Discover more from The Box and One
NBA Season Preview: Southeast Division
Can the Atlanta Hawks catch the Miami Heat? What do we make of the other three teams' chances of making the playoffs? It's a five-team preview of the Southeast Division
The NBA season is quickly enclosing us. We finally had a real offseason this summer, resulting in a few seismic shifts for franchises. Rudy Gobert is in Minnesota, Donovan Mitchell in Cleveland, Dejounte Murray in Atlanta, and a ton of teams are banking on getting back to health atop the crowded Western Conference. Looming for rebuilding teams is the threat of a historic top of the draft featuring Victor Wembanyama and a potential race to the bottom.
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 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 2022-23 NBA season.
For the last few years, the Southeast Division has been one of the least competitive on a national scale. Sure, the Hawks made an Eastern Conference Finals and the Heat have gotten there twice, but it’s been filled with fringe playoff teams and very few years where multiple franchises are pushing for contender status. This year figures to be no different, with a couple of teams stuck in neutral and some questions about the teams at the top of the division lingering long-term.
Head coach: Steve Clifford, 1st year
2021-22 Record: 43-39
Vegas Line: 35.5 wins
Our Projection: 25-57, 15th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 25th
Def. Rating: 30th
At one point, the future for the League Pass darling Charlotte Hornets felt really bright. LaMelo Ball has all the makings of a star player. There were a few dynamic, young players next to him and some veterans who spaced the floor. Defense was a challenge under James Borrego, but they still managed to win 43 games last year. All they needed to do was hire a more defensive-minded coach, tighten up their rotation at the 5, and continue to improve internally and LaMelo would be able to do the rest.
Well, this summer hasn’t gone according to plan. Yes, they did hire the defensive-minded coach in Steve Clifford, the former Hornets coach with a proven track record of maximizing his guys on that end. The major downfall came from the Miles Bridges saga, unfortunate and disgusting on its own. The ripple effects for the franchise are that they lose their second-best player and get nothing in return, a major blow for a franchise that is already thin on high-end talent.
Now, Ball is surrounded either by older pieces or unproven youngsters. Bridges was important not just as an offensive second option but a rugged forward defender, a position they now lack. PJ Washington is more of a 4 and small-ball 5 hybrid, and while we love him in a vacuum, he is ill-equipped to be Charlotte’s second most important player.
Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward are veterans in the backcourt/ wing rotation who can help score the ball. We’ve seen the issues of a Ball and Rozier backcourt defensively, and Hayward is on the wrong side of 30. If the Hornets lean into those three together, they need a ton of frontcourt insulation on defense. Unfortunately, I don’t see Mason Plumlee, Nick Richards, JT Thor, Kai Jones, or rookie Mark Williams stepping up to become a top-15 rim protector. That isn’t Plumlee’s game, as he’s more of an offensive-minded screen-and-roll big. Williams has the highest ceiling on defense as your traditional shot blocker, but rookies rarely are ready for such a role, and Williams has been inconsistent during Summer League and preseason.
That brings us to the biggest reason for pessimism in Charlotte: the young guys. Outside of LaMelo, there’s been a total and complete lack of development here lately. We had major questions about JT Thor and Kai Jones pre-draft; both are long, athletic and had real upside, but were high-risk, high-reward picks. Perhaps this is the year we start to reap some of the rewards, but their profile required more patience through years one and two (this season). James Bouknight was a top-ten prospect on our 2021 board and has been really disappointing in Charlotte this preseason. Williams projects more as a solid and dependable player than a real star; he’s exactly what the Hornets need next to LaMelo, though he isn’t the cure for their overall lack of talent.
Other guys like Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels and Kelly Oubre Jr. are borderline rotation guys at this point and likely will play in Charlotte in some capacity. Major strides are needed from Martin and McDaniels to prove they are long-term contributors on a really good team, and Oubre is a fairly well-known commodity across the league.
To us, this is a pretty bleak outlook for the Hornets. LaMelo is talented enough to turn chicken shit into chicken salad on multiple occasions. However, the vibes just feel off. They’ve seemed very low-energy the entire preseason, Ball doesn’t have the reputation for being someone to rally his troops, and the quizzical mesh of LaMelo’s strengths and Clifford’s play-calling tendencies from the past makes this a situation with many troubling factors. We’re pretty far out on the Hornets this year and wonder how this plays out, because their owner is a notorious anti-tank guy and their head coach finds ways to cobble together more wins than might seem on the surface.
Five Burning Questions
What is the long-term direction for the franchise to build around LaMelo Ball?
Are Gordon Hayward’s days in Charlotte numbered?
Can any of the young players they’ve drafted recently take a step forward?
Will Michael Jordan entertain the ‘tanking’ discussion?
How do the Hornets replace the production of Miles Bridges?
