardless of the ugly fallout, at least the Hawks are actually interesting for once, and that includes the lineup. Millsap turned out to be a steal in free agency last year, and he brings his lunch pail every night just as he did in Utah. He and Teague are the team’s leaders, and Teague played like one in the playoffs. “Sweet” Lou Williams was sent off to make cap space for Thabo Sefolosha, who is a great fit as the team’s primary wing defender. He can start in place of DeMarre Carroll, who is way more effective as a bench guy anyway. Budenholzer will provide even more opportunities for shooters like Teague, Millsap, Kyle Korver, and Mike Scott to fire away. Even Pero Antic and rookie center Adriean Payne can drain three’s, for God’s sakes! The team still lacks much depth outside of that one trait, however, so defensive intensity has to pick up. The intrigue is in the fact that Budenholzer found a niche in the playoffs with shooters spreading out, but Horford is a traditional inside force. Will the offense balance out to accommodate him or will Horford wind up looking like a fish out of water?
PREDICTION: If you look at the Hawks’ record starting in 2010, it has been a steady decline. That is often forgotten because the endgame is always the same: A first-round playoff exit. I say the trend turns upwards this season and the Hawks get back to above .500 and out of the final playoff spot. But two big questions remain, one old and one new: A) Are the Hawks talented enough to make real noise in the East? B) Will the media frenzy over Ferry’s and Levenson’s racist comments be a distraction? I say the Hawks bravely overcome the outside noise, but still cannot break the glass ceiling on the court. (4th in Southeast, 7th in Conference)
CHARLOTTE HORNETS (Last season: 43-39, 3rd in Southeast, 7th in Conference)
IN: Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts, Jason Maxiell, Noah Vonleh (draft), P.J. Hairston (draft), Jannero Pargo (re-signed)
OUT: Josh McRoberts, Luke Ridnour, Anthony Tolliver, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Brendan Haywood, Scotty Hopson, D.J. White
Bust out that Starter jacket, dust off that Mugsy Bogues jersey and play some NBA Jam on that ratchety Sega Genesis as LJ and Zo, because after a 12-year absence, the Charlotte Hornets are back in the NBA vernacular! Sure, the retro will wear off about as quickly as a trip through Hot Topic does in the coming years, but the reintroduction of the Hornets name in Charlotte, now with Michael Jordan as the owner instead of the hated George Shinn, has led to the second highest ticket sales among all NBA teams in the offseason (Cleveland is tops in that category). Never has the city of Charlotte been so buzzed about their basketball team since the Hornets’ best days in the early-to-mid 90s, and believe it or not, they have reason to be. Jordan, despite being the Greatest Player of All Time ™, has been almost equally as inept as an owner and decision maker in Washington and now Charlotte. The then-Bobcats were laughably bad under MJ before a few things bounced their way: The hiring of Steve Clifford as head coach, the signing of star big Al Jefferson, and the ascent of point guard Kemba Walker.
They still got swept in the playoffs by the Heat in the first round, but for once, things are actually looking up in Charlotte, and those hopes got even higher when the Hornets signed Lance Stephenson to a 3-year, $27 million deal. I think that Lance and Kemba is a dangerous, play making back court at a bargain price while Jefferson continues to easily rack up double-doubles in the paint. Josh McRoberts and Luke Ridnour are gone, and their replacements will be the overrated Marvin Williams and the underrated Brian Roberts. McRoberts’ all-around skills will be harder to replace than people assume on paper. Maxiell is a good bargain for a journeyman power forward, though. Gerald Henderson is a solid hand who rarely gets injured, and Jordan values his work ethic. Clifford preaches defense and set the tone in Charlotte but the three-point shooting was abysmal. Hopefully, Roberts, Gary Neal, and rookie P.J. Hairston can get them out of the bottom of the league in that category, but I have my doubts. A big key for Charlotte going forward is the development over their last three lottery picks: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and Noah Vonleh, who will probably miss the start of the season due to a hernia. All three have shown signs of potential, but the bloom has not come yet and fans might get tired of waiting if a playoff push is underway. Small forward Jeffrey Taylor was really coming along before rupturing his Achilles last December, but things might be up in the air for him after being arrested for domestic assault in September.
