A career year by John Wall wasn’t enough to get the Washington Wizards to the playoffs.
Y-Miami Heat 51-31 (3)
We all expected the Miami Heat to take a step back last season, but it was worse than expected for them. After making four straight trips to the NBA Finals, the Heat struggled last season; especially since small forward LeBron James decided to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers. Injuries also derailed the Heat’s chances as power forward Chris Bosh missed 38 games due to blood clots. The Heat would finish the season with a record of 37-45 as they missed the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2008. But Heat president Pat Riley has been a busy man as far as improving Miami’s roster with an eye on returning to the postseason next spring.
The Heat entered the 2015 NBA Draft with the 10th overall pick and they were delighted when they were able to select small forward Justise Winslow. Last year as a true freshman, Winslow was a vital member of the Duke University men’s basketball team that won a national championship. And as other teams passed on Winslow, the Heat didn’t as Riley knows talent. At 6’6″, Winslow has great explosion and he is a player that the Heat will eventually groom into being their franchise player.
Last season the Heat acquired point guard Goran Dragic from the Phoenix Suns. In 26 games with the Heat, Dragic averaged 16.6 points per game. Dragic became a free agent over the summer and Riley made it his business to keep him in Miami with a five-year, $90 million contract. What Dragic provides the Heat with is a scorer at the point guard position that can take some pressure off of shooting guard Dwyane Wade.
For Wade, he opted out of his contract with the Heat last summer as he was seeking a new long-term deal. But for Wade, he is 33-years of age, and he is a player that is not the explosive player that he was a few years ago. The Heat didn’t give Wade the long-term deal that he was seeking, but they were willing to give him $20 million for the upcoming season which means that we should see a healthy and highly productive player due to the fact that he is motivated.
After being drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 2010, center Hassan Whiteside bounced around the NBA’s Development League along with a stint overseas, but he appears to have finally found a home with the Heat. Last season in 48 games with the Heat, Whiteside became an overnight sensation as he averaged 11.8 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game. This season Whiteside will have more attention thrown at him, but at 7’0″, he has tremendous athleticism and the Heat are expecting big things from him.
But the Heat need and are expecting Bosh to be healthy. For Bosh’s first four years with the Heat, he played in the shadow of James and Wade as he became more of the focal point of the team’s offense last season until he was lost due to the blood clots. But at the age of 31, Bosh is still an effective post-player and more importantly for the Heat, he is leader and his presence is needed.
The Heat also have veteran depth in the form of point guard Mario Chalmers, swingman Gerald Green, small forward Luol Deng, and Amar’e Stoudemire as they look to bounce back under head coach Erik Spoelstra to contend in the Eastern Conference.
As long as Spoelstra is able to manage the minutes for his veteran ball club, the Heat should be able to return to the NBA Playoffs and in the process, be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
X-Atlanta Hawks 47-35 (4)
The Atlanta Hawks are coming off of their best regular season in franchise history as they won 60 games and surprised many observers to earn the best record in the Eastern Conference. Under head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks are a team without superstars, but they play as a collective unit and their unselfishness is what keeps them in games.
Prior to becoming the head coach of the Hawks, Budenholzer was an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs which is an organization that prides itself on unselfish play along with ball movement. But unlike the Spurs, the Hawks don’t have several players that can simply put the team on their backs in clutch situations.
Last season that Hawks had six players average at least 10 points, but no more than 16.7 per contest. The Hawks still have solid contributors in power forwards Paul Millsap and Al Horford along with point guard Jeff Teague, but none of these players have the ability to be consistent go-to-guy in Atlanta. With a career three-point percentage of .442, swignman Kyle Korver is one of the best long distance shooters in league history. And Korver should once again be lethal from long range as he’ll feed off of the presence of Horford and Millsap in the post and the penetration ability of Teague.
Like the Hawks did last year, they will beat up on their inferior opponents which will allow them to fatten up in the win column and become a playoff team once again.
