In keeping with time-honored tradition, Blazer’s Edge once again will be looking across the entire NBA and offering season previews for all 30 teams. Today finish with the Southeast Division. Either the Miami Heat or Atlanta Hawks have won the Southeast since 2010, but after some massive roster shakeups, and last season's three-way tie for first, this could be the year that changes. The overall talent of the division is down this year after losing Dwayne Wade and Al Horford to free agency along with Victor Oladipo, Jeff Teague to trades and Chris Bosh to extremely unfortunate health concerns. From top to bottom this could be the closest division in the NBA.
2015-16 Record: 48-34 (No. 4 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 105.75 (No. 22); DRtg: 102 (No. 2)
Roster Additions: Dwight Howard, Malcolm Delaney, Taureen Prince (Rookie, No. 12), DeAndre Bembry (Rookie, No. 21), Isaia Cordinier (Rookie, No. 44)
Roster Subtractions: Jeff Teague, Al Horford
Coach: Mike Budenholtzer; SBN Affiliate: Peach Tree Hoops
Atlanta currently holds the second longest streak of consecutive seasons with a playoff appearance at nine (San Antonio leads with 19). But in none of those seasons were the Hawks ever true championship contenders.This year, the team felt with the core that they had coming into the offseason that they were still not near contention.
Atlanta came into the offseason with a plan. They hoped to sign back free agents Al Horford and Kent Bazemore and then trade some veterans on the final year of their contracts for some future talent. With backup point guard Dennis Schroder poised to take over duties as a starting point guard, Atlanta's All-Star point guard Jeff Teague became expendable and was traded to Indiana in a three-way deal that netted the Hawks the No. 12 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Taureen Prince.
After re-signing Bazemore and convincing Atlanta native Dwight Howard to join the team, Howard and power forward Al Horford would create a balanced frontcourt that would also make All-Star and 2017 free agent-to-be Paul Millsap expendable, as well. The plan was great and was working out impeccably.....until Horford signed with the Boston Celtics. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the difference between what Horford asked for and what Atlanta was willing to give up was a mere $1.2 million per season. Atlanta lost Horford for nothing to an Eastern Conference foe and will now start the season with a less complementary frontcourt of Howard and MIllsap, with Millsap due a massive pay raise at the end of the year. Great plan, poor execution.
Howard and Schroder will be entering a starting lineup that will include Millsap and fellow three-year starter Kyle Korver at shooting guard. Bazemore returns to the hawks after signing a 4-year, $70-million dollar contract after averaging 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds on 36 percent shooting from deep.
Atlanta's Achilles heal last year was on the glass. The Hawks grabbed the least offensive rebounds of any team in the NBA last year and allowed the opponents to take the third most boards overall. Adding Howard under the basket should fix most of those problems. He has five rebounding titles and has averaged at least 10 rebounds per game in every one of his 12 career seasons.
The key to the Hawks' success last year was in their defense. Atlanta finished the season as the No. 2 defense in the NBA. Losing Horford will hurt. He is great as a pick-and-roll defender and generally has a great mind for the defensive side of the ball. Howard is much bigger, stronger, and more athletic, but his rim protection numbers last year were similar to Horford's. Maintaining a top-five defense will be imperative for the Hawks to keep in the playoff race.
The pressure will be on Schroder to show that his per-36 numbers of 19.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and four assists can be at least somewhat duplicated on a larger scale. The Hawks are very thin at the point guard spot with only Malcolm Delaney behind him in the depth chart, but no one is better at getting the most out of inexperienced players than coach Mike Budholzer. The bench is unproven and going four weeks without injured big man reserve Tiago Splitter will hurt, but the defense should be strong and as long as the team can stay healthy and Schroder takes the expected next step, look for Atlanta to be in the upper part of the Southeast Division.
2015-16 Record: 48-34 (No. 6 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 107.72 (No. 9); DRtg: 105.1 (No. 9)
Roster Additions: Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions, Brian Roberts
Roster Subtractions: Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin
Coach: Steve Clifford; SBN Affiliate: At The Hive
The Charlotte Hornets came into the offseason with the mindset of keeping the team together and giving them another year to grow. The biggest move the hornets made was the 5-year, $120-million dollar contract they gave to retain Nicolas Batum. In his first season away from Portland, he averaged a career-best 15 points and 5.8 assists per game, and became the playmaker on the wing the Hornets had been hoping for. They also re-signed their stretch-four, Marvin Williams, to a very reasonable 4-year, $54-million contract, considering he averaged 11.7 points - his highest mark since 2009 - and led the team in rebounds while shooting a career-best 40 percent from the 3-point line.
