5x5 NBA Season Preview: Southeast Division

Five teams, five questions. A look at the NBA season ahead for the Southeast

The NBA season is quickly enclosing us. After two strange and unprecedented seasons, this summer provided anything but relaxation. No, star players like Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons became engulfed in trade rumors, several teams shook up their coaching staffs, player movement was furious in free agency and the Eastern Conference took several steps forward towards being better than the last several years.

Now, it’s time to look backward at what has happened to inform what might happen moving forward. We’ll tackle each team through the lens of the five most important questions they face this year. Some questions are about timeline and process, while others ponder the fit of the roster. At the very least, this serves as a great launching pad into the 2021-22 NBA season.

After our start with the Central Division, we move to the Southeast, where teams like the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks are ready to make another leap towards contention. Both have made the Eastern Conference Finals in the last twelve months, but roster changes or alterations to depth are defining characteristics of their 2022 seasons. With the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets also pushing for playoff berths, the Southeast might be one of the more underrated, competitive leagues in the NBA.

Orlando Magic

Head coach: Jamahl Mosley, 1st year
2020-21 Record: 21-51
Vegas Line: 22.5 wins
Our Projection: 19-63, 15th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 29th
Def. Rating: 22nd

Youth is all the rage in O-Town, with four young guards vying for reps in the backcourt and a few unique, unorthodox wings hoping to mesh together. New head coach Jamahl Mosley, known as a player development specialist, will have a lot to sort through, but there’s great potential with this inexperienced core. This year should be one of many trials, tribulations, growth and foundation for the organization to learn who is in long-term building plans.

  1. Which two guards out of Suggs, Anthony, Hampton and Fultz are best to build around?

Fifth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft Jalen Suggs was an absolute steal for the Magic; he’s one player we love and believe will be the face of the franchise for years. Suggs is best with the ball in his hands, and finding which other guard to place him next to means understanding the need to play off-ball.

To me, Markelle Fultz is ruled out as a result. He’s a pretty good creator and slasher, but I worry about placing that type of player next to a potentially generational talent at the point. Fultz should be relegated to the second unit and share the floor with Suggs as little as possible.

Cole Anthony is likely the best 3-point shooter of the group, but RJ Hampton is a great second-side creator and athletic enough to guard either position. Suggs loves to play up-tempo, and we can see Hampton running the wing and thriving far more than Anthony. I’m expecting RJ to emerge as their clear second guard this year.

  1. Is the long-term answer at center currently on the roster?

To say both Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. have underwhelmed in their NBA careers would be an understatement. Whether to surrounding circumstances, injuries or suboptimal usage, general consensus is that neither have proven themselves a bust. At the very least, Bamba or WCJ could emerge as a really useful option at the 5, even if not as the top center.

This year is about the Magic placing both in a no-excuses, no-questions position to succeed. If both thrive, Orlando is stocked up front. It’s important to know going into a draft class with multiple talented bigs expected to be at the front of the draft. Hanging onto potential can’t be done forever, and both Bamba and Carter have been given several chances already.

  1. How does Jonathan Isaac look returning from knee surgery?

Injuries are heartbreaking, as many NBA fans know. Knee surgeries in particular have robbed several elite up-and-coming players of fruitful careers. Isaac isn’t near the Grant Hill tier of dominant, but right before his ACL tear it was he who was on a tear. Over his last 23 games in 2019-20, Isaac was averaging 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals per game, both absolutely insane numbers.

If Isaac is back at 90% of that imprint, he’ll be part of the rotation as the team’s best defender and a potential All-Defense performer. Long-term, Isaac’s return to that pre-injury level of production gives Orlando the next elite defensive piece. There are few who are as good as Isaac on that end, and that rarely gets talked about. His continuation of growth in 2022 is vital for their long-term outlook.

  1. Can the Magic get a draft pick for Terrence Ross or Gary Harris?

Veterans on expiring contracts playing for rebuilding teams. They get traded by the February deadline. It’s a tale as old as time, and the Magic are hoping to cash in on that trend in 2022. Gary Harris, in the final year of a contract that will pay him $20.5 million, will be tough to valuate thanks to the size of that deal. Can the Magic get anything for Harris before he walks in free agency?

Ross is a little different. He isn’t on an expiring deal, but his two-year, $23 million remaining is an amazing value for the shooting, length and veteran experience he provides. Only two years ago, Ross was helping the Magic in the postseason as their most consistent performer. I’d expect both Ross and Harris to finish the season elsewhere, and am not sure if a first rounder will come unless they eat another poor contract long-term.