Head coach: Wes Unseld Jr., 2nd year (35-47 record)
2021-22 Record: 35-47
Vegas Line: 35.5 wins
Our Projection: 29-53, 12th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 21st
Def. Rating: 25th
Over the last six seasons, Bradley Beal has averaged 25.8 PPG and 5.0 assists. He’s been one of the best scorers in the NBA, had back-to-back years with over 30 PPG, and has made three All-Star teams. He’s also only played in 11 playoff games over the last 5 years, hasn’t advanced out of the first round since 2017, and has played on a team with a top-15 defense during that span.
Beal is a superstar whose national profile is hindered by the aimless wandering of the franchise he plays on. Year after year the Wizards are good enough to avoid the basement but not good enough to be a playoff lock. They gave up on John Wall three years ago, tried the Russell Westbrook experience of leaning into two All-Stars, and last year cobbled together a trade for Kristaps Porzingis as their number-two. A group with Beal and Porzingis as their stars is always going to struggle defensively, and the personnel they have around them don’t provide a ton of insulation.
Perhaps there’s another step forward coming from other bigs on the team, and second-year coach Wes Unseld Jr. leans into playing Porzingis at the 4. Daniel Gafford is a pretty good shot blocker and screen-and-roll big. Only thing is: he doesn’t have a high-volume screen-and-roll partner, and playing him with Porzingis really squeezes their other promising young players out of minutes. There’s a logjam at the 3 and 4 spots in Washington that gets alleviated by putting Porzingis at the 5. All of Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura, and 6’7” shooter Corey Kispert are deserving of minutes.
This just goes to underscore where the Wizards have been over the last few seasons. They add a bunch of interesting young players (Avdija, Hachimura, Kispert) who have slight overlap, then compound the issue by bringing in veterans (Kuzma, Porzingis) with the same problems. This happens in the backcourt, too. They draft Johnny Davis this year, then immediately bring in Delon Wright and Will Barton to blockade his minutes. Such a pattern makes it really difficult to evaluate and develop young talent, so committing to a rebuild is less palatable.
Of course, there are plenty of individual players here that we like. Davis and Avdija were both top-ten prospects on our boards the last few years. Kuzma has turned into a really good offensive player and one of the best shooters in the league. Wright is a good veteran, and Monte Morris was a really smart addition. The four-man group of Morris, Beal, Kuzma and Porzingis is a solid one, and I’d love to see Avdija step into being the fifth in that unit.
Sprinkle in some Gafford, Barton, Kispert and Hachimura and there’s a pretty good nine-man rotation. They still need an additional handler on the roster, and it doesn’t look like Johnny Davis will fill that role during his rookie season, if ever. A lot for this team rests on the emergence of Morris going from a career backup to a legitimate starter; he and Unseld have a great relationship and history, but that’s a large leap to make given how much production the Wizards will need from the position.
Realistically, everything goes back to the defensive end for me. There aren’t a ton of high-caliber defenders on the roster, nor a strong infrastructure to improve on their 25th-placed finish a season ago. One has to wonder how much longer the Wiz can keep themselves in this mediocrity, too good to tank but not good enough to compete. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this be the year they decide to move on from Beal and hit the full reset, but I do think it’s worth seeing if a Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma trio is good enough to push for more than we might expect.
Five Burning Questions
How can the Wizards become a competent defense with their personnel?
Can Monte Morris really anchor the ship for them at the point?
How do the Wizards sift through their wing/ forward rotation?
Does Kispert or Avdija take a step forward?
Will Bradley Beal get on the trading block at some point?
Head coach: Jamahl Mosley, 2nd year (22-60 record)
2021-22 Record: 22-60
Vegas Line: 26.5 wins
Our Projection: 30-52, 11th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 22nd
Def. Rating: 18th
Last year, the Magic ranked dead last in offensive production. They were surprisingly competent on defense, with the likes of Wendell Carter Jr. and Mo Bamba anchoring the protection down low. Going out and adding Paolo Banchero, the top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, gives the Magic a bonafide number-one option, isolation scorer and immediate-impact piece.
Those who have paid attention over the summer understand that Banchero may not be their legitimate best player, though. Franz Wagner has been absolutely outstanding in international competition and during the preseason, showing that he and Banchero may immediately be good enough to slingshot the Magic out of the Eastern Conference basement. If those two continue to play on offense the way they have been, Orlando will have addressed their biggest issue from a season ago.
Still, a lot of work needs to be done. In the backcourt, Jalen Suggs has been a slight disappointment since being drafted. He’s dealt with a few injuries, his shot mechanics haven’t been smooth, and his dribble isn’t really tight yet. We still have incredibly high hopes for Suggs to be the third pillar of the franchise, but understand this is a crucial year for his development to prove that’s where he belongs. There are other viable options on the roster for minutes (Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, RJ Hampton) that are all young and growing. Each of them has their flaws, though: Fultz with shooting and playing off-ball, Anthony with defense and shot selection, Hampton with creating off the bounce and consistency. At some point, one of these four will have to exit the rotation.