PREDICTION: I was lukewarm to the Bobcats last season despite making the playoffs simply because while they worked really hard and Walker became a very good two-guard, they just lacked talent. The addition of Lance Stephenson, a mercurial but extremely gifted guard who can do just about anything you ask of him, is a cure to that dry spell. I’ll take a few knuckleheaded moments if that means I have two guards that will fight you to the death every night like Lance and Kemba will. With Miami on the downturn and the Hawks in seemingly eternal limbo, I can almost see the revitalized Hornets fly up to second in the division, but I won’t go that far. They should make the postseason, though, and don’t be shocked if actually WIN a playoff game or more this time. (3rd in Southeast, 6th in Conference)
IN: Chris Bosh (re-signed), Dwyane Wade (re-signed), Mario Chalmers (re-signed), Udonis Haslem (re-signed), Chris Andersen (re-signed), Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng, Danny Granger, Shannon Brown, James Ennis, Shawne Williams, Khem Birch, Andre Dawkins, Shabazz Napier (draft)
OUT: LeBron James, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, James Jones, Rashard Lewis, Greg Oden, Michael Beasley, Toney Douglas
There wasn’t a parade down Biscayne Boulevard this past summer for the Miami Heat. After another highly successful regular season, another Eastern Conference title, and gunning for a rare championship three-peat, the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh met their proverbial match in their second NBA Finals clash with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs not only put out Miami’s championship run, but convinced James by series’ end that Wade and Bosh were not sustainable partners in his pursuit of recapturing the NBA Championship. That led to James signing to go back to Cleveland, leaving Miami in the cold just as he had done to his hometown back in 2010 when he signed with the Heat. The team may not be “White Hot” anymore, but team president Pat Riley refused to wave the white flag as he desperately re-signed many of his key players post-LeBron, including Chris Bosh to a 5-year, $118 million deal (ouch!) and Wade to a 2-year, $31 million deal with a no-trade clause (double ouch!).
Riley also brought back the Birdman, Mario Chalmers, and team lifer Udonis Haslem to go with a fairly noticeable overhaul. James Jones, Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis are gone and Ray Allen probably is, too. The new small forward will be Luol Deng, who played well last season and is a good defender regardless of how inferior he is to what LeBron did for them. Josh McRoberts was a sneaky good signing and he plugs a need as a strong, unselfish power forward. With Bosh as the team’s everyday superstar and Wade’s health deteriorating, this might be Erik Spoelstra’s toughest task as a head coach so far. He adjusted to small ball by running efficient offense around LeBron’s powers at the sacrifice of being the worst rebounding team in the league. I don’t think McRoberts and Bosh in the front court is going to cure those ills, but an identity change might be necessary. They were already a pretty slow offense in a standard set, and don’t be surprised if they become even more predictable and rely on their defense. NCAA Champion Shabazz Napier was a steal for Miami, and I would not be surprised if he started games late in the year if Chalmers’ production goes into the tank, which tends to happen.
PREDICTION: Some people are comparing this year’s Miami Heat team to the Orlando Magic when Shaquille O’Neal left for LA and Penny Hardaway had to do it on his own to no avail. I wouldn’t chop them down THAT far with James gone, because Bosh honestly had his best season with the Heat last year and has shown moments where he can lead the team without the other two. The great unknown is what Wade is capable of doing going forward and if his leadership can make up for his lost abilities (He looked downright pedestrian in the 2014 Finals). This is still a playoff team thanks to the addition of Deng and some bench help that they really needed with the newly opened cap space, but the Heat will be have to get used to playing the role of the underdog, and that means the Big Other Two proving people wrong every night. This will be their greatest challenge. (2nd in Southeast, 5th in Conference)
IN: Luke Ridnour, Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, Willie Green, Peyton Siva, Evan Fournier (trade), Aaron Gordon (draft), Elfrid Payton (draft), Devyn Marble (draft)
OUT: Arron Afflalo, E’Twaun Moore, Jason Maxiell, Jameer Nelson, Doron Lamb, Ronnie Price
Just when you think things couldn’t get worse for the Orlando Magic over the past two seasons, they kinda did this summer after the departures of their two best veterans. Longtime point guard Jameer Nelson was released while Arron Afflalo, a main cog in the 2012 Dwight Howard trade along with Nikola Vucevic, was traded back to Denver. Those chairs were eventually filled in the Magic locker room, but a lot of seats in the Amway Center might be empty this upcoming season. GM Rob Hennigan had a solid draft plan to replace Nelson with a point guard for the future in Elfrid Payton, but both he and fellow rook Aaron Gordon are very raw offensively. He did pry French up-and-comer Evan Fournier out of Denver in the Afflalo trade, then turned around and gave Ben Gordon $9 million over two years. What the huh?! They may have overpaid to get Channing Frye out of Phoenix (4 years, $32 mil), but I actually like him here because his three-point shooting will compliment the more standard bigs in Orlando like Vucevic and Tobias Harris.
