X-Washington Wizards 50-32 (2)
Three of the last four NBA seasons have seen the Washington Wizards reach the playoffs, but they have been unable to advance past the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Last season the Wizards won 49 games for their highest win total since the 1979 which was their last trip to the NBA Finals. The Wizards would give the Boston Celtics all that they could handle before they bowed out in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And although that we’ve heard this tune before, will the Wizards be able to take the next step in order to become a title contender?
Scott Brooks has one year under his belt as the head coach of the Wizards. And like any good coach, Brooks has been known to get most out of his players and then some. That was evident last season as under Brooks, Wizards point guard John Wall was able to take his game to the next level. Wall is a perennial All-Star point guard, but he became more of a scoring threat last season for Washington as he averaged a career-high 23.1 points to go along with 10.7 assists which was second in the NBA. Wall was also second in the NBA in steals as he averaged 2 per game and in the process he has become the complete point guard. At 27-years of age, Wall is in the prime of his career, and after he signed a contract extension with the Wizards over the summer, the future is bright for him in D.C.
Wall’s tag-team partner in the Wizards back court is shooting guard Bradley Beal. But since the Wizards drafted Beal in 2012, the injury bug has gotten the best of him. Beal appeared in a career-high 77 games last season, and like Wall, he enjoyed the best campaign of his professional career. Beal is the perfect complimentary player to Wall as they give the Wizards one of the fastest back courts in the Eastern Conference. Both Beal and Wall have tremendous explosiveness in order to get to the basket which will once again make the Wizards a force.
In the Wizards front court they have some players that play with a bit of an edge. Center Marcin Gortat averaged a double-double for Washington last season, while at 6’11”, his size can be a menace at each end of the floor for opponents. Power forward Markieff Morris has always played with a chip on his shoulder throughout his six-year NBA career, while he provides the Wizards with a solid scorer in their front court that can knock down the mid-range shot as well as get physical on the boards. The Wizards will miss Morris’ production to begin the season as recovers from hernia surgery, but when he does return to the lineup the intensity for this team will increase.
Washington also has a pair of emerging players in their front court in the form of small forward Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre. The Wizards selected Porter with the third overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft and he is maturing into the player that he was expected to be when he entered the league. Porter’s numbers have increased in each of his seasons in the NBA. Porter is a slasher at the small forward position, and his versatility at each end of the court make him the poor man’s Paul George as it would not surprise me to see him in the mix to earn his first All-Star Game selection this season.
Oubre is set to begin his third NBA season. It was Oubre’s athleticism that got him to the NBA, but now he is developing the skill needed for him to be a consistent factor. Like Porter, Oubre is a slasher who should see more minutes playing alongside Wall and Beal in order to run the floor and be another threat in transition.
Last season the Wizards had what it took to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference, but will they be able to seize the moment in order to get past these clubs in the postseason?
Y-Miami Heat 42-40 (7)
The Miami Heat are coming off of a 41-41 season while they also failed to earn a playoff appearance for the second time in the last three years. However the Heat still have to be given credit for having a successful season. Miami began last season with a record of 11-30 as they were rapidly barreling to one of their worst campaigns in franchise history. But the Heat would rebound by winning 30 of their final 41 games to finish at .500, while missing out on the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot due to losing the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls. And as the Heat finished the 2016-2017 NBA season as one of the hottest teams in the league, will they be able to carry it over to the new campaign?
Heat team president Pat Riley is beginning his 22nd season with the franchise, and his time in South Beach has seen a commitment to winning. After the Heat lost small forward LeBron James in free agency in 2014, he nor anyone within the organization took the time to feel sorry for themselves, and instead have attempted to get this team back to being a championship contender. Miami attempted to expedite that process over the summer when they attempted to recruit small forward Gordon Hayward to South Beach. Hayward would ultimately opt to join the Boston Celtics which hindered Miami’s chances of being a title contender, but not their opportunity to make the playoffs.
For Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, he has one of the better centers in the NBA in Hassan Whiteside. Since joining the Heat in 2014, Whiteside has emerged into one of the better big men in the NBA. At 7’0″, 265 lbs., Whiteside has tremendous athleticism which led to him leading the NBA in rebounds last season at 14.1 per contest. Whiteside was not the force at the defensive end of the floor like he was during the 2015-2016 NBA season when he led the league in blocks with 3.7 per game, but his length can once again be a factor as long as he is able to remain out of foul trouble. Whiteside is still unpolished on offense, but he is developing into a decent perimeter scorer, while being a terror in the paint. Whiteside’s ability to rebound allows him to score consistently off of put backs, while he continues to develop his offensive repertoire in the post.
Point guard Goran Dragic is coming off of a season where he was able to tie a career-high by averaging 20.3 points. Dragic has always been an underrated player throughout his NBA career, but will he be able to become the leader that the Heat will need him to be in order to become a playoff team this season?
The Heat came out smelling like a rose when they signed guard Dion Waiters in the summer of 2016. Waiters earned less than $3 million last season, but he averaged 15.8 points per game and became a difference maker during the second half of the season. The Heat would re-sign Waiters this past summer and he’ll once again be an impact player in Miami. Waiters is a classic “tweener” as he is too big to be a point guard, and too small to be a shooting guard. But what Waiters brings to the table is that he is a gritty player that will do whatever it takes at end of the floor.
Small forward Justise Winslow was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Heat in 2015. Winslow is an emerging player for Miami, but his progression was derailed last season after he missed the majority of the campaign due to a torn labrum. Aside from Winslow, the Heat also have several other young players who they are high on in shooting guard Tyler Johnson and small forward Josh Richardson. The Heat shocked most basketball observers during the summer of 2016 when they gave Johnson a four-year deal for $50 million. But Johnson began to emerge for the Heat last season as he averaged 13.7 points per contest, while also being one of the team’s better perimeter shooters. Like Winslow, the Heat will need Richardson’s length and ability at each end of the floor on the perimeter as they look to make the playoffs.
Defense is always the name of the game for Spoelstra as Miami was fifth in the NBA in points allowed last season, while being 15th in rebounds. Miami should once again to difficult to score on this season; especially after they were able to sign center Kelly Olynk.
Collegiately for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Olynk was known more for his offensive game which led to him being the West Coast Conference’s Player of the Year in 2013. But since Olynk came to the NBA, he has developed a reputation as the defensive end of the floor. Olynk gives the Heat size coming off of the bench, and for a big man, he knows how to move up and down the floor.
The Heat will be a tough matchup for their opponents this season due to their size and athleticism. Dragic is a good point guard in transition and I can see Spoelstra opening up the offense more this season which should help Miami’s chances of making the playoffs.
Y-Charlotte Hornets 39-43 (8)
The best way to sum up the Charlotte Hornets is that they are consistently inconsistent. The Hornets made the NBA Playoffs in both 2014 and 2016, while missing out on the postseason in 2015 and 2017. Steve Clifford has been the head coach who has overseen the Hornets for the last four seasons, while general manager Rich Cho has been with the club since 2011. The combination of Cho and Clifford have been working to improve the Hornets roster in order to make them a consistent playoff team. And with the Eastern Conference not expected to be super competitive this season, will the Hornets be able to advantage of that in order to qualify to the playoffs?
Any potential success for the Hornets this season begins with point guard Kemba Walker. Walker has been with Charlotte since 2011, and in each NBA season his productivity has increased. Walker is an improving scorer and the same can be said about his court vision. To me Walker is the poor man’s Steph Curry as it does not take that much for him to get going in regards to being a dangerous scorer. Walker is coming off of the first All-Star Game selection of his NBA career, and his ability to be a long rage shooter as well as getting to the basket will once again make him a candidate to receive the honor once again this season.