One of those guards could be on the trade block by the middle portion of the season. Other veterans such as Gary Harris and Terrence Ross might join; depending on the how first part of the season goes, the Magic could be sellers at the deadline. Ross, in particular, provides length and shooting range to play in multiple lineups that Jamahl Mosley would construct. Much of his impact depends on the desire to play Suggs and Anthony together, or the health of Jonathan Isaac. He’s a really unique wild card to put in this equation for Orlando. If Isaac comes back this season, the Magic have to decide if his defensive production and length fit positionally with the guys they’re building around, or if he holds more value to another team.
There are other intriguing pieces for the wing rotation, though I think both are a half-step behind the names mentioned above. Chuma Okeke and Caleb Houstan are young pieces with one definitive skill for each to explore. Okeke can really play defense and guard multiple wing athletes, while Houstan is a catch-and-shoot specialist. Sprinkle in a little Bol Bol (potentially) and there are just a lot of back-end rotation pieces for the Magic to sift through.
It’s easy to be encouraged about the direction of this franchise. They’ve done much of the hard parts already, identifying and acquiring tentpole stars in Banchero and Wagner. They have some defensive infrastructure around them with Wendell Carter Jr., one of the most underrated players in the league. Suggs, Anthony and Fultz are all rotation pieces in some form, even if the smoke hasn’t cleared enough to determine a hierarchy just yet. Isaac, Ross and Bamba are good bench pieces, too.
The elephant in the room will be 3-point shooting with this group. They need floor spacing and have a bunch of young guys with questionable spot-up ability. Shooting will be big for Banchero to maximize his tools as a rookie and for Suggs to continue to take the next steps in his offensive development. Buy stock now in the Orlando Magic before its too late.
Five Burning Questions
Is Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner the definitive one-two punch long-term?
Can Jalen Suggs tighten up many of his mistakes from his rookie season?
What in the hell is going on with Jonathan Isaac?
How does Mosley sift through the guard rotation?
Will they be close enough to the play-in game to forego another season looking for a high draft pick?
Head coach: Nate McMillan, 3rd year (70-50 record)
2021-22 Record: 43-39
Vegas Line: 46.5 wins
Our Projection: 41-41, 9th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 9th
Def. Rating: 20th
About 18 months ago, the Atlanta Hawks were in the Eastern Conference Finals behind the upstart Trae Young. They’ve predominantly kept that group together, finishing just over .500 a year ago and making an early playoff exit. Young is still here, and the Hawks have gone out and gotten another backcourt All-Star to partner with him: Dejounte Murray.
In theory, Murray covers up a lot of Young’s weaknesses. He’s big, long and strong, a really good defender and a superb finisher inside. Murray has proven he can run an offense with competence and is multi-positional on defense to make him the ideal helper for Trae on that end. However, there’s still only one basketball to go around. Young has been lethal as a high-volume threat, and Murray doesn’t space the floor at all as an off-ball threat. To take the ball out of Young’s hands and put it in Murray’s could help the offense overall and be necessary for the marriage to fit.
We’ve long believed that there’s untapped potential for Trae to play off-ball due to his shooting. He did it at Oklahoma and is awesome as a movement shooter. The construction of this roster, with two bigger guys in the starting lineup like Clint Capela and John Collins, means that a ball screen and off-ball screen (such as a stagger or corner exit for Young) could create a ton of movement and allow the bigs to get open off slips and dives.
Years of data show that Nate McMillan’s offense isn’t as creative as it might need to be to utilize those ideas, or to create spacing in moments when Young has the ball and Dejounte is off-ball. McMillan has done wonders for this team from a confidence perspective and gotten the most out of Young as the offensive focal point. This is a different equation with Murray involved, and it must be treated as such.
That isn’t to say that the only means to success is through Young and Murray. John Collins is perpetually underrated and has a major impact on the team’s success. He’s athletic and great in the pick-and-roll while being a good enough shooter to space around it. He competes on defense and is part of the positioning/ identity that could make this an elite rebounding team. Capela received DPOY votes as recently as two seasons ago and is a really dependable rim protector. Onyeka Okongwu is ready for an expanded role, and perhaps is the one guy who benefits most from the team playing two bigs.
Of course, the Hawks need added consistency from DeAndre Hunter to really scrape their ceiling. Hunter is a capable offensive player, but injuries and evolving roles have prevented him from finding his niche on a nightly basis. Without Kevin Huerter on the roster anymore, Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic will need to shoot it.
Atlanta realistically goes seven deep. There are plenty of other guys who may establish themselves as part of the rotation, though none really blow me away. AJ Griffin and Jalen Johnson are the young guns; both played at Duke as one-and-dones and have some concerns with how they mesh around this core. Johnson’s shooting is always the worry, and Griffin is incredibly raw on defense.
