A Way Too Early Ranking of the Southeast Division

When the clock struck midnight on July 1, 2016, we were introduced to a new era of NBA Free Agency. Players deservingly, and some undeservingly, signed eight and nine figure deals with the new salary cap skyrocketing making it feel like a frantic scene out of Wolf of Wall Street rather than your standard free agency period.

Now that the storm has passed and all of the major signings are complete, lets look at how the teams stack up in the Southeast Division. And specifically, do the Wizards have a shot at winning the division this season with their new acquisitions?

1. Charlotte Hornets

Key Signings – Nicolas Batum (Re-signed), Marvin Williams (Re-signed)

Key Losses – Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee

Jeremy Lin had arguably his best and most consistent season since his “Linsanity” season in 2012 as he averaged 10.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.6 assists coming off of the bench. Those numbers soared to 17.5 points, 4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in his 13 games as a starter. After playing in just 28 games with the Hornets, Courtney Lee opted to walk and sign with the Knicks this offseason. His numbers won’t blow you away however Lee averaged 8.9 points on 44.5 percent shooting in his brief Charlotte stint. He is a solid 3-D guy who defends the perimeter well and can score without his number being called a ton. The Hornets will miss this duo however they seem confident some combination of Walker, Lamb, Sessions, and Roberts will be able to fill the void left by Lin and Lee.

With that said, the Hornets kept their key players of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist intact while they continue to groom their younger guys in Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb, and Frank Kaminsky. Couple that as they now have serviceable veterans such as Brian Roberts and Ramon Sessions. Suddenly, the Hornets have a stable of guards that they can mix and match based on the flow of the game.

The Hornets were the seventh best three-pointing shooting team in the NBA connecting 36.2 percent of their three pointers last season. Don’t expect that to change much as three of their top three-point shooters in Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams, and Frank Kaminsky all return.

Lastly, Kemba Walker is due for a breakout season. He averaged 20.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists last season and had moments of super-stardom highlighted by a 52 point outburst against the Jazz last season. It’s been documented that Walker has a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed from last year’s All-Star game and is on the verge of breaking out as one of the top guards in the NBA. Don’t be surprised if it happens as he enters his sixth NBA season. 

The Hornets went 48-34 last season earning them the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Expect them to build on that momentum. No Crying Jordan meme here.

2. Miami Heat

Key Signings – Hassan Whiteside (Re-signed)

Key Losses – Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Joe Johnson

Outside of the Hawks (which we’ll get to later), the Heat took the second biggest hit in free agency losing a once-thought face-of-the-franchise player in Dwayne Wade as well as key guys in Luol Deng and Joe Johnson. With that said, the Heat still have a very solid core intact with Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, and second-year player Justise Winslow.

The wildcard here is Chris Bosh. He has experienced blood clots over the past two seasons that have limited him to playing in just 44 and 53 games respectively. If Bosh is cleared medically to play, that’s enough to bump the Heat up to the #1 spot as the team to beat in the Southeastern Division.

The Heat will still be a team to be reckoned with out east and should comfortably make the playoffs. It’s just hard to downplay losing a player that was once the face of the franchise and potentially losing Bosh for parts if not all of the season.

3. Washington Wizards

Key Signings – Bradley Beal (Re-signed), Ian Mahinmi

Key Losses – Jared Dudley, Garrett Temple, Nene

Like the Hornets, the Wizards kept their core intact by signing Bradley Beal and keeping all five members of their starting five. In addition, the Wizards got a bit younger and more athletic off the bench by adding Andrew Nicholson and Ian Mahinmi.

The main question is, how will this team adapt to their third system in as many years while welcoming a new coaching staff? Mainly, will they buy in on the defensive end? It’s no secret that the Wizards fell off last season, finishing 13th in Defensive Efficiency.

The Wizards also allowed their opponents to shoot 46.2 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three-point range; ranking them in the bottom third of the league. Clearly, the Wizards must buy in on the defensive end if they are going to put this past season’s failures in the rearview mirror.

Obviously they can’t control this, but the injury bug hit the Wizards hard last season. Bradley Beal played in just 55 games this past season while Kris Humphries, Gary Neal, and Alan Anderson; guys thought to be key contributors to the team appeared in just 28, 40, and 13 games respectively.