  1. Chuma Okeke or Franz Wagner: who is best for this team long-term?

When the rubber hits the road in a few years, these Magic will likely be great in space and the open floor. Wagner, a savvy and smart slasher from the wing position with decent playmaking chops, is much more of a half-court creator. Okeke, an athletic and bursty defender who loves to get out and run the floor, strikes me as a much better fit alongside Suggs.

Ross likely starts at the 3, but Okeke is ahead of Franz on my board for what he brings to the table. He was near the top of all rookies in deflection rate and had as many steals as personal fouls. The defensive lockdown nature of Okeke and Isaac together is dynamic for a young team and gives them a major identity to build around.

Washington Wizards

Head coach: Wes Unseld Jr., 1st year
2020-21 Record: 34-38
Vegas Line: 33.5 wins
Our Projection: 32-50, 12th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 22nd
Def. Rating: 21st

Tommy Sheppard and company in the front office have clear intentions: build a winner with and around Bradley Beal. A premier scorer who has seen star point guard after star point guard dominate the ball and cap their ceiling, now Beal is alone as the alpha in our nation’s capital. He inherits a large group of newcomers, a first-time head coach and a deep but ill-fitting roster of quasi-veterans who can help the Wizards in one of two ways.

The first way: be somewhat competitive this season. There’s enough quality scoring, with Spencer Dinwiddie joining the fold and vets like Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell all plus scorers within smaller roles. The second way is to use that depth, gained by those additions, forwards Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura, youngsters Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija and bigs like Thomas Bryant and Daniel Gafford, to consolidate pieces for one of the rumored stars. Watch out for the Wizards as a potential deal-mover mid-season, and an outperformance of their preseason win projections with a smart coach like Wes Unseld Jr. leading the charge.

  1. Who is their third best player?

Pretty clearly, Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie are the top two threats in DC. Someone else needs to emerge behind them as a third anchor, and it’s really hard to figure out who that might be. The best offensive threats struggle on defense, the most talented guys are perhaps too young and the overall amount of depth makes it hard for one player to emerge.

It would be best for the franchise if Rui Hachimura emerged as the third option, a third-year player who averaged 15.5 points per game over his last ten. But Hachimura is away from the team for personal reasons, and the complexity of those situations combined with the signs apparent for Rui make it difficult to count on him emerging. We hope all is alright with Rui.

Most likely is seeing a 2013 Denver Nuggets-like scenario, where Beal does all the heavy lifting and we see 6 players playing about 20 minutes per game in the frontcourt. No true third option would emerge, and that makes it incumbent on Unseld to have packages for every lineup, player and hit every button the right way to win games. That’s a lot to ask of a first-time head coach.

  1. Who starts at the 3?

Corey Kispert is likely not ready for the role. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is most balanced for the role, but starting him at the 3 destroys the team’s depth at the 2. Davis Bertans is atrocious defensively and gets most exposed at the 3.

The right option here is likely Deni Avdija, a second-year pro with great connector potential as a do-it-all wing that guards the 3 and 4. Deni was solid as a rookie, with a 2:1 A:TO ratio and shot 55% inside the arc. He’ll need to shoot it reliably to stick next to Beal and Dinwiddie , but he’s the best fit at the 3.

Here’s the consequence: Dinwiddie, Beal, Avdija and Hachimura is eerily similar to last year’s group, only with a downgrade of Westbrook for Spencer. Look, they could bank on fit being what propels them further, but the newly-acquired depth doesn’t do much if they’re all backups. Avdija’s long-term potential is, in our eyes, greater than that of Rui. Unseld has to juggle getting him plenty of minutes to improve with keeping Beal happy.

  1. Who starts at the 5?

Three options emerge to be the Wizards starting center this year. First is Thomas Bryant, recovering from a torn ACL and likely unavailable until close to Christmas. He’s the incumbent on the job who played really well offensively: 14.3 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 42.9% from 3 before suffering the knee injury last year. The element of a stretch-5 is ideal next to Beal, but Bryant is far from a consistent or reliable rim protector.

There’s Daniel Gafford, the fill-in for Bryant who helped stabilize Washington’s defense. The Arkansas Razorback averaged 3.6 blocks per 36 minutes after the deadline when the Wizards acquired him. Sure, there’s no range to his jumper, but he’s hyperaware of his role and bolsters their defense. It’s a classic conundrum for Unseld to wrestle with, and likely depends on where he plans to play Bertans long-term: a frontcourt that features Bertans and Bryant together might as well start jogging down the court on offense.