Both Justin and Aaron Holiday find themselves in Atlanta as solid-at-best role players. Aaron flamed out at a few prior stops, and Justin isn’t a high-ceiling contributor. Beyond them, we aren’t really taken by anyone on the roster.
For such an aggressive move made this summer by the organization, we’d expect to have felt better about the roster on opening night. There are depth questions, fit questions with their two stars and a coach whose creativity must shine to make it all work. There are plenty of young wing/ forwards who need to find their impact right away, and very few future draft assets to lean on for other trades. This is it for the Hawks, a team clearly talented enough to make the playoffs but with plenty of questions before they’re seen as a frontrunner.
Five Burning Questions
Does the presence of Dejounte Murray move Trae Young off-ball more?
How does the center rotation sift out with Capela, Collins and Okongwu?
Can DeAndre Hunter take the next step in his development?
Do we keep hearing John Collins’ name in trade talks this year?
Is Nate McMillan creative enough offensively to make the Young and Murray fit work?
Head coach: Erik Spoelstra, 15th year (660-453 record)
2021-22 Record: 53-29
Vegas Line: 49.5 wins
Our Projection: 48-34, 4th in Eastern Conference
Off. Rating: 11th
Def. Rating: 6th
Heat Culture is a real thing. Just when you think their talent is aging and on the way down, they’ll find and develop some retread or unknown rookie into a legitimate playoff rotation piece. Last year it was Max Strus and Caleb Martin. This year, who knows. Either way, the Heat are always underestimated on their roster alone.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the steep decline Kyle Lowry seems to be on. His body has logged a ton of minutes and, as a bigger point guard, his first step is waning. Jimmy Butler has slid up a spot in the rotation to more of a small-ball 4. The Heat have two battle-tested stars, but they’re running out of time to win with them.
The rest of the pieces must pick up the slack, especially in the regular season. Bam Adebayo is a defensive player of the year candidate and a burgeoning offensive force. The Heat love to play through him at the elbows and have a motion-based playbook. Shooters thrive with such looks, especially with the movement shooters like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson still on the roster.
Speaking of Herro and Robinson, Erik Spoelstra has to be careful with his lineup construction around those two and Strus. Playing Herro and Robinson together leaves them really weak on defense. Herro’s scoring punch has often been needed with the second unit, which is why he’s more of a sixth man and Spoelstra brings him off the bench. But Strus supplanting Robinson during the playoffs may lead to a reshuffling of those responsibilities, perhaps having Herro and Strus in the starting lineup and Robinson along with Victor Oladipo and Gabe Vincent off the bench.
Oladipo is the one player with maximum room to carry a larger load than he has in the past. If he gets back to full strength and consistent health, he’s a legitimate third scorer behind Butler and Herro on this roster. He showed flashes (like a 40-piece in the regular season finale) but hasn’t put it together just yet. His emergence, and continued trust in Vincent, could mean lightening the regular season load that Lowry carries — a win-win for everyone involved.
At the 5, Adebayo is backed up by some combination of Dewayne Dedmon and Omer Yurtseven. That’s a thin rotation to begin with, and unfortunately, Bam is the only one we’d trust to run a ton of Delay action through or be the facilitator of their playbook at the elbows. He’s quickly become the most important piece in Miami. The stylistic changes when he’s off the floor necessitate a ball-dominant guard in the second unit.
On the wings, Martin and Robinson can play minutes, while rookie first-rounder Nikola Jovic is impressing with his offensive acumen out of the gates. The Heat have so many young players signed that we like, many of whom aren’t likely to crack the rotation or even be with the big-league club on opening night. Jamaree Bouyea, Jamal Cain, Orlando Robinson, Dru Smith… the list goes on of intriguing finds.
No player needs to step up and take an offensive leap more than Tyler Herro, though. Regardless of whether he’s in the first unit or the second, he’s locked into their core long-term and is in his fourth pro season. He’s a solid facilitator and can really turn it on when he’s hot. He needs to be their top option throughout the regular season to help Butler and Lowry be at full strength in May.
There are some moving parts here. Robinson may be on the trading block, they’ve lost PJ Tucker and are smaller on the wings as a result, have to sort through the backcourt lineups and need a younger guy or two to quickly take the next step. They’re still talented and mesh together well enough to win the division and win 45 games or more. They’ll always be a playoff threat, too.
Five Burning Questions
Is Tyler Herro ready to ascend toward being a number-one option?
Will the Heat try to trade Duncan Robinson?
Are they willing to commit to playing smaller full-time with Jimmy Butler at the 4?
How does Spoelstra construct his backcourt lineups with Lowry, Oladipo, Herro and Robinson?
Can Bam Adebayo win Defensive Player of the Year with this group around him?