With the NBA season right around the corner, we here at Sports Blog Movement are doing exactly what you would expect a bunch of sports bloggers to do; pretend like we know what the fuck we are talking about when it comes to what this campaign may bring us. With that, here’s my rundown on the Southeast Division, complete with five good questions that may make or break each team’s year.
1) Miami Heat
Let’s be honest, the Heat should have a cake-walk through this division. They are the two-time defending champs, and they have have all the major components back in place for at least one more season. In other words, they should have this race more sewn up than the incumbent in a Guatemalan “election.” The only way the Heat don’t win this division is the same way that Guatemalan incumbent “loses.” That means Eric Spoelstra’s big job is to keep LeBron James out of slow-moving convertibles in Dallas in 1963.
In all seriousness. the Heat are going to face some salary-cap issues in the future, but in the present this is all about their chance to join the Kobe-led Lakers and the Jordan-led Bulls in three-peat territory.
Question #1: Can Dwyane Wade stay healthy? After suffering from knee issues for the second straight season. Wade enlisted the help well-known athletic trainer Tim Grover. A lot of that comes from the style of play Wade adopted to fit with LeBron James; he makes a lot of sharp cuts to the basket and those don’t jibe well with aging knees.
Question #2: Does the development of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole continue? Like I said earlier, the Heat are going to face some personnel issues down the road, and to address that, both Chalmers and Cole will have to show they can step up even more than they did last season. Ray allen and Shane Battier are both over-the-hill, and can be expected to play less of a role this year, and Udonis Haslem is possibly the most-overrated player on that roster.
Question #3: Who will replace Mike Miller? This may sound a bit over-stated given the fact Miller played in only 59 games last season and only averaged 3.4 points per game in the playoffs. But he played a huge role in last years’ addressing of Question #1; Miller was pivotal in allowing Dwayne Wade to ease back into his routine when coming off injuries. Does one guy step up into that role, and if so who is it? What’s most likely is Eric Spoelstra will find himself using a committee comprised of various shooters like James Jones and Rashard Lewis.
Question #4: Will Greg Oden ever really be a factor? Raise your hand if you think Greg Oden will never play another game in the NBA. Do you know how hard it is to type with both your hands in the air? The fact the Heat are taking this chance with Oden speaks to the fact they are painfully aware of their main weakness: they really lack size. This is the same reason the Heat have taken flyers on guys like Eddy Curry and Chris Andersen.
Question #5: Can LeBron James complete his journey to being a complete player? That may sound like a weird thing to ask of a guy who is clearly the best player in the league, but the fact remains that LeBron’s game does have some weaknesses. He’s never been a terribly gifted long-range shooter, and the improvement he showed in that area proved to be clutch in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Other areas that could improve are his free-throw shooting percentage and get better passing the ball.
2) Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks get the second-place slot in this division largely through default. They don’t have the horses to run with the Heat, and nobody in this division will be able to keep up with Hawks. Unless the Hawks are willing to be the “second shooter on the grassy knoll,” they better plan on a middle-of-the-pack seed come April.
Question #1: Will the point guards live up to expectations? At the beginning of last season, the buzz was that Jeff Teague was the “point guard of the future.” But watching Teague play last season was to have top-buck seats to a steady march to mediocrity. So, when signed Teague to an offer sheet this offseason, I pretty much wrote off Teague as part of the Hawks’ future and figured they would hand the keys to the offense to German rookie Dennis Schröder.
But the Hawks managed to keep Teague, and will couple him with Schröder. This is where it gets interesting, because now Teague has to prove the Hawks’ love, and Schröder looked nothing short of amazing in the Summer League.
Question #2: Can the Hawks play perimeter defense? After the Hawks dealt Marvin Williams for Devin Harris, the question quickly became who would guard opposing small forwards? After much experimentation, the Hawks discovered that Josh Smith could be one of the league’s elite wing defenders. The trouble is that now Smith is getting his mail in Detroit, which means the question about wing defense is back on the table. The one thing the Hawks know is that is won’t be Kyle Korver, who can’t even spell defense.
The Hawks already know that DeShawn Stevenson and Dahntay Jones are both capable of covering Korver’s defensive woes, but they just can’t score enough to warrant giving them a lot of minutes. The other option is the recently signed DeMarre Carroll, but even then he is unlikely to see more than 20 minutes a night.
The real problem is that after the guys I’ve already mentioned, the Hawks roster is chock full of Korver-type shooters who are huge defensive question marks. Eventually, to go far in the Eastern Conference, you are going to have to defend wings, and I’m not sure the Hawks can do it reliably.
Question #3: Will the Hawks finally grasp the concept of floor-spacing? Now that Gregg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer is the head coach, it’s a pretty safe bet the Hawks’ offense will become a Spur-esque homage to the pick-and-roll, built on a foundation of crisp passes and efficient ball movement all driven by match-ups and floor-spacing. Hence, the acquisition of Paul Millsap; a move that is tailor-made to a floor-spacing scheme which would not have been possible with Josh Smith still in Atlanta.