X-factor Montrezl Harrell will make a push for minutes at the 5. He was played a bit out of his comfort zone with the Lakers, getting away from the PNR-heavy role he thrived in with the Clippers. Pairing him with PNR guard Spencer Dinwiddie might be a great way to maximize the position. Of course, Harrell is a 6’7” center and gets slaughtered by the wrong matchup. He’s the most productive offensive option and

  1. What does their defensive scheme look like?

With so many rotation question marks, predicting what the Wizards prioritize on defense becomes challenging. The offense is simple: play through Beal, space the floor and utilize the pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll options at the 5. Defense is harder to predict. There are players to hide (Bertans, Beal to an extent) but very few to feature.

Last year, the Wizards made a sensational leap from 30th in defensive net rating to 19th, perhaps in part due to Westbrook’s defensive rebounding and Bryant’s absence. With a new coach in town known for his prowess on that end, the Wizards could once again take a step forward. Guys like Kuzma and KCP are underrated defensively, while Aaron Holiday provides a good jolt off the bench.

Unseld already tipped his hand a bit, talking about switching less and designing coverages the way he did in Denver:

“I’ve had some great success doing things a certain way. Other teams [switch] and they’re very good at it. I think there’s a place for it and there are times where we are going to do that. It kind of goes back to making sure we lay the foundation and then adjust accordingly."

While switching isn’t the focal point, it’s still unclear what exactly will be. Perhaps more aggressive coverages with some and drop with other bigs. Mike Deprisco had a solid article looking at the options available for the Wizards. They’re still a bit hard to predict in terms of identity.

  1. Is this roster strong enough to keep Bradley Beal happy and in DC?

Beal has thus far resisted trade demands or rumors, committing to the district long-term and giving the team an insane amount of leeway. My first gut reaction is that the roster is not good enough to advance further than the 8th seed the Wizards garnered last year before being throttled in the first round of the playoffs. There are solid role players, young guys and a superstar, but Beal needs another top-end talent next to him.

The good news for Sheppard: they have many attractive pieces and salary fillers to make a move. We’ll see if the go all-in to convince Beal to stay or roll the dice by banking on this effort to be enough. To me, that will be a losing gamble.

Charlotte Hornets

Head coach: James Borrego, 3rd year (95-124 record)
2020-21 Record: 33-39
Vegas Line: 38.5 wins
Our Projection: 35-47, 10th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 19th
Def. Rating: 20th

Perhaps the league’s most fun offensive team resides in Charlotte, captained by All-Star Gordon Hayward, Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and a burgeoning threat in Miles Bridges. The Hornets changed their depth during the offseason for the better, adding a bit more size and defensive presence without sacrificing shot-making.

The question for the Hornets has always been around their center position. After a few underwhelming but sturdy years from Cody Zeller, James Borrego will find a new man to anchor the job. If that center can provide some defensive presence around a fairly porous perimeter group, the Hornets should push for more than just the play-in games.

  1. How can their defense get to league-average level?

A pretty loaded question, the answer likely comes in finding the right rotations and being able to apply pressure in unique ways. The Hornets don’t have a rim protector, so wisely switching to limit dribble penetration should be in their future. That becomes especially prominent when Mason Plumlee sits and the Hornets bring on a more agile option at the 5, especially PJ Washington.

We’d also expect to see the Hornets be aggressive in passing lanes, pressure the ball a lot, mix up zones and steal possessions after timeouts with a change of defenses. Even if that happens, the Hornets could still be below average. Almost every member of their roster, save the newly-acquired Kelly Oubre Jr., are offense-first in their tendencies. Last year, the Hornets were 18th in defensive rating, and that feels like a high number and barometer they need to aim for once again.

  1. How much do we see a Rozier-Ball-Hayward-Bridges-Washington lineup?

Way back in 2019, PJ Washington was a top-six player on our big board. Why? Because Washington struck us as the perfect small-ball 5 that could defend the post and rebound thanks to his wingspan and broad shoulders. From his first year to second year, Washington moved from getting only 12% of his minutes at center to 46%, according to basketball-reference lineup data.

To us, the Hornets best lineup features Washington at the 5 with the other four being their four best players. LaMelo needs space, and a frontcourt with Washington and Bridges provides that. Both can be screeners who roll or pop; Washington was 21-64 (32.8%) on pick-and-pop jumpers last year. The spacing that affords Ball, combined with elite shooters in Rozier and Hayward, helps the Hornets lean into their offense and overcome some of their defensive worries. None of the centers really stabilize their interior defense, so why not just move on and embrace going smaller when they need it?

