2015-16 NBA Preview, Southeast Division: A Heated Battle


The Southeast Division is deeper than its been in a long time. Since 2008, the Southeast has seen its best team fight for Eastern Conference supremacy. Dwight Howard led the Orlando Magic to 59 wins in 2008-09. The Magic and the Hawks won 59 and 53 games, respectively, in 09-10. As some NBA fans may have noticed, LeBron James joined the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010. For four years, the Heat torched the NBA.

Which brings us to last year. The Atlanta Hawks took their turn, winning 60 regular season games behind the pristine spacing and fluid ball movement of Mike Budenholzer’s offense. Before climbing to 46 wins last year, the Washington Wizards had not experienced much success in the last…well…generation. If we check the records, the Wizards have never won more than 46. The franchise used to be known as the Bullets. From 1963 through 1973, the Baltimore Bullets won 50+ games in three seasons. After a year as the “Capitol Bullets,” they became the Washington Bullets. They won 60 games in 1974-75, led by Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Phil Chenier. That team ended up losing in the Finals. After seeing their win totals slip to 48, 48, and then 44 in the late ’70s, the Bullets surprised the NBA with their only franchise title in 1977-78, beating the Sonics in Game 7 that June. The following year, the Bullets won 54 games. Thirty-six years later, the Wizards are still trying to get back to 50 wins.

The Southeast has three of the East’s top five (in my opinion) this year. Let’s take a closer look.

***

1. Miami Heat

Arrivals: Gerald Green, Amar’e Stoudemire
Departures: Michael Beasley
Retained: Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng

Drafted: Justise Winslow (10th)

2014-15: 37-45

After a year in which injuries snuffed out any hope of moving on as seamlessly as possible after LeBron’s departure, the Heat managed to bring back Wade (one-year deal), Goran Dragic (5 yrs / $90m) and Luol Deng (exercised his player option). Goran Dragic is the creative off-the-bounce force that an aging Wade and Bosh need. Even Dragic sat out meaningful March and April games with injuries.

Here’s why I see the Heat finishing at the top of the talented trio of Atlanta, Washington and Miami: a 26 year-old named Hassan Whiteside. I wrote about him at length last February. (I’ll re-post the link soon. It’s a piece I think you’ll enjoy). His career so far has had more dips than peaks. His maturity and past work ethic has reasonably led many to abandon hope. His meteoric rise last year came with several bizarrely irrational moments of unprofessional behavior. Opponents will surely be game-planning to mess with Whiteside in order to get him into foul trouble.

On the other hand, here were his per-36 minute numbers in 1142 NBA minutes with Miami:

17.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, 3.9 blocks. 

In 23.8 minutes per game last year, Whiteside shot 63% from the field. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a 7’7″ wingspan?

Here are Miami’s “Ifs”:

  • If Whiteside can manage to play 28+ minutes per game and stay healthy (mentally & physically)…
  • If Goran Dragic can play 70+ games…
  • If Chris Bosh can play 65+ games…
  • If Dwyane Wade can play 55+ games…
  • If Josh McRoberts, Amar’e Stoudemire, Gerald Green and Justise Winslow can provide enough stability, scoring and depth to keep the starting unit’s leads…

Then…the Heat will win the Southeast Division, and grab home court in the playoffs. Is it possible that Atlanta will win 55 games again (not likely) and quiet all the doubters? Or for John Wall to rampage through the league and for Washington to win 52+ games? Possible, but somehow I think Whiteside will work as hard as he ever has in order to cash in during the free-agency bonanza of July, 2016.

Prediction: 51-31, 3rd in East.


2. Washington Wizards

Arrivals: Jared Dudley, Gary Neal, Alan Anderson
Departures: Paul Pierce
Retained: Garrett Temple, Drew Gooden

Drafted: Kelly Oubre (15th)

2014-15: 46-36

Like Muggsy Bogues and Jose Altuve, the Wizards will be small this year…at least that’s the intention. Following their playoff success, the Wizards have talked about continuing to extend the spacing around their Olympic sprinter, John Wall. The Wizards have Bradley Beal entrenched at the two, though he is determined to take more 3s (expect that to work out from both an analytics and intuitive standpoint). The combination of Otto Porter–who had a mini breakout in last year’s playoffs–and the hopefully healthy Jared Dudley (glue guy extraordinaire) give the Wizards enough options and length to go small. Is Otto Porter ready to take the balance of the minutes at power forward? The instinct would be to say, “Not at all.” On the other hand, the East is filled with power forwards who aren’t really power forwards, so the answer becomes, “Why Not?” Paul George can play at the 4? So can Otto Porter…maybe.