It’s clear that the Wizards needed a new voice as the team began zoning out Randy Wittman midway through the season. If the Wizards buy in on the defensive end and can stay relatively healthy, there’s no reason why they can’t jump ahead of Charlotte and Miami and shoot up to the top spot in the wide-open Southeastern Division.

4. Atlanta Hawks

Key Signings – Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore (Re-signed)

Key Losses – Al Horford, Jeff Teague

Of all of the teams in the Southeast Division and maybe even the Eastern Conference, I think the Hawks will take the biggest step back this year. This offseason, arguably their two best players in Al Horford and Jeff Teague left the team for greener pastures. The team responded by handing the keys over Dennis Schröder and acquiring the often disgruntled Dwight Howard.

Although still effective, key players such as Paul Milsap and Kyle Korver are getting older. Korver played in 80 games last season but averaged just 9.2 points per game and shot 39.9 percent from three-point range; his lowest outputs since arriving in Atlanta. Outside of Korver, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jarrett Jack round out the team’s guard depth. If the younger Hardaway Jr. can take over some of the scoring load, then that could potentially soften the blow for the Hawks, who finished 18th in Offensive Efficiency last season.

At the power forward position, things are even worse. Outside of Millsap, Kris Humphries and Mike Muscala are the only other power forwards on the roster. That’s a significant drop off from the starter to reserve spot.

On top of all that, the Hawks will now be counting on Kent Bazemore to carry the load offensively with his new 4-year $70 million dollar a year deal. That puts enormous pressure on a guy who was the fourth or fifth option on offense last year and averaged just 11.6 points per game.

The Hawks are trying to replace two of their best players, plug in a player who isn’t the easiest to get along with, and are counting on a new guy to carry the torch for this franchise moving forward. I can’t see all of that coming together in one year.

Expect a drop-off from the Hawks and don’t be surprised if they miss the playoffs altogether.

5. Orlando Magic

Key Signings – Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Evan Fournier (Re-signed), Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin

Key Losses – Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson.

The Magic lost arguably their best player and once thought, face-of-the-franchise player in Victor Oladipo in a trade to the Thunder for Serge Ibaka. The dynamic Oladipo averaged 16 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists last year for the Magic but he never seemed to jell with Elfrid Payton. Evan Fournier will be plugged in to fill that scoring void. 

I’m in the camp that feels Serge Ibaka’s stats were inflated because he was playing alongside two All-Stars for the beginning of his career. Now, he’ll be counted on to take on more of a leadership role as he’s entering his eighth season. Ibaka averaged 12.6 points this past season, his lowest since 2012. Ibaka will definitely get more shots now that he’s not playing alongside Durant and Westbrook however the defense will be paying more attention to him too. Ibaka can’t disappear like he did during the San Antonio series if the Magic are going to take the next step.

Bismack Biyombo’s stock was sky-high once he was inserted into the starting lineup of the Miami series when Jonas Valanciunas went down with injury. Biyombo averaged 6.7 points and 8.4 rebounds during the Miami series and that increased during the Eastern Conference Finals where he averaged 6.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, to go along with 1.8 blocks.

He cashed in and rightfully so. Only thing is, he’s not a scorer and it’s likely that he’ll be frequently paired up with Aaron Gordon. Both are athletic and good rebounders but neither of the big guys flourishes on the offensive end unless it’s a dunk. As a result, I don’t see the Biyombo signing having a significant impact on this team.

The Jeff Green signing doesn’t make a ton of sense as the oft-injured player is currently the only true small forward on the roster and will likely be forced into the starting five at some point or another. To salvage the somewhat head-scratching deal, the Magic signed the quick and speedy D.J. Augustin to play the backup point guard position on a relatively cheap deal, though he won’t move the needle much.

The Magic are heading in the right direction. They are signing young and effective players while still keeping most of their key guys around. On top of that, they hired Frank Vogel. Just like the Hawks, the Magic will be plugging in new guys in key roles on top of getting used to a new coaching staff.

The arrow is pointing up for this team; I just think they’re still a year or two away from making the playoffs.

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