  1. Is Kelly Oubre Jr. in for a renaissance?

Let’s not mince words here: a renaissance is really a return to prior levels of production, not a reach to state that Oubre was ever of the star variety. He simply didn’t fit in Golden State’s scheme, so finding a home that is a little more traditional could suit him.

In the two years before coming to Golden State, Oubre’s production often gets forgotten: 16.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game while shooting a sturdy 33.5% from deep. Bringing that level of wing production off the bench would be fantastic for the Hornets, making him a legitimately strong under-the-radar signing. He’ll have easy points gifted in transition by LaMelo, and hopefully a little more leash to play as he’d like. We think KOJ is back to his ways in the Queen City.

  1. How real is LaMelo’s 3-point shooting?

About a year ago, during the elongated pre-draft process ahead of the 2020 draft, we spent a great deal of time highlighting LaMelo Ball’s streaky pull-up jumper, which didn’t give us a ton of confidence. If the jumper wasn’t consistent, could teams go under screens against him, hence seizing up his passing ability? Ball is best when help defenders have to commit to him, and going under screens allows those helpers to stay home on shooters.

Ball shot 27-78 (34.6%) on dribble jumpers off the PNR, a fairly average number but better than our expectation. If the range and comfort LaMelo demonstrated continues to become more consistent, that will drastically change how the Hornets are guarded in the half-court, particularly down the stretch or (potentially) in postseason play.

  1. Are the Hornets a playoff team?

At the end of the day, the Hornets can no longer rely on saying they’re young anymore. A choke job down the stretch last year (losing their final six games and 10 of their last 13) cost the Hornets a spot in the playoffs, losing by 23 in the play-in game to the Indiana Pacers. With the exception of Hayward, all Hornets were healthy and available. They simply couldn’t get the job done.

So where would improvement come to get this Hornets team to another step? Internal growth, necessitated by the Hornets no longer being young enough to hide behind the allure of “next year”. Bridges and Washington are 23, Rozier is somehow already 27 and Hayward is in his thirties. The Hornets really aren’t young, and now that Ball has emerged as their alpha on offense, they’re in the position to make a push now.

Depth is going to play a major role in determining if the Hornets are a playoff team. While we love the five-man lineup with Washington at center, playing all those pieces together leaves rookie James Bouknight, pass-first vet Ish Smith, Oubre, unproven Jalen McDaniels and Mason Plumlee on the second unit. That’s a pretty weak, or at the very least strange, group. If Bouknight plays well, Oubre rebounds and James Borrego can cobble together a frontcourt rotation to guard bigs, the Hornets should climb into the top-eight in the East.

That’s a big if…

Atlanta Hawks

Head coach: Nate McMillan, 1st full year (27-11 record)
2020-21 Record: 41-31
Vegas Line: 46.5 wins
Our Projection: 48-34, 6th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 6th
Def. Rating: 19th

Nate McMillan was a shot in the arm for this franchise. His voice resonated with a young but deep roster, lead by a budding superstar in Trae Young. Sprinkle in the right dose of vets who can play vital roles, such as Clint Capela, John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari and the Hawks pried open their window, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals after sound defeats of the New York Knicks and top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.

The first full year under McMillan will (hopefully) see a bit more health: young wings DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish are healthy and ready to go. They’ll have to survive most of the year without second-year big Onyeka Okongwu, but this is one of the deepest teams in the Eastern Conference and is built to sustain one absence. Atlanta won’t sneak up on anyone in 2022.

  1. Was last year’s playoff run the result of circumstance of the Hawks being ready for the expectations that they’ve now built for themselves?

Look, the Hawks weren’t the recipients of injury luck but they did benefit from an implosion by the Philadelphia 76ers. Getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals won’t be easy, but the Hawks could be poised to take another step forward this year.

We don’t think their ascent up the East was an accident last year. Trae Young is a legitimate MVP-caliber player to build around, and the depth they’ll get back with a healthy Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter should propel them to the top of the Southeast. Last year may have been sooner than expected, but this performance is far from a fluke.

  1. Who starts next to Young, Capela and John Collins?

Atlanta’s three best players are fairly clear: Young is the alpha, Capela the defensive backbone and Collins too skilled to come off the bench.