X-Washington Wizards 47-35 (5)
The Washington Wizards are coming off of consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Semifinals and the last time that this occurred was in 1977 which was the previous year that Washington won their only NBA Championship. And for Wizards head coach Randy Wittman, he is hopeful that history will repeat itself in D.C. for the 2015-2016 NBA season, but it won’t be that easy.
The Wizards are a guard oriented team as they are led by point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal. Wall was second in the NBA last season in assists as he averaged 10 per game and his speed and elusiveness make him a matchup nightmare. And like Wall, Beal is one the fastest players at his position as together they can turn a basketball game into a track meet with their speed.
The Wizards big men consisting of center Marcin Gortat, along with power forwards Nene and Kris Humphries have the skill sets to play off of Wall and Beal. Gortat, Nene, and Humphries can each provide a presence in the post while they are each solid rebounders as the Wizards were tied for sixth in the NBA in rebounding last season at 44.7, and you can expect more of the same from them during the upcoming season.
But the Wizards must find a way to account for the loss of small forward Paul Pierce. Pierce opted out of his contract with the Wizards over the summer as he would join the Los Angeles Clippers. Pierce provided the Wizards with a veteran presence as a player that was not afraid to take the big shots and his presence will be missed. In 2013, the Wizards used the third overall pick of the NBA Draft on small forward Otto Porter. Porter has been unable to live up to the expectations that have been placed on him and for the Wizards to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season, Porter is going to have to become a huge contributor for them.
As long as Wall and Beal are able to remain healthy, the Wizards will be a relevant team in the Eastern Conference, but they are still not ready to be a legitimate championship contender.
For the first time since their first three years in the NBA, the Orlando Magic are coming off of three consecutive seasons in which they have lost at least 50 games. Over the last three NBA seasons, the Magic have lost 178 games, but as bad as Orlando’s recent stretch has been for them, they could be on the verge of turning the corner.
Scott Skiles is set to begin his first season as the head coach of the Magic. The Magic will mark the fourth different NBA team that Skiles has coached and this will be a homecoming for him due to fact that he played in Orlando for six seasons. Skiles has always been a no-nonsense head coach which is exactly what this young Magic team needs.
In center Nikola Vucevic, power forward Tobias Harris, and shooting guard Victor Oladipo, Orlando has three players that are on the verge of becoming breakout players as the rebuilding plan of Magic general manager Rob Hennigan is almost ready to take flight. Vucevic and Harris provide a solid presence in the post for the Magic while Oladipo is developing into an all-around wing player.
Last year as rookie point guard, there were some growing pains for Elfrid Payton, but he could be one of the top assist men in the NBA this season as long as he gets the basketball to Harris, Oladipo, and Vucevic consistently.
The Magic might not be a playoff team in 2016, but under Skiles they will be a tough out on a nightly basis in the NBA.
Charlotte Hornets 35-47
After briefly flirting with success, the Charlotte Hornets to a step backwards last season. After making the NBA Playoffs in 2014 and posting a winning record, the Hornets only won 33 games last season as they’ve once again become an afterthought and they will need a dose of luck in order to be contenders in the Eastern Conference.
The Hornets have a solid inside-out combination or center Al Jefferson and shooting guard Kemba Walker and when Charlotte made the playoffs in 2014, it was mainly due to the efforts of these two players. Last season the duo combined to score 34 points per game, but it comes down to the supporting cast around them in order for the Hornets to have a realistic chance.
In 2012, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the second overall pick of the NBA Draft by Charlotte, but he has failed to become an impact player. In three seasons with Charlotte, Kidd-Gilchrist has only averaged 9.0 points per game and to make matters worse, the Hornets will be without his services for the majority of the upcoming season due to the fact that he recently had surgery to repair a torn labrum. After Jefferson and Walker, the Hornets are a team that is mainly comprised of NBA journeymen and youngsters who are attempting to get their feet wet which does not bode well for the basketball fans in Charlotte.