Harris was invited to practice with Team USA this summer along with teammate Victor Oladipo, whom I absolutely love. Michael Carter-Williams was an easy choice for Rookie of the Year last year, but I think Oladipo can be a future superstar for the Magic, almost a newly designed version of Dwyane Wade. I can easily see head coach Jacque Vaughn handing the point guard duties to Oladipo just to help Payton out a little. There are also three forwards entering their third season as Magic players who have yet to make much of an impact: Moe Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, and Kyle O’Quinn. This season is sink or swim time for those three.
PREDICTION: Last year, I predicted that the Magic would very slightly improve their horrid 20-62 record from the 2012-13 season. Well, they did…by only three games, still finishing with 59 losses. It also doesn’t help that Vaughn is far overmatched as an NBA head coach, completely incapable of setting any kind of formula for the young Magic players. With the loss of a go-to-guard like Afflalo and only rookies and roaming veterans to replace him, I sense another dip into the ditch for the Magic. I expect them not only to be the worst team in the Eastern Conference, but also the worst team in the entire league record-wise. The future is there with Oladipo, Harris, Vucevic, Payton, and Gordon, but it’s a ways away right now. (5th in Southeast, 15th in Conference)
IN: Paul Pierce, Marcin Gortat (re-signed), DeJuan Blair, Kris Humphries, Rasual Butler, Damion James, Xavier Silas, Kevin Seraphin (re-signed), Drew Goodon (re-signed)
OUT: Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker, Al Harrington, Chris Singleton
After a rough start to the regular season and a lack of flair to their 44-38 record, the Washington Wizards, led by newly minted All-Star point guard John Wall, rising sharpshooter Bradley Beal, and an experienced front court, finally found their way in the postseason. They took out the offensively challenged Chicago Bulls in five games, then pushed another offensively challenged team (the Pacers) to six games in the second round, the farthest D.C. has gotten in the playoffs since 1982. It’s difficult to pinpoint what sparked that fire, but the closest source for their success was the dependable and reliable starting roster of Wall, Beal, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat, and Nene. Washington had to make a tough decision this summer of re-signing only one of their two available free agents between Ariza and Gortat, and went with Gortat (Ariza signed with the Rockets).
The Wizards smartly did not freak out or reach for the stars because of the taste of playoff wins. They merely plugged a hole in the starting SF position by signing Paul Pierce, who is in his twilight but still very capable of making big shots and will be a great leader for Wall and Beal. The backcourt duo was the bee’s knees going into last year and there is no reason to not feel the same way this year. When Wall’s shot was falling, he and Beal were a nightmare for opposing guards on many nights. The problem that remains for head coach Randy Wittman is lack of depth on the bench, especially with Trevor Booker off to Utah. Andre Miller, Drew Gooden, and Martell Webster are solid vets, but they don’t strike fear in your heart. They needed some inside help with Booker’s exit so getting Kris Humphries and Dejuan Blair, two guys who don’t mind sticking their nose in, was a smart plan. Humphries, however, will The two second-year “Jr.” small forwards (Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr.) looked much better in summer league, so they need to make an impact in the rotation or they might become trade bait.
PREDICTION: This team reminds me of the Atlanta Hawks in this same division back in the late 2000s when they had intriguing guys (Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia) at different points in their careers, but worked well together and always made the playoffs. Last year was the first glimpse of how good the Wizards can be, especially as Wall improves as a shooter. I don’t think Pierce is the missing piece to a championship puzzle, but he will continue the Wizards’ winning ways. Wittman did make some key coaching errors against Indiana, though, so he needs to grow into more of a strategist with this team. The key issue is if they can win the division from the incumbent Miami Heat or the resurgent Charlotte Hornets. I say they can, and they will. (1st in Southeast, 4th in Conference)