The rest of the offseason ultimately ended up with Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin being replaced by Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli, and Ramon Sessions. Although the former trio is an overall more talented group, the Hornets look to move up through the standings this year through internal growth from their young guys and a healthy season from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Gilchrist played just seven games last year after two separate torn labrums in his shoulder and played only 62 and 55 games, respectively, in the two seasons prior. But when he does play, he changes the look of the Hornets. His is a top-flight defender, a strong driver, good finisher and a rebounding machine. Although he is still a non-shooter, his weird mid-air pump fake during his jump shot is less blatant than it was. His health and continued improvement plus the continued improvement of young players such as Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller is pivotal if Charlotte wants to continue their ascension in the Eastern Conference.
Last year Charlotte was one of just just six teams to finish in the top 10 in the NBA in offensive and defensive ratings. Coach Steve Clifford implemented a defensive mentality in the club the moment he arrived. Expect more of the same this season with a possible higher defensive ceiling if Kidd-Gilchrist can stay healthy. Offensively, point guard and Hornets leading scorer Kemba Walker boosted his percentages across the board last season and it helped Charlotte - along with the addition of Batum - to climb from the the league's No. 28 rated offense to No. 9.
Charlotte did not make many significant moves this offseason because they felt they did not have to. With their continued progression, the Hornets feel they can move up this season in a weakened Eastern Conference and possibly take over the wide-open No. 2 seed.
2015-16 Record: 41-41 (No. 10 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 106.09 (No. 20); DRtg: 106.48 (No. 14)
Roster Additions: Ian Mahinmi, Trey Burke, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith
Roster Subtractions: Jared Dudley, Nene, Ramon Sessions, Garett Temple, Alan Anderson
Coach: Scott Brooks; SBN Affiliate: Bullets Forever
The Washington Wizards have found themselves in a familiar position: mediocrity. Washington has not finished in the top four in the East since 1979 but have finished in fifth place five times in the last 11 years. After a .500 season, the Wizards entered free agency this summer ready to make a splash.
After re-signing shooting guard Bradley Beal to a max contract, the Wizards chased the big fishes in the free agent pool. They baited Kevin Durant, Al Horford and Nicolas Batum with max contracts but could not land any of them. The Wizards then turned their attention to defensive specialist Ian Mahinmi and signed him to a 4-year, $64-million dollar contract and then brought in forward Andrew Nicholson and traded for point guard Trey Burke.
Even after missing out on their top free agents, Washington does not have many holes on its roster. Mahinmi is a great alternative to the more offensive-minded Marcin Gortat. They have some young versatile wings in Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre, who should continue to progress, and Markief Morris played well in Washington after coming over in a mid-season trade from Pheonix.
But the offense all starts with the dynamic Washington backcourt. Point guard John Wall is one of the fastest players in the NBA and is coming off his best season as a pro, scoring 20 points a night and dishing 10.2 assists. Shooting guard Bradley Beal has had some problems staying healthy, but when he is on the court, he is a terrific scorer and is very efficient offensively for a shooter. The duo looks like a great combination on paper but they have never produced the way most feel they should. Wall even came out and said publicly that the two had some chemistry issues.
New coach Scott Brooks is starting with the challenge of trying to find an equal ground for the two to thrive. Although Brooks was more than likely hired as a lure for Kevin Durant, his time with the Thunder has given him some experience with two alpha scorers in Durant and Westbrook. If he can find a way to make the two coexist, maybe the Wizards can break through a muddled Eastern Conference playoff race, and find a way to finally grab a top-four seed.
2015-16 Record: 48-34 (No. 3 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 107.01 (No. 13); DRtg: 105.34 (No. 10)
Roster Additions: Wayne Ellignton, Dion Waiters, Derrick Williams, Luke Babbit, James Johnson, Rodney McGruder, Willie Reed
Roster Subtractions: Dwayne Wade, Luol Deng, Joe Johnson, Gerald Green, Dorell Wright, Amare Stoudemire
Coach: Eric Spoelstra; SBN Affiliate: Hot Hot Hoops
If you're looking for the team that had the most difficult offseason, look no further. And that is even after they were able to retain NBA blocks leader Hassan Whiteside. After locking him up to a max contract, the Heat looked poised to keep most of a roster together that came within one game of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals.