The Hornets first six games this season are against playoff teams from last year and a slow start in Charlotte could be a harbinger of bad things to come for them.
X-Miami Heat 49-33 (3)
The last four NBA seasons have seen the Miami Heat franchise soar to new heights. In the past four years the Heat claimed a pair of NBA Championships in four trips to the league’s final series. But things will be drastically different this time around as forward LeBron James left the Heat to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers. The departure of James leaves a big hole for the Heat as he led the team last season in points (27.1), rebounds (6.9), and assists (6.4). With the James departure, Heat team president Pat Riley had to get creative in fielding a team for the upcoming season.
Riley signed small forward Luol Deng to somewhat cushion the blow of losing James. For his 10-year NBA career, Deng has averaged 16 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Deng’s numbers are nowhere near to what the Heat lost with James which means that power forward Chris Bosh will be the focal point of the Heat’s offense this season. When the “Big Three” of James, Bosh, and Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade joined up in 2010 it was Bosh that was the forgotten player. Prior to joining the Heat, Bosh has averaged 20.2 points and 9.4 rebounds in the first seven years of his NBA career with the Toronto Raptors and you can expect him to go back to being more of a scoring threat this season. In originally joining the Heat, Bosh sacrificed some of his overall game for the greater good of the team and he was rewarded with a pair of NBA Titles. Now you can expect to see more of Bosh back in the post.
For Wade, he is 32-years of age and there are questions in regards to his knees. There has been a drop off in the overall production of Wade in the past few seasons. For Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, he must monitor Wade’s minutes in order to keep him fresh.
With James’ superior ball handling in Miami for the last four seasons, the Heat were able to skate by without having a dominant point guard. But that will not be the case this season. Heat veteran point guards Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers combined to average 7.9 assists last season, but is either player ready to step up? If not, Riley and Spoelstra are high on rookie point guard Shabazz Napier who showed an uncanny knack of being a floor general in college at UConn and the Heat are hopeful that his transition to the NBA will be a quick one.
The Heat are no longer runaway favorites in the Eastern Conference, but for the players that remained they are out to show the world that it wasn’t just James that propelled them to four straight appearances in the NBA Finals.
Y-Washington Wizards 47-35 (5)
Last season saw the Washington Wizards qualify for the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2008. Under head coach Randy Wittman, the Wizards have a good blend of youth and veterans that should allow them to contend for the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1979.
The Wizards have a very explosive starting back court in point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal. But the only knock on the duo is that they have been unable to remain healthy. Last season Wall played in all 82 games and is ready to go for this season while Beal is currently out as he is recovering from a wrist injury. What Beal and Wall give Wittman and the Wizards when they’re healthy is over 36 points of production. Beal and Wall also have tremendous ability to attack the basket while they’re good perimeter defenders.
Behind Wall, the Wizards have veteran point guard Andre Miller who has seen it all during his time in the NBA. Miller is entering his 16th NBA season and the Wizards are his sixth team in the league, but he commands a ton or respect from his teammates when he is on the floor.
The Wizards front court situation will be interesting this season. Last season center Marcin Gortat and power forward Nene Hilario combined to averaged 15 rebounds per game while each player can also score in the post. Behind Hilario and Gortat, the Wizards have a pair of veterans in power forwards Kris Humphries and Drew Gooden that have made careers for themselves in the NBA on their ability to crash the boards and you can expect more of the same this season. The Wizards lost starting small forward Trevor Ariza in free agency as he signed with the Houston Rockets, but they were able to lure veteran small forward Paul Pierce to Washington. Pierce is set to embark on his 17th NBA season and he brings a championship pedigree with him to the Wizards that includes winning the NBA Championship in 2008 as a member of the Boston Celtics. Pierce brings a toughness with him along with his ability to deliver in clutch situations. But mainly the Wizards will need to see improvement from small forward Otto Porter Jr. Porter Jr. was the third overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft but he only averaged 2.1 points per game as a rookie while only appearing 37 contests without making a start and it is time for him to step up.