Four options emerge as great threats to start in the two remaining spots. First is Kevin Huerter, a strong 6’7” three-point shooter who has become vastly underrated off the bounce and at the rim. Huerter, in a contract year, would bring a good deal of shooting balance to their bench but could be slotted next to Trae. Huerter started 49 of the 65 games he played in a season ago.

Then there’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, coming off a 16-3-3 season in Atlanta, his first with the Hawks. At least one of Huerter or Bogdanovic is almost certain to start for their shooting prowess; any Young-Capela or Young-Collins PNRs need to be surrounded by at least one shooter.

The other two are Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter. Both started a fair chunk of the games they played in last year. Hunter popped before an injury ended his season (15 points, 5 rebounds), while Reddish shot 9-14 in four games he played in during the playoffs, culminating in a 21 point performance against the Bucks.

To us, Huerter and Hunter are the two best candidates to start. Hunter would then slide to the 4 in minutes when Collins sits, giving McMillan the ability to quickly rotate in one of Bogdanovic or Reddish. Those guys get the opportunity to play around Young, while Hunter provides balance at the 4 for when Collins sits.

  1. Can the Hawks continue to make improvements on defense?

Last year, Atlanta’s defense finished 21st in the NBA, far worse than several contending teams. Their depth, shooting ability and the engine driven by Trae Young can get them to the dance, but defensive stops and getting better on that end is imperative for postseason success.

McMillan is more of a defensive specialist than an offensive one; his ways and teachings lead to immediate successes before they wear thin on his team. With a full camp finally under his belt as the main voice in the locker room, look for the Hawks to take a slight step forward on that end. With Trae as their point guard, expecting the Hawks to get above league average might be a stretch.

  1. With so many young players lining up for extensions on this roster, are they best-served consolidating now and getting a big name?

That dang salary cap is going to complicate matters in Atlanta. GM Travis Schlenk has done an unbelievable job drafting and identifying talent, and it looks like 2021 picks Sharife Cooper and Jalen Johnson are additional feathers in his cap. The downside to drafting so well is, as Sam Presti found out in Oklahoma City, the roster quickly goes from inexpensive to super bloated and unaffordable.

The Thunder once had Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all getting off rookie deals in a three year span, while larger contracts remained on the books from the likes of Kendrick Perkins. Atlanta could find themselves in a similar position, re-signing Trae and Collins to long-term extensions while the next wave of contracts belong to Huerter, Hunter and Reddish. Sprinkle in money committed to Gallinari ($21.5 M next year), Bogdanovic (three years, $54 million remaining) and Capela (signed through 2025) and there’s no cap relief in the future. Picture this: Atlanta already has $108.6 million committed for 2023-24, and that doesn’t include Huerter, Gallinari, Hunter or Reddish.

The Hawks will have to consolidate and make some sort of trade to ensure one of these talents don’t walk away for nothing. The question is: should they walk this path now?

Schlenk should explore and be one of the most active whenever a star is on the table; being proactive on this decision could not only save them a cap nightmare in two years but help get another big-name to pry open the title window now.

  1. If they do make a push for another star, who would be the best fit?

The best fit we’d see here would be Bradley Beal, if he does come available. Look, the Wizards and Beal may not come to a disagreement, but if they do let Schlenk jump all over them. First off, Washington would be inclined to work with Atlanta; trading Beal would initiate a full-scale rebuild, and the youth of the Hawks’ assets (and an expiring soon from Gallo) fits beautifully for Washington.

Beyond that, Beal in Atlanta would help Young play off-ball a tad more, an area where we’d love to see him. The off-ball movement of Beal, while Young plays in the PNR, is amazing. We could see a Golden State-esque level of ball movement that turn Young and Beal into the East’s version of the Splash Brothers.

Miami Heat

Head coach: Erik Spoelstra, 15th year (607-424 record)
2020-21 Record: 40-32
Vegas Line: 48.5 wins
Our Projection: 49-33, 5th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 11th
Def. Rating: 4th

Pat Riley doesn’t believe in the “one step back to take two steps forward” philosophy. He continually mortgages the future in order to bring win-now players to South Beach. Kyle Lowry is their most prominent signing since Jimmy Butler, and now those two competitive veterans look to team with Bam Adebayo to make another superteam in the East.

Flanking those three All-Star candidates are a couple of excellent role players. Duncan Robinson might be the NBA’s best movement shooter outside of Golden State. PJ Tucker is the ideal veteran defender to play the 4. Markieff Morris is a great backup big at either spot. Tyler Herro can score on the second unit and fill in admirably for either Lowry or Robinson when need be. Beyond them, it’s a pretty bare-bones roster, meaning one of Erik Spoelstra putting his magic touch on the group or their longstanding tradition of unearthing gems will need to continue.