The upside is that a pick-and-roll flanked with Korver-type shooters could prove problematic for opposing defenses, especially if Schröder or Teague can drive the offense. The downside is that while Millsap and Al Horford perfectly complement each other’s offensive strengths and weaknesses, there’s going to be some defensive issues with that big combination, which plays right back to the wing defense issue.
Question #4: Will Kyle Korver become a shot-hog? Ever since the middle of last season, Hawks fans have become obsessed a somewhat useless streak. It seems that in his last 73 regular-season games, Korver has made a three-pointer, which happens to be a mere 16 games shy of the record held by Dana Barros. The problem is that Korver’s streak really hasn’t meant much, other than that freakish performance against the Celtics last season in which he led a 27-point comeback by draining eight threes in the second half. What it hides, however, is the fact that Korver’s deep threat will be crucial to the aforementioned floor-spacing issue.
Question #5: Can Lou Williams return to his former self? While a lot of things about last season could be debated, one thing that is undeniable is the Hawks sorely missed the perimeter creation ability of Lou Williams after he tore his ACL last season. Williams gives Atlanta an additional option for a primary ball-handler.
3) Washington Wizards
To keep things succinct, the Wizards are going to be the best of the three teams in this division that still won’t matter. If I were going to stay with the assassination theme of jokes I’ve been using, the might be able to rise to the “Jack Ruby” level. But it’s more like they just become another “John Hinckley.”
Question #1: Will John Wall live up the his contract? Now that he’s getting paid like a franchise player, will he actually become one? In a purely statistical way, the argument can be made that he already is. Over the span of his career, John Wall has compiled averages per game of 16.9 points, 8.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.5 steals over his first three seasons. In league history, only Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, and Chris Paul have averaged or are currently averaging comparable numbers. There’s another number involved that makes a huge difference here…wins. Wall, and the Wizards just don’t get it done in the “W” column. To help that end, Wall has to continue what he started last year in becoming a distributor. He also needs to learn how to be a better jump shooter.
Question #2: Can Nene stay healthy? When he’s healthy, Nene is a force in the low-post. He’s a scoring threat who can hurt you from the line. He is a slick enough ball-handler that you can route the offense through him. He’s got a broad-shouldered presence on the defensive end of the floor as well. To top it all off, he is a leader in the locker room.
So, what’s the problem? The fact that the 31-year old Nene has become the poster child for your health insurance deductible. Since his arrival in D.C., Nene has missed about 1/3 of total team games due to injury.
Question #3: What is the playing time distribution at small forward going to be? Martell Webster played himself into a five-year deal with his perimeter shooting, career-high stats, and locker-room leader persona. One would guess that would make him the starter. But there’s two complications to that. First of all, the Wizards drafted what would seem to be the small forward of the future in Otto Porter. Trevor Aziza fancies himself the starter, and he’s in a contract year. I get the feeling this may prove to be a problem.
Question #4: How many problems can Al Harrington solve? To be honest, the Wizards went inot this off-season with three major problems: front-court scoring, bench scoring, and getting a veteran presence. Al Harrington as a 33-year-old, 6’9″ forward with both post and perimeter skills seems like the perfect guy for Washington’s needs. In many ways he is, but the downside is that Harrington is another guy with durability issues.
Question #5: Can the young front-court continue to develop? If not, it is possible that four of Washington’s former first-round selections will not log significant playing time this season. I’m not sure anybody knows what to make of Kevin Seraphin, but as the third big behind Nene and Emeka Okafor, he would seem to have the inside track to regular playing time, but Randy Wittman seems to hate him. Trevor Booker’s energy and hops make him worthy of a significant time as well, but he another Washington big who is hurt a lot. Don’t look for career bench-jockeys Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton to be little more than could to give unless in injury bug hits D.C. like the British Army in 1812.
4) Charlotte Bobcats
What can you say about the Charlotte Bobcats that hasn’t already been said…well, at least in terms of their ultimate futility. It was less than two years ago that articles were sloshing all across the web about how the Bobcats may possibly be the worst team of all time. That’s no longer the case, but they are certainly still largely irrelevant. In keeping with the assassin theme, think “Sarah Jane Moore.”
Question #1: Can Cody Zeller play in this league? Probably, but the real question is what will he be? He possesses an amazing level of quickness and agility for a seven-footer, but that also means he lack the physical presence to mash it up in the low block. The Bobcats seem to think Zeller can become a poor man’s Dirk Nowitzki if he can add a reliable jumper to his arsenal.
Question #2: Will the development of Kemba Walker continue? To his credit, Walker shined last season after his depressing rookie season. But to be fair, that was also in the abyss of what may have been one of the worst season in the history of team sports. Specifically, can he continue to grow into a legitimate jump-shooting threat? Even more specifically, can Walker adjust to the revamped cast of characters in the Bobcat front-court?
Question #3: Can head coach Steve Clifford get this team to play defense? He must if this team is to have any hope of cracking 30 wins. Does he have a chance to do that? Well, the off-season moves this team made were almost all exclusively in support of the offensive end. Last season, the Bobcat defense was dead last in the league in efficiency; Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson aren’t they guys who are going to change that.