But that's when misery took its talents to South Beach. The Heat franchise leader in most statistical categories and 12-time All-Star, Dwayne Wade, signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Bulls. The signing immediately took the Heat out of any kind of championship contention. The worst part was that things got worse from there. Two months after Wade left, power forward Chris Bosh failed a physical due to an ongoing bout with blood clots and the Heat determined that Bosh will never be healthy enough to play again. Miami deserves the credit for putting his health first, but the team is a shadow of where it hoped to be at the start of the 2016-17 season.
Along with Bosh and Wade, the Heat also lost veteran swingmen Joe Johnson and Luol Deng to free agency. Losing four of their top six scorers has also put Miami out of championship contention. Their already thin roster is now almost invisible if looked at from the side. Even so, there are still pieces to like in Miami. Whiteside is still a massive defensive presence under the basket and will now be more of an offensive focal point with all the extra shots to go around. He has a decent touch around the basket and he even added a nice little spin last season when he gets the ball on the block.
Point guard Goran Dragic was brought in by Miami after he demanded a trade out of Pheonix because he wanted to play for a winner. Dragic himself is still a very good player, only two years removed from averaging 20 points per game with the Suns. His name has surfaced in trade rumors that have been deemed by the Heat as untrue, but if Miami struggles out of the gate, he may be the one looking to be back on a contender.
Miami has some nice young players in Justice Winslow, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson who all proved last year as rookies to be nice role players on a playoff team. The Heat also signed a few veteran free agents who should be able to contribute this season. They won't be able to make up for what the Heat lost, but there is still a potentially competitive team in Miami.
2015-16 Record: 35-47 (No. 11 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 105.75 (No. 23); DRtg: 107.47 (No. 16)
Roster Additions: Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, DJ Augustine, Jeff Green, Jodie Meeks, Stephan Zimmerman (Rookie, No. 41)
Roster Subtractions: Victor Olidipo, Brandon Jennings, Andrew Nicholson, Erson Illyasova, Dewayne Dedmon, Shabazz Napier
Coach: Frank Vogel; SBN Affiliate: Orlando Pinstriped Post
The Orlando Magic have a lot of talent on the roster, but it is very unclear which direction they are trying to go. Last year's coach Scott Skiles voluntarily stepping down was a pretty clear sign that whatever direction they were going was not a great one.
Orlando GM Rob Hennigan shook up the roster this offseason by sending last year's second-leading scorer, Victor Olidipo, and a first-rounder to Oklahoma City in return for Serge Ibaka. It was a steep price to pay but Ibaka is a rare combination of floor spacer and rim protecter, which is a perfect match to complement one of the best low post scorers in the league, Nikola Vucevic.
French shooting guard Evan Fournier's breakout season and 40 percent 3-point shooting percentage merited him a 5-yr, $85-million contract and starting spot, making Oladipo expendable. By moving Oladipo, Elfrid Payton now becomes the unquestioned floor leader. He entered the league not being able to throw a ball into the ocean from the boat, and he still is only a 59 percent free throw shooter, but his percentages improved last year and he plays solid defense. Now in his third season, he will be counted on to take another step forward. The Magic took out an insurance policy and signed veteran point guard D.J Augustine to a 4-year, $29-million dollar contract to back him up.
Super athlete Aaron Gordon should be starting at the small forward spot and is one of the most intriguing prospects in the league. His ceiling is enormous and is a breakout candidate to watch. His per-36 minute numbers last year of 14 points, 10 rebounds, a steal, and a block were promising, and he should find more success as he develops his outside game.
The growth of the Magic's young players will be the key to success in Orlando. With an intriguing young player at just about every position, new coach Frank Vogel will have his hands full trying to find some cohesion. The Magic may have misplayed their value of Tobias Harris but still ended up signing a solid role player in Jeff Green. His versatility along with Augustine and defensive specialist big man Bismarck Biyombo should help fill some potential holes. People are not looking at this team as a contender, but after being in rebuilding mode ever since the departure of Dwight Howard in 2012, this could be the year that the Magic make a step in that direction.