  1. How does the spacing work with Adebayo, Butler and Tucker together?

Three non-shooters? Oof.

The presence of Duncan Robinson certainly helps, as his movement and gravity can make up for the presence of one non-shooter. But two others on the floor can shrink spacing very quickly.

The Heat have assembled a fair deal of individual offensive talent. Butler, Adebayo and new acquisition Kyle Lowry are All-Star hopefuls, but when one has the ball, two other non-shooters always exist. Look, getting PJ Tucker was a necessity and will help them come playoff time. I’m just not sold on Miami having enough offensive firepower to push their way through the postseason once again. Perhaps someone off the second unit could help with that…

  1. Who on their bench is going to step up?

Veterans Markieff Morris and PJ Tucker were brought in to be complementary pieces. Tucker will likely go with the starting group, defending the other team’s best player and physically saving Jimmy Butler from enduring that burden. Morris, more offensive-minded, is a nice backup option at the 4 or 5.

Beyond Morris and Herro, this bench is very unproven. Max Strus and Omer Yurtseven had impressive Summer League showings; they have potential to be the next gems Pat Riley and his front office have unearthed. Dewayne Dedmon is a sturdy depth piece at the 5, too.

The backcourt is particularly sparse, making the Heat seemingly feeble if they suffer even one injury. Miami will be one of the hottest destinations for buyout candidates or other veterans to join mid-year. Expect their depth to sort itself out later in the year, but at least one of their other three need to be able to carve out a significant bench role.

  1. Can Spoelstra afford to load manage his stars?

What a lack of depth during the regular season can do is over-extend star players. On a back-to-back against the Clippers and Lakers, for example, Spoelstra might want to give Jimmy Butler or Kyle Lowry a modicum of rest to save their bodies. If the Heat are injured and short of quality depth, the margin for error during the regular season becomes mighty thin.

We certainly don’t have an answer here, and if history tells us anything about Butler, Lowry or Spoelstra, it’s that load management won’t be a welcomed task. In a year where they log heavier minutes than normal just to maintain victories, that could be pretty scary for the coach to consider.

  1. What can we expect from Tyler Herro?

Herro is our preseason pick for Sixth Man of the Year. Why? Opportunity. Herro will get plenty of run, and should play over 30 minutes a night even if he doesn’t start.

Much of the conversation on Herro has been blown out of proportion. He was exceptional as a rookie, particularly in the bubble, where he helped the Heat advance to the NBA Finals (gasp) only a year ago. He averaged 16 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game during the 2020 postseason while shooting 37.5% from 3, an unbelievable output from a first-year pro given the circumstances.

Herro’s 2020-21 regular season wasn’t much different: 15.1 points, 5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 36% shooting from deep. The slightest of slight regressions, Herro fell victim to expectations climbing at an unsteady rate. A strong offseason should get him to take the next step forward, perhaps getting his scoring average closer to 18 per game and his assist totals around the 5 dimes a night mark. If he meets those attainable goals, he’ll be the most potent bench guard in the league.

  1. Can Miami count on Victor Oladipo?

In a roundabout way, Oladipo is getting underrated. He’s not even 30 but has been written off after yet another injury, another surgery and the lack of long-term options that were available to him last summer. But that doesn’t mean Oladipo is the next coming of DeMarcus Cousins. In fact, Oladipo could be closer to a return than we think.

Oladipo’s surgeon expressed optimism that Victor is back by the holidays:

“I repaired the quad tendon and did it a little differently than [he had] it done before… The quad wasn’t really hooked up. It was torn, and I reattached it. I was amazed he was playing with what he had. I’m very optimistic that I could clear him in six months, by November. I think he’s going to play really well again. … [The surgery] went extremely well, and it’s healing beautifully. I’m confident he’ll play next year.”

The oft-injured DeMatha product has been written off by many due to the frequent nature of his maladies. But when he’s been healthy the last several years, Victor has been magnificent as ever. In 20 games with the Rockets last year, Oladipo averaged 21.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He’s capable of being a sparkplug off the bench. On a one-year deal, he’ll be motivated before hitting the free agent market, too.

The real swing player in Miami might be Oladipo. He’d give the Heat legitimate backcourt depth, another creator and defender to survive a postseason series. At full strength, he makes them only a wing away from being a legitimate title contender.