The Wizards may not dominate in the regular season, but what they are is a team that will be scary in the NBA Playoffs.
Y-Atlanta Hawks 43-39 (7)
After a very interesting off-season the Atlanta Hawks are happy to get back to playing basketball. Racist remarks by the Hawks majority owner Bruce Levinson forced him to sell his shares in the team and it also resulted in general manager Danny Ferry taking an indefinite leave of absence which has shaken the team to its core. Now it will be up to Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer to keep the ship righted in Atlanta.
Two out of the last three seasons have seen Hawks center Al Horford succumb early in the campaign to a season-ending injury. Horford is returning to the Hawks after tearing a pectoral muscle as he looks to regain his form in the post that has seen him average 14 points and 9.5 rebounds in his seven-year NBA career. In Horford’s absence last season, Hawks power forward Paul Milsap picked up the slack. Milsap averaged 17.9 points along with 8.5 boards and it is scary to think what these two can combine to be this year. Hawks point guard Jeff Teague is very underrated as his numbers continue to improve while shooting guard Kyle Korver still has one of the best strokes from beyond the three-point arc.
Sports can be therapeutic and in light of the controversy, the Hawks should come together and gel as the season progresses.
Charlotte Hornets 41-41
The buzz is literally back in Charlotte as the Bobcats have switched their team name to the Hornets. The original Charlotte Hornets left town in 2002 when they moved to New Orleans. In 2013, the New Orleans Hornets would change their team name to the Pelicans which paved the way for the name of the Hornets to be returned to Charlotte. The Hornets also have something to build off of as they made the playoffs last season under first year head coach Steve Clifford. The Hornets also return their top three scorers from last year which gives them optimism for the upcoming season.
Last season Hornets power forward Al Jefferson exceeded career highs in points and rebounds as he scored nearly 22 points per contest along with grabbing nearly 11 boards each game. Jefferson gives the Hornets a legitimate low-post threat and he can also score in a variety of ways. Prior to Jefferson’s arrival in Charlotte, Hornets point guard Kemba Walker had to carry the load offensively, but that is not the case anymore as he can freelance more. In the off-season the Hornets signed shooting guard Lance Stephenson and he will bring a much needed rugged attitude to Charlotte. For Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, he is hopeful that small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be able to take the next step in his game this season. Gilchrist was the second overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, but his overall game has yet to catch up with his sheer athleticism.
Under Clifford, the Hornets got a taste of the playoffs last year and they will look to capitalize on that this season.
Orlando Magic 29-53
The Orlando Magic are in the process of building a contender and it is going to take some time. Jacque Vaughn is entering his third season as the head coach of the Magic and he has only been able to compile a record of 43-121. This season it will be tough for him and Orlando to improve on that win-loss mark.
The Magic will field one of the youngest teams in the NBA this season and they will be without their leading scorer from a year ago in shooting guard Arron Afflalo who was traded to the Denver Nuggets in the off-season. Last season as a rookie, Magic point guard Victor Oladipo averaged 13.8 points per game along with 4.1 assists and Vaughn is hopeful that the youngster will continue to make progress while also becoming a better floor general. But Oladipo will begin the season on the sidelines as he is recovering from a facial fracture that he recently suffered in practice. The Magic used the fourth overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft on power forward Aaron Gordon who has tremendous athleticism, but is ready to be an impact player in the NBA? Magic center Nikola Vucevic has ascended into being one of the league’s better rebounders while small forward Tobias Harris has become viable off of the bench as they both are building blocks for Vaughn and Magic general manager Rob Hennigan.
The fans in the Magic Kingdom will have to endure another season of dealing with the growing pains of the young Magic, but hopefully there can be some excitement sprinkled in here and there.
Y-Clinched Playoff Berth