Question #4: What does Gerald Henderson do? Last season, Henderson looked like he could emerge as the bell-cow of the Bobcat offense. Henderson finished up with some pretty solid numbers; scoring 19 points per game on 46.2% shooting, 4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. What happens this year is anybody’s guess.
Question #5: What does Jeffery Taylor do? Taylor is a high-flying wing scorer whose length and quickness make him a real headache for defenders. But he is also the model of inconsistency.
5) Orlando Magic
I’d really like to tell Magic fans like Chris Humpherys here is light at the end of the tunnel for this team. Just about the time I was ready to do that, the proverbial groundhog saw that light and saw enough of his own shadow to give the Orlando Magic six more years of “tunnel.” Then a train ran over the groundhog.
Question #1: What will they do with Victor Oladipo? There’s two choices; he either plays point guard or shooting guard. Make no mistake, the Magic used a high draft pick to take him, so here’s playing somewhere. In other words, head coach Jacque Vaughn has an interesting decision on his hands. No matter what he does, no matter where he puts Oladipo in the line-up, he’s going to eat into the playing time of two of the veterans on this team who actually mean something.
Oladipo played exclusively at point guard in the Summer League, and although he looked pretty damn good; 19 points per game, 4.3 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals, he still is a “work in progress.” Oladipo has a long way to go if he is going to be anything other than an emergency option at this point. The other complication putting Oladipo at the point is Jameer Nelson. Can the two co-exist? I’m guessing that becomes a problem, especially since we all discovered last season that Nelson has almost no trade value. Not to mention, can Oladipo really develop as a part-time player?
The real problem is that Orlando’s situation at the point-guard position is dire. Yeah, Jameer Nelson is still a reasonable starter, but he’s getting older and the guys behind him (E’Twaun Moore, Doron Lamb, and Ronnie Price) aren’t eactly world-beaters.
The other option is at shooting guard. The upside here is two-guard is Oladipo’s natural position. Here’s he doesn’t have to be a facilitator, and can use his ability to get quick shots off the dribble and get lots of free throws. The trouble is to get Oladipo the minutes he needs, the Magic will have to shift Aaron Afflalo to small forward. don’t get me wrong, I like Afflalo as a player, but he is going to have real problems playing the three-spot. The fact he will be giving up a lot of size to most opposing wings will only exacerbate his already-known defensive weaknesses, and all that only complicates Orlando’s weak front-court presence as it is.
Question #2: Where does Tobias Harris fit in? After being acquired from Milwaukee, Harris gave Magic fans something to cheer about. Once he arrived in Orlando, Harris averaged 17.3 points per game, 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.3 combined blocks/steals. However, that was playing mostly at power forward, where Harris never played a minute alongside Glen Davis, Orlando’s opening day starter at four-spot who suffered a season-ending foot injury in January. Once Davis is healthy (he’s not likely to be ready for the start of the season), it’s a pretty good bet that Davis and Harris will be paired at forward quite often. The complication here is the aforementioned Aaron Affalo situation, who looks like he will get some time in the front-court rotation as well.
Question #3: Which veterans will still be getting their mail in Orlando after the trade deadline? While the Magic have not stated outright they are looking to move anybody, they are a rebuilding team and it some cases it might make some sense to try to offload guys like Aaron Afflalo, Glen Davis, and (if they can get any takers) possibly even Jameer Nelson.
The downside to this is that team like the Wizards and Kings can tell you, young/rebuilding teams that lack locker-room leadership easily fall into bad habits that stunt the growth of their young core players. Davis and Nelson are co-captains who have the respect of their teammates, and while Afflalo isn’t officially a captain, he still plays a leadership role on that squad.
On the other hand, the Magic are on the hook to Afflalo, Davis, and Nelson in the neighborhood of $53 million over the next three years, give or take various guarantees and/or options. That’s big cash for a rebuilding team that struggles with attendance.
Question #4: How will the Magic dictate floor-spacing? Yeah, It’s not hard to tell Orlando has a shitload of offensive issues, but one of the worst from last season was that opposing defense could simply pack the paint against them. The Magic are no threat from three-point land, and they struggle to draw fouls.
Oladipo can draw fouls, and Afflalo is the team’s best three-point weapon, but I’ve already pointed out the trouble in getting them both on the court together. Tobias Harris could become an outside threat, but he’s got a floor-time issue with Glen Davis and possibly Afflalo.
Offensive #5: Can head coach Jacque Vaughn and general manager Rob Hennigan impose an identity on this team? It’s not hard to see that Vaughn and like “hard-working, team-first” players. But the question is how are those players supposed to play? Does Vaughn want his team to play fast, slow, or somewhere in the middle? Should it crash the offensive glass or forget that category to bolster their transition defense? Will they force pick-and-rolls to the side of the floor or toward the middle? How will Orlando generate open shots for its roster of role players?
Like I said, it’s probably six more years of “tunnel” in Orlando.