Vagabond Drew Gooden offers another big with more versatility than Kris Humphries.

Nene is aging rapidly which will weaken the interior defense. Coach Randy Wittman will play Gortat without Nene, which should free up Gortat’s offense on the pick-and-roll with more spacing.

Gary Neal may be an x-factor if the Wizards are truly intent on running with space. Neal was lost in the shuffle in Milwaukee and Charlotte, but remember his performance with the Spurs two years ago and one can imagine the Wall effect on him.

Some are wondering if the team can threaten in the East with expected slippage on defense. As the Rockets and Blazers have shown, a high-level offense that limits turnovers can make a team’s defense more effective than it might otherwise be. Limiting Nene’s minutes in the regular season would increase his chances of success against playoff bigs.

After years of taking cheapshots, Wittman has settled into a comfortable position, leading an exciting young contender. Will this be the year the Wizards get back to the 50-win plateau? I’ll say yes…just barely.

Prediction: 50-32, 4th in East


3. Atlanta Hawks

Arrivals: Tiago Splitter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Walter Taveras, Justin Holiday
Departures: DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antic, Austin Daye, Elton Brand*, John Jenkins*
Retained: Paul Millsap

Drafted: (traded pick Oubre for Tim Hardaway, Jr.)

2014-15: 60-22

The Hawks were a great story last year. They played a beautiful form of basketball, and they won 60 games because they played with the mental clarity and purpose of a driven group. They were motivated, unselfish, and mentally tough. Now they are without DeMarre Carroll, who epitomized all of those adjectives. Of course, so did Kyle Korver, Al Horford, and Paul Millsap. Jeff Teague has gradually learned how to be all of those things as well. The Hawks didn’t get to the Finals. They lost to Cleveland in an ugly East Finals, after injuries took out Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver, then temporarily took out DeMarre Carroll as well. There wasn’t anything close to enough offense for Atlanta to survive the defensive-unit the Cavs trotted out after injuries overtook them as well. Fast forward to the end of June (draft night). The Hawks knew they couldn’t afford both Millsap and Carroll.

Tim Hardaway, Jr. for the 19th pick. I’ve heard people criticize this Budenholzer choice. Here’s the context: Hardaway was playing in an NBA wasteland for the last two years surrounded by stagnant-bowel-movement-create your-own-offense. This year he will be surrounded with unselfish players which will make undoubtedly help make him better. He showed in college that he can hit a big shot; something the Hawks were lacking once Kyle Korver was injured and defensive-game plans were focused on him in the playoffs. Hardaway Jr may not be everything the Hawks needed but he gives them a better floor spacer than they could have found with the 19th pick. The Hawks know their window of opportunity is shrinking.

Adding Tiago Splitter was an under-the-radar, thanks-Spurs-move, essentially getting him for nothing because San Antonio needed the cap room to grab Aldridge. Splitter will fit in nicely with a similar-style of slashing and cutting offense, where the big man rolls to the rim. Splitter will also make the expected defensive rotations to enable Hawks defense to cause headaches.

The hunch here is that Justin Holiday, Sefolosha, and Hardaway Jr. can do a reasonable job creating a three-headed monster that approximates Carroll’s value. An added year of experience to the resume of German wunderkind Dennis Schroder, and the Hawks will be tough to beat again…but those 60 wins are way too much to ask.

Prediction: 50-32, 5th in East.


4. Orlando Magic

Arrivals: C.J. Watson, Jason Smith                                                                                                                       Departures: Kyle O’Quinn Medicine Woman, Luke Ridnour

Retained: Tobias Wolff Harris                                                                                                                                               Drafted: Mario Hezonja (5th)

2014-15: 25-57

On April 12th, the Magic and Knicks set an NBA record for fewest points in a quarter on the shot-clock era (since 1954-55). 209,888 quarters had been played in NBA history before that fateful 2nd Quarter. The Magic and Knicks shot a combined 6-of-39 from the field. Further proof that irony’s cruel hand helps our planet spin, the game took place in Amway Arena on “Fan Appreciation Night.”

