If I had to pick two words to describe the Southeast division, those words would be cautious optimism. Every team in the division but Orlando believes they can make a playoff run, but each team also has a very clear path to disappointment. We covered the Wizards in depth in this space last week, but how does the rest of the division stack up?
Bigs - Nikola Vucevic, Channing Frye, Kyle O'Quinn, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Maxiell
Wings - Tobias Harris, Moe Harkless, Aaron Gordon, Willie Green
Guards - Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Luke Ridnour, Ben Gordon, Devyn Marble
Channing Frye was one of the more intriguing free agents this past summer. Frye is a passable defender, a below average rebounder, and not an especially explosive finisher. But he can shoot. Since 2010, when he started shooting threes, he has shot 38.9% on five three point attempts a game. What effect does this have on a team's offense? Goran Dragic claimed that Frye's spacing keyed the Suns offense by opening up space for the rest of the team. The effect was dramatic, as the Suns went from the 29th ranked offense in 2013, when Frye missed the entire year due to heart problems, to the 8th ranked offense in 2014. Was Frye's effect on the offense magnified by the skills of the other Phoenix players or could Frye have a dramatic effect on every NBA team's offense?
This is an important question for the Orlando Magic, who had one of the more baffling offseasons in the league. The Magic are entering the third year of the post-Dwight era, and their short term outlook entering free agency looked to be just as hopeless as year 1 and 2, during which Orlando lost more than 120 games despite a passel of young, talented players. While a core of Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Moe Harkless, and Tobias Harris will probably be very productive in several years, currently Vucevic is the only member of the group that is even an average shooter for his position and Oladipo and Vucevic are the only ones with much of a hope of becoming plus defenders this year. There's a lot of raw talent, but it's very difficult to win when you can't shoot or defend. The Magic are hoping Frye, as a defensively competent big man and floor stretcher, will provide the space that will allow their young players to thrive, but they will likely yet again struggle to reach 30 wins.
Bigs - Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo, Noah Vonleh
Wings - Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, Jeffrey Taylor, P.J. Hairston
Guards - Kemba Walker, Gary Neal, Brian Roberts, Jannero Pargo
The newly re-branded Hornets are coming off a surprise season, in which they shed both their branding and their reputation as a league wide laughingstock. I've read people speculate that, with the addition of Lance Stephenson, Charlotte could contend for third place in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland and Chicago. However, the Hornets are also coming off a year in which their three best players posted career years, the core of the team stayed relatively healthy, and the team likely reached its defensive ceiling (5th in the NBA) with its current personnel. In addition, while Stephenson represents a potential upgrade on the wing, the loss of Josh McRoberts will either put the brakes on their chances of improving or brutally tear out the soul of the Carolinas in a way not seen since one William Tecumseh Sherman was leading the Union army through those parts on his way to Richmond. This is a roundabout way of saying that the Hornets are primed to run smack into something Bill James called the Plexiglas Principle, which is that teams that do particularly well or poorly, compared to their own history, will tend to regress towards their prior established history. In short, it may be safer to bet on the Hornets to win 35 games than 50 games this year.
One source of optimism for Charlotte is the presence of some very young players who are likely to improve. Cody Zeller was part of one of the worst rookie classes in league history, yet was still somehow overlooked despite a solid rookie year. After the All-Star Break, he averaged 15 and 9.5 per 36 minutes on 58% true shooting with a 1:1 assist to turnover rate. If he can replicate that over an entire season, the Hornets will have a second very effective big man to complement Big Al. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist continued to struggle on offense, but he is still only 21 and may take a step forward this season. Another source is the addition of new power forward Marvin Williams, who theoretically allows them to play with 4 shooters around Jefferson or MKG to be on the floor without completely mucking up the offense. On paper, it seems like a great idea. Counting on the often (unfairly) maligned Williams to get your team to the playoffs isn't the safest best, however.
Bigs - Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Pero Antic, Elton Brand, Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, Adreian Payne
Wings - Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore
Guards - Jeff Teague, Shelvin Mack, John Jenkins, Dennis Schroeder
For most of the summer, the Hawks were doing what the Hawks always do. They were flying under the radar with a decent but unspectacular team. Then, some prominent members of their front office were publicly shamed for making some racist and frankly bizarre statements and the franchise was thrust into the limelight. How many distractions will this cause for the Hawks? Will the distractions prove to be too much for them? Does anyone in Atlanta care enough about the Hawks to create a distraction? Will Dennis Schroeder continue to be the worst player in the league? These questions will be answered within the next couple months, though it's just as possible that there will be no on-court repercussions leading from management's actions.
The reason I led with the off-court drama is that the Hawks are pretty much the same team this year as they were last year. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are still the core of the team. Hopefully Horford is healthier. Jeff Teague, Millsap, Kyle Korver, and DeMarre Carroll all played nearly full seasons though, and injuries to any of them will hurt quite a bit. Korver is also reaching the age where he can't be expected to play quite as well or as much as he did last season. None of their offseason acquisitions can really be counted on to move the needle, either. Assuming reasonable health, the Hawks should win somewhere in the mid-40s, but I don't see the firepower or defensive tenacity to catapult them into contender status. On the bright side, Coach Budenholzer began installing a free flowing, egalitarian offensive system and the Hawks have enough guys that can shoot a little and pass a little that they have the potential to play some beautiful basketball, especially in lineups featuring all three of Horford, Millsap, and Korver.
Bigs - Chris Bosh, Josh McRoberts, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem, Shawne Williams, Khem Birch
Wings - Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Danny Granger, James Ennis
Guards - Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Shannon Brown, Shabazz Napier, Tyler Johnson
One would think that Miami fans would be overjoyed after signing Josh McRoberts to be the face of the franchise and Luol Deng as a supporting option and defensive stopper, but many basketball experts feel that the departure of LeBron James is an indication that the team will be less competitive this year. In all seriousness, the Heat should fare better than the 2010-11 Cavaliers, but between the Heat, Timberwolves, and Cavs, this year will be a fascinating referendum on the value of superstars. Of course, this assumes that Dwyane Wade will be healthy and able to shoulder an offensive load for 30 minutes a game. Wade missed almost 30 games last year and did not look like himself in the Finals. The Heat don't need to worry about saving Wade for the Finals this year. Will he be able to play at least 65 games? Will Chris Bosh be able take on a bigger offensive role again for the first time in five years?
For me, the more interesting storyline around the Heat has to do with fandom and expectations. Barring a series of severe injuries, Miami won't bottom out this season or next. They can expect to be a 35-45 win team over the next few seasons, barring another max free agent signing or faster than expected age related decline. How long will the post-title honeymoon last for the Miami fanbase? When will Miami fans not appear to be entitled tools to the rest of the NBA for lamenting their team's lack of success? 5 years? 10 years? 15 years? I expect that many Timberwolves fans would trade competitive basketball for the rest of their lives in exchange for the sort of 4 year run Miami just experienced, were the trade proposed by some bored devil in a low rent Faustian bargain. However, I expect that most Heat fans will become discontented with their lack of success far sooner than most of us would think reasonable. It's only human to want more. When did the halo effect wear off from the two Twins World Series championships? But is there ever a point where a team wins enough that the fans are satisfied for a long time? Or will we always want more, no matter how much we've won in the past?