X-Washington Wizards 48-34 (6)
The Washington Wizards continue to be one of the NBA’s enigmas. The Wizards have the talent on their roster to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, but they continue to hover around the .500-mark, while they’ve also been unable to get past the second round of the playoffs. Last year the Wizards had to settle for the final playoff spot in the East, and then they were quickly disposed of by the Toronto Raptors. You can put the Wizards in the category of being “next year’s champs” as the wait ’til next year mantra continues to plague this team. And with the start of another NBA season here, can we expect anything to change for the underachieving Wizards?
Any success that the Wizards wish to attain begins with their All-Star backcourt of point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal. Wall is one of the most explosive players in the NBA and he knows how to get his teammates involved in the offense. For Wall’s career he has averaged 9.2, and with his ability to penetrate the paint and pass, his teammates will once have solid scoring opportunities.
Beal has been relatively healthy over the last two years which led to him earning his first All-Star Game appearance. Beal is an “inside-out” scorer” who can also run the fast break with Wall in order to get buckets. Beal was able to average 22.6 points per game last season which included shooting 46% from the floor, and the 25-year old should be able to put up similar type numbers this season.
In five seasons with the Wizards, the productivity of small forward Otto Porter Jr. has continued to increase, but the Washington needs him to take his game to the next level. Porter averaged 14.7 points last season on 11.5 shot attempts. Porter is a slasher who continues to work on his perimeter game as he connected on 44% of his three-points shots last season which was a career-high. And if Wall continues to find ways to get Porter the basketball, his point per game will increase, and the same can be said about the assists stats for the point guard.
One of the most interesting signings during this past off-season was when the Wizards decided to sign center Dwight Howard. Howard is an eight-time All-Star along with being a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, but his joining the Wizards will mark his fourth different NBA team in as many years.
Howard has always had the physical skills to be one of the great players in league history, but it has not always been there for him mentally. And even with that Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game as he averaged 12.5 rebounds per game last season with the Charlotte Hornets. Howard will continue clean up on the glass this season as he’ll be passing some of the NBA’s all-time greats in the category of rebounding which includes Hakeem Olajuwon and Wes Unseld, but will he be focused enough mentally to help Washington be a force in the Eastern Conference?
And aside from the big names on the Wizards roster, one player to keep an eye on will be small forward Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre was the Wizards first-round pick in 2015 and his productivity has increased in each season with the team. When Oubre first came to the NBA, he was primarily known for his athleticism, but now he is developing into a solid scoring option for head coach Scott Brooks off of the Wizards bench, while he will continue to push Porter for minutes at the small forward position. Oubre’s development is important for Washington’s success, while the presence of power forward Markieff Morris is needed for the Wizards as his toughness will allow them to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Washington should be able to win the Southeast Division in their sleep, but that has not always been the case. And only time will tell if the Wizards will be able to avoid underachieving once again.
Y-Miami Heat 42-40 (7)
After small forward LeBron James departed the Miami Heat in 2014, the franchise was left for dead, but somebody forgot to tell them that. Two out of the last three years have seen the Heat make the playoffs, while they’ve only finished with one losing season over that stretch. A big credit for that falls into the lap of Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra who upon his hire in 2009 was deemed as an after thought being that he replaced a legend in Pat Riley. But Spoelstra has put his stamp on this Heat franchise as no head coach has won more games in its history than him. And as the Heat are set to begin another NBA season as underdogs in the Eastern Conference, what are they cooking up in order to surprise people in South Florida?
The Heat are a team that grinds out victories due to the fact that they don’t have a superstar who can consistently put this team on his back. Miami had seven guys who averaged at least 10 points per game last season, but they were still tied for 23rd in the NBA in scoring.
Point guard Goran Dragic is Miami’s leading returning scorer as he averaged 17.3 points per game, but he is not a player who can consistently be a big-time scorer.
The past few years have seen center Hasaan Whiteside center Hassan Whiteside become one of the better interior defenders in the NBA due to his length. Whiteside stands an even 7’0″ tall, but his wingspan makes him 7’7″. And this has led to Whiteside averaging 2.4 blocks per game for his NBA career, while he can also clean up on the boards. Whiteside is not a consistent scoring threat, but his ability on defense coincides with the way that Miami likes to play basketball as they allowed the fourth fewest points in the NBA last season.
Miami feels that they have an emerging player on their roster in shooting guard Josh Richardson. Like most of the players on the Heat’s roster, Richardson took the long way to get to the NBA as after being a second-round pick of the club in 2015, he had a stint in the G-League. However Richardson has built off of that experience as his game has continued to improve. Richardson appeared in 81 games last season for Miami, and his ability to get to the best as a scorer is a big reason why the Heat’s brass was reluctant to include him in a trade prior to the start of this season which would have brought swingman Jimmy Butler to South Beach.
The Heat are happy that veteran shooting guard Dwyane Wade is set to give it more go round the block as this will be the last season in his soon to be Hall of Fame career. Wade has done it all in a Heat uniform which includes being a member of all three NBA Championship teams in franchise history, while he is also the greatest player in the organization. And Wade’s presence on this club will give Spoelstra an additional coach on the floor which should pay dividends as the Heat will make another push towards the playoffs.
Miami may not have the most talented team in the NBA, but each of their opponents better be prepared to lace them up 48 minutes of intense basketball on a nightly basis.