If you dare, here is the link:
http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/12671276/new-york-knicks-orlando-magic-combine-15-points-second-quarter

What does this tragedy foretell about the 2015-16 Orlando Magic?

That outside shooting will be a key ingredient in the progress of this club. The Magic have a pair of incredibly athletic young guards in Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. While Oladipo’s shot stopped working in February (8 of 37 in 10 games), that was likely due to the energy he expends on both ends and the grind of the first half, leading up to the All-Star Break. He looked much better in March and April.

On the other hand, his backcourt mate Payton was a disastrous shooter all year, taking only 42 shots from behind the arc, connecting on 26%. At the free-throw line, Payton’s clangs were even more painful. With incredible quickness and footwork, Payton can get to the rim with ease, but made only 55% of his freebies. Young Elfrid may become the next Rondo, a player who impacts the game in his team’s favor DESPITE his shooting limitations. Like his namesake Gary, Elfrid’s long reach, great instincts, and toughness could potentially make him a lock-down defender once he adjusts to the new schemes Scott Skiles is installing.

The defensive prowess of Oladipo and Payton, with help from versatile youngster Aaron Gordon give the Magic an intriguing future as defensive menaces. Tobias Harris (re-signed 4 yr / S64m) and center Nikola Vucevic are offensively-skilled, but far from stellar defenders. Though this may seem less likely based on last year, Channing Frye’s ability to defend the pick and stretch the floor make him a better fit at times (rarely, but at times) than Vucevic, who is good in the post, but gets lost on defense.

Many people seem to think Scott Skiles is going to help lead the Magic back to respectability. The simple formula of young talent and a better coach will do that. I know he’s had some success in defensive efficiency, but unless Aaron Gordon takes a giant leap forward, and those guards suddenly develop range, I’m not sure they win more than 36 games. The East is improved and will be clogged with mediocre, but not terrible, 30-38 win teams.

Prediction: 35-47, 10th in East.


5. Charlotte Hornets

ArrivalsJeremy Lin, Nic Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes, Tyler Hansbrough, Luke Ridnour
Departures: Lance Stephenson, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Mo Williams, Bismack Biyombo, Luke Ridnour
Retained: Al Jefferson

Drafted: Frank Kaminsky (9th)

2014-15: 33-49

There just aren’t many Franks anymore. Frank Thomas retired. Barney Frank also retired. Frank Vogel is still around. Anyway, here comes Frank Kaminsky. Somehow, the Hornets chose him over Justise Winslow. I suppose they did desperately need shooting. They figured Kaminsky will be a stretch 4/5, which has become an increasingly important cog in modern roster-building strategies. Looking up at those “arrivals” and “departures,” there has been some serious turnover since last year.

The Lance Stephenson Experiment is over. Charlotte sent him to the Clippers for Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes (swapping bad deals). Stephenson’s contract was set to expire after next year, assuming he declines the player option and plunges into the 2016 free agency madness. The Hornets found another partner in Portland. Mr. Everything, Nic Batum’s disappointing 2014-15 (injuries played a role) has one year left on his deal. Noah Vonleh (9th pick in 2014) for the future in Portland. Gerlad Henderson replaces Batum temporarily as a solid defender, though without the passing vision or range that Batum possesses.

Frank Kaminsky, Justice Winslow or a trio of picks (including Brooklyn’s 1st rd pick in 2016) from Boston?

The Hornets chose the long-range shooting of Frank Kaminsky over the versatility of Winslow or the future possibilities from Boston.

The Hornets are looking to make the playoffs, even if it means clawing their way to a 7th or 8th seed. This is what happens when a franchise loses consistently for 15 years. This is what happens when an NBA franchise tries to gain a foothold in the hotbed of college basketball known as Tobacco Road. You rent Nic Batum for a season and give up on a 6’10” 20 year-old power forward who played all of 250 minutes in the NBA last year.

It is very tough to gauge Vonleh’s potential but it was easy for Portland to accept the deal that sent Batum packing one year before he was likely to leave anyway. Another brutal year for the non-contenders out west means that the Blazers could lose enough this season to gain a top-8 pick in the 2016 draft.

And then what happens?

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is out for the year. Last year, the Hornets on/off numbers with MKG:

98.8 team defensive rating when MKG was on the court.

107.4 team defensive rating when MKG was off the court.

Goodbye, defense. Goodbye, playoff hopes. Another lost season in Charlotte.

Prediction: 30-52, 12th in East.

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