X-Atlanta Hawks 46-36 (6)
Believe it or not, the Atlanta Hawks will enter the 2016-2017 NBA season with the second longest active playoff streak in the league. The Hawks have made the playoffs in each of the last nine seasons and they’ve done it under the guidance of three different head coaches. Mike Budenholzer is set to begin his fourth season as the Hawks head coach and this is expected to be his toughest campaign with the club.
The Hawks must find a way to replace the contributions of center Al Horford who after spending nine seasons with the club, left as a free agent to join the Boston Celtics. During Horford’s time with the Hawks, he averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per contest, and aside from his production on the court, his leadership will also be missed in Atlanta.
To replace Horford, the Hawks signed veteran center Dwight Howard. Howard is a 12-year NBA veteran that has been one of the better rebounders of this era. Howard has averaged 12.7 rebounds for his career, and when the season is over he should be in the top 20 of the NBA’s all-time list for rebounding. Howard has also averaged 2.1 blocks for his career as he is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But the thing that has held Howard back during his career has been his scoring and free throw shooting.
Howard has averaged 17.8 points per game for his career, but he has never been a player that has developed his offensive game. And if Howard ever decides to figure it out at the offensive end of the floor, he can boost his productivity along with the chances of the Hawks. But the Hawks should get Howard’s best effort being that he is a native of Atlanta.
Along with Howard, the Hawks have power forward Paul Millsap who is a double-double machine. And although that Millsap has is a more proven scorer than Howard, the two should help Atlanta clean up on the glass after they were only 24th in the NBA in the category last season.
The Hawks will be the eighth different NBA team that point guard Jarrett Jack has suited up for, and at each stop along the way he has been an underrated player. Jack is coming off of a career-high in assists last season as he averaged 7.4 with the Brooklyn Nets, and he should give Budenholzer another quality ball handler. Jack’s presence will definitely benefit the team’s young point guard Dennis Schroder. Schroder’s numbers have improved in each of his three NBA seasons, and now he has a quality veteran such as Jack to learn from.
Atlanta still has shooting guard Kyle Korver who even at the age of 35 is one of the best long range shooters in the NBA. Korver has a career three-point field-goal percentage of nearly 43, and he should continue to thrive in Budenholzer’s offensive system that relies on ball movement.
Nobody is expected to run away with the Southeast Division, but the Hawks will definitely have a say in who will win it.
Y-Washington Wizards 45-37 (8)
The Washington Wizards entered the 2015-2016 NBA season with solid expectations to be a contender. But when it was all said and done the Wizards had to settle for a record of 41-41 as they missed out on the postseason by three games. The Wizards inability to reach the playoffs would cost head coach Randy Wittman his job and he would be replaced by former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks. In seven years with the Thunder, Wittman compiled a regular season record of 338-207, while he also led Oklahoma City to the Western Conference Championship in 2012 and the Wizards are helpful that his presence will be the spark needed to get them back to the playoffs.
But one of the keys for any potential success by the Wizards during the upcoming NBA season is the health of their starting backcourt in point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal. Both Wall and Beal have been injury prone during their respective NBA careers which was evident by the fact that the combined to miss 32 games last season. However if Wall and Beal are healthy and can get on the same page, it should be all systems go in D.C.
Around Beal and Wall, center Marcin Gortat has shown that he can be a quality contributor as he has averaged 12.9 points and 9.3 rebounds in three seasons with the Wizards. Small forward Otto Porter has continued to improve in Washington as he has been getting more minutes, and his growth will be vital to any success that the Wizards intend on having as he could be a force for them at both ends of the floor in the front court, while center Ian Mahimi and power forward Markieff Morris should provide some size up front.
The Wizards should show some improvement this season, but I doubt that it will be enough for them to contend with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.
Orlando Magic 38-44
If the Orlando Magic could ever get out of their own way, then they might be able to end their current four-year playoff drought. One of the main issues that has hurt the Magic has been their issues at the head coaching position. The last five years have seen Orlando employ five different head coaches and after Scott Skiles left after a promising start with the Magic, it is now up to former Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel to get one of the youngest teams in the Eastern Conference to reach its full potential.
Vogel’s first order of business was a surprising move as he traded shooting guard Victor Oladipo, power forward Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis to the Oklahoma City Thunder for power forward/center Serge Ibaka. Oladipo appeared to be a building block for the Magic, but Vogel and team general manager Rob Hennigan decided to go in a different direction.
What the Magic will be getting with Ibaka is a solid defender as he can rebound and block shots, while also knocking down the occasional three-point shot which will help Orlando spread the floor. Ibaka should be able to play alongside center Nikola Vucevic who led the Magic in scoring (18.2), and rebounding (8.9) last season. Vucevic has been an underrated player primarily due to the fact that he plays in a smaller market, while the Magic haven’t made the playoffs. But under Vogel, I do believe that Vucevic’s production can increase which would lead to him getting more public recognition.
Oladipo’s departure should result in more playing time for Evan Fournier at the shooting guard position. In each of Fournier’s four NBA seasons, his points per game average has increased. And if Fournier is able to average at least 18 points per contest, it could point the Magic in the direction of the playoffs.