Charlotte Hornets 36-46
Three of the last four NBA seasons have ended with the Charlotte Hornets failing to reach the playoffs, and thus a change had to be made. Last April, the Hornets would hire Mitch Kupchak to be the team’s new general manager. Kupchak spent more than 30 years in the front office of the Los Angeles Lakers where he helped the franchise win seven NBA Championships, and Hornets owner Michael Jordan is hopeful to bring some of that success to his franchise. One of Kupchak’s first moves with the Hornets was to find a new head coach as after five seasons, Steve Clifford was let go. Clifford would be replaced by James Borrego who spent the last 15 years as an assistant coach in the NBA which included a pair of stints with the San Antonio Spurs. During Borrego’s time with the Spurs, he was a member of a pair of NBA Championships teams, and like Kupchak, Jordan is hopeful that the new head coaching hire will bring a culture change to a team that missed the playoffs in three of the last four years.
Even though that last season did not result in a trip to the playoffs for the Hornets, one bright spot for the team continued to be point guard Kemba Walker. Walker averaged 22.1 points per game which led to him earning his second consecutive trip to the All-Star Game. Throughout seven seasons with the Hornets, Walker has become one of the best scorers in the NBA due to his ability as a perimeter shooter as well as his ability to get to the basket. Walker surpassed Dell Curry as the Hornets all-time leading scorer last season, and he is on the cusp of becoming the first player in franchise history to score 10,000 career points.
But the biggest issue for the Hornets is that besides Walker, they don’t have a player who can consistently get his own shot. Last year Charlotte was tied for 21st in the NBA in field goal percentage at 45%. And as Borrego looks to implement his system in Charlotte, he must find a way to get more production out of players such as power forward Frank Kaminsky, and shooting guard Nicolas Batum. However one player to keep an eye will be shooting guard Jeremy Lamb.
In each of Lamb’s six NBA seasons, his production level has increased; especially since he is playing alongside his former college teammate in Walker. And if the Hornets can find a way to open up their offense more which includes relying on more ball movement as they were 24th in the NBA last season in assists, Lamb should be able to average 15 points per contest.
After the few heavyweights atop the Eastern Conference, the rest of the playoffs berths will be up for grabs. The Hornets will find themselves in that discussion among second-tier teams in the East, but will they be able to seize the opportunity?
Orlando Magic 28-54
With six consecutive seasons without a trip to the playoffs, the Orlando Magic have become one of the NBA’s forgotten franchises. Over the last two seasons alone, the Magic combined to lose 110 games which would lead to another coaching change. The Magic would part with head coach Frank Vogel after just two years with the team in favor of Steve Clifford. Clifford spent the last five years as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets where he led them to a pair of postseason appearances. In Orlando, Clifford inherits one of the NBA’s youngest teams, but will he be able to help them once again be a contender in the Eastern Conference?
Over the summer the Magic were caught between a rock and a hard place in regards to power forward Aaron Gordon. Gordon was a first-round pick of the Magic in 2014, and yes he has progressed during his time in the NBA, but is he a franchise player? Gordon is coming off of a career-year as he averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per contest, while also connecting on nearly 34% of his three-point field goals. The Magic did not want to lose Gordon in free agency which resulted in them agreeing to give him $84 million over the next four year. Gordon is a solid player, but he isn’t someone who can be consistently counted on to be “the guy”. And as Gordon looks to continue shedding his reputation as just being a “dunker”, Orlando needs to keep finding ways to build depth on their roster.
The Magic do have players on their team that can score such as shooting guard Evan Fournier and center Nikola Vucevic, but the thing that this team needs is a solid point guard who knows how to create opportunities. Orlando was 11th in the NBA last season in assists, but their top three passes from that squad are no longer with the team as that is going to surely handcuff in regards to improving.
Teams around the NBA are not afraid of the Magic and rightfully so as they’ve been woefully bad which is a trend that will continue in Central Florida during the upcoming season.
Atlanta Hawks 24-58
It is no secret that the Atlanta Hawks find themselves in the midst of a rebuild. After ten consecutive postseason appearances, the Hawks only managed to win24 games last year as they were one of the worst teams in the NBA. And anyone who expects that trend to change during the upcoming NBA season needs to think again.
After five seasons as the Hawks head coach, Mike Bundenholzer was not brought back as he was replaced by Lloyd Pierce.Pierce has spent the last 11 years as an assistant coach in the NBA for several franchises and now he will look to bring that expertise to Atlanta. But Pierce inherits one of the youngest rosters in the league as only three players are 30-years old or older as the youth movement is definitely in effect for the Hawks.
Atlanta’s leading returning scorer from last season’s team is small forward Taurean Prince who only managed to average 14.1 points per game, and as a team the Hawks were tied for 23rd in the league in scoring.
The Hawks are attaching their hopes point guard Trae Young who is at the epicenter of their rebuild. Atlanta acquired Young in a draft day trade with Dallas Mavericks and he has already drawn some comparisons to Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry. In one season collegiately at Oklahoma, Young was a first-team All-American as he led the nation in both points (27.4) and assists (8.7). Young is instant energy, and he will help the Hawks sell tickets, but it is to believe that a rookie point guard will be able to immediately turn around the fortunes of a team.
Last season as a rookie, power forward John Collins was able to be one of the top rookies in the NBA as he averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds. Collins was able to do this primarily as a bench, but he should see an increase in playing time this season which will put him on track to average a double-double.
Aside from Young and Collins, the Hawks are a team that is comprised of journeyman or youngsters who are looking to make a name for themselves in the NBA. And although that the Hawks will struggle this season, better days could soon be on the horizon for this franchise.