During the off-season the Hornets were able to beef up their front court when they acquired center Dwight Howard from the Atlanta Hawks. During Howard’s 14-year NBA career, he has led the league in rebounds on five separate occasions, while also being a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Howard is 31-years of age, and although that he still has plenty left in the tank, what has plagued him throughout his career is the fact that he not been consistent at the offensive end of the floor. At this point it is what it is for Howard on offense, but if he can find a way to be a force at the defensive end of the floor, while also being able clean up on the boards, and playing off of Walker through pick and rolls as well as put backs, it’ll be a positive for the Hornets; especially since they were tied at 15th with the Miami Heat last season in rebounding.
Center Frank Kaminsky continues to be an improving bench player, while the return of small forward Nicolas Batum will be a welcome addition for the Hornets as he provides them with another quality facilitator.
The Hornets should be a competitive team all season long which will keep them in contention for a postseason berth.
Orlando Magic 35-47
The Orlando Magic have been swimming upstream in the Eastern Conference for far too long. The Magic have not made the NBA Playoffs since 2012, while they have not advanced past the first round since 2010. The Magic have been plagued for far too long by bad front office decisions which has included them missing on their first-round picks consistently. But as Frank Vogel is set to begin his second season as the head coach of the Magic, does he possess the necessary formula to get things turned around in Orlando?
In 2014, the Magic used a first-round pick on power forward Aaron Gordon. Gordon quickly developed a reputation as far as being a dunker. But dunking the basketball alone won’t keep a player in the NBA for long and Gordon falls under that umbrella. However in each of Gordon’s three years in the NBA, his production has improved and he has the potential to be a breakout player for the Magic. Gordon is only 22-years of age and now he is beginning to add finesse to his athleticism.
Aside from Gordon, three more emerging players for the Magic are small forward Evan Fournier, center Nikola Vucevic and point guard Elfrid Payton. Fournier led the Magic in scoring last season at 17.2 per contest and he figures to be one of their better scoring options during this campaign. During the seven-year NBA career of Vucevic he has averaged just a shade under 10 rebounds per game at 9.9 per contest. Vucevic should once again be one of the better rebounders in the Eastern Conference which will benefit the Magic. Payton was selected in the first round by the Magic in 2014 and like Fournier, his production continues to increase. But in order for the Magic to cast their reputation of being an afterthought in the Eastern Conference Playoff race, Payton must become more assertive in regards to being a floor general. Payton was able to average 6.5 assists last season, but for the Magic to push for a postseason spot this time around, that number must improve to at least 8 per contest.
Throughout Vogel’s coaching career in the NBA, his teams have been solid at the defensive end of the floor. However Orlando was 22nd in the NBA last season in points allowed which is something that must changed if they are going to be a playoff team.
The Magic are still a young team and hopefully for their sake they will be able to take advantage of a weak Eastern Conference in order to qualify for the playoffs.
Atlanta Hawks 34-48
Very quietly each of the last 10 NBA seasons have seen the Atlanta Hawks reach the playoffs. But a big reason why the Hawks success has gone unnoticed is that they have never won a championship, more less a trip to the NBA Finals. Mike Budenholzer has four years under his belt as the head coach of the Hawks, and after he spent nearly two decades with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant coach, he has brought some of those successful philosophies with him to Atlanta. The Spurs believe in ball movement as it more about the team than the individual, and as the Hawks have embraced this philosophy under Bundenholzer, it has led to plenty of regular season success. But the 2017-2018 NBA season will prove to be the toughest that Budenholzer has had to endure so far with the Hawks.
Three of the Hawks top scorers from last season are no longer with the team which includes power forward Paul Millsap who was the team’s leading scorer and center Dwight Howard who led the club in rebounds. And with the departure of so many key players, the keys to the Hawks franchise have now been handed over to point guard Dennis Schroder.
Schroder was the Hawks first round pick in 2013, and it is now his time to be the guy. Schroder has always possessed explosiveness at the point guard position and now it is time for him to develop some leadership. Schroder has the ability to penetrate a defense in order to get to the basket, but it is up to him to now improve the players around him on the Hawks better by becoming a better facilitator.
But unfortunately for the Hawks, the talent pool around Schroder is not that deep. Schroder should enjoy a career year, but the lack of talent in Atlanta will more than likely result in this team missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2007.