Along with Fournier, the Magic have speed in their backcourt in the form of point guard Elfrid Payton who has a quirky style of play, but Vogel should find a way to get the most out of him in his system.
The Magic do have a solid group of veteran players that includes small forward Jeff Green and point guard D.J. Augustin, while power forward Aaron Gordon is out to show that he is more than merely a dunker.
Vogel is a head coach that knows how to get the most out of his talent and he’ll have a challenge ahead of him this season in Central Florida.
Charlotte Hornets 37-45
The Charlotte Hornets came out of nowhere last season to win 48 games for the first time since the 1999-2000 NBA campaign. But as good as the Hornets were in the regular season, they were still unable to advance past the first round of the playoffs which is something that they’ve been unable to do since 2002. The Hornets will enter the upcoming NBA season looking to build off of their trip to the playoffs last year, while also looking to do something they’ve been unable to since 2002 which is to qualify for the postseason in consecutive years. But for Hornets head coach Steve Clifford and his crew, it won’t be an easy task.
The Hornets lost veteran center Al Jefferson in free agency as he signed with the Indiana Pacers, and it is time for their youngsters in the front court to step up. In recent years the Hornets have used first-round picks on small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with centers Cody Zeller, and Frank Kaminsky. But none of these players have been able to step up and consistently contribute for the Hornets.
Charlotte still has the luxury of having point guard Kemba Walker who is coming off of averaging 20.9 points per game last season. Although that Walker is listed as a point guard, he is more of an “off-guard” as he is a shooting guard that is in a point guard’s body.
Aside from Walker, the Hornets other main scoring option is small forward Nicolas Batum who is more of a facilitator and not really thought of as a consistent scoring option.
And with Walker expected to be the Hornets main scoring option, other players such as Zeller and Kaminsky need to find a way to contribute in other facets of the game such as rebounding which is a category that Charlotte was 14th in the NBA in last season at 43.9 per contest.
The Hornets will be fighting an uphill battle all season long, and it will be a miracle if Clifford finds a way to get this team to the playoffs.
Miami Heat 36-46
As the Miami Heat are set to begin the 2016-2017 NBA season, they are indeed a team that is at the crossroads. Seven of the last eight NBA seasons have seen the Heat make the playoffs, and since 2006, no team in the league has won more titles (3) than them. But the Heat will definitely be a long shot it regards to winning an NBA Championship this time around.
After losing small forward LeBron James in free agency in 2014, the exodus continued this summer when shooting guard Dwyane Wade left Miami to join the Chicago Bulls. Wade’s decision came down to money as Heat team president Pat Riley wasn’t willing to budge in regards to offering him more than $40 million over the next two seasons. Wade leaves Miami as the leader in nearly every statistical category as he was hands down the best player in franchise history.
Aside from Wade, I doubt that you’ll ever see power forward Chris Bosh in a Heat uniform again. Bosh has been limited over the past two NBA seasons due to blood clots, and the Heat are refusing to give him clearance in regards to resuming his basketball career. Bosh feels that he can still get it done, but Riley and Heat owner Mickey Arison understand the severity of his issue which has all but signaled the end of his time in Miami.
Aside from combining to average 38.1 points per contest last season, the biggest thing that the Heat will miss from Wade and Bosh is the leadership that each player brought to the organization. And for Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, he is facing one of his toughest challenges in Miami.
The Heat have very quickly become a young team that needs someone to step up and take charge. The last two seasons have seen center Hassan Whiteside emerge as a force for the Heat. Whiteside led the NBA in blocks last season with 3.7 per game, while he averaged 14.2 points, and 11.8 rebounds. The Heat rewarded Whiteside with a four-year, $98 million contract, but is he ready to be the guy?
In two seasons with the Heat, Whiteside has had his maturity questioned on many occasions, and now he is in a position where he has to be a leader for this team, on and off the court on a nightly basis, and it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to answer the bell.
Just like Whiteside, shooting guard Tyler Johnson was paid by the Heat over the summer as he received a four-year, $50 million deal. Johnson only averaged 24 minutes per game last season, and his playing time will increase now that he has been compensated. Small forward Justise Winslow was Miami’s first-round pick in 2015, and after showing flashes at both ends of the floor as a rookie, it’s time for him to take his game to the next level.
As point guard Goran Dragic is set to begin his second full season with the Heat, will he be able to finally shed to label as a player that can only put up big numbers on bad teams? Prior to joining the Heat in 2015, Dragic had averaged 20.3 points per game during the 2013-2014 NBA season as a member of the Phoenix Suns. But since Dragic has joined the Heat, he has only averaged 14.8 points per contest. However with the departures of Wade and Bosh, Dragic should see an increase in shots for him as the Heat are desperate for someone to step up and be “the guy”.
And whereas the Heat have a huge void to fill with the departure of Wade, shooting guard Dion Waiters could have new life. Waiters joined the Heat this past summer on a two-year deal. And after Waiters spent the past two years as a role player with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he could be ready for a bigger role for the Heat as he’ll definitely get more shots to score.
Anyway that you slice it this will be a trying season for the Heat who find themselves in the middle of a rebuild.