Southeast preview: Retooled Wizards, Hornets to challenge Heat's throne
The Northeast was shaken up last week by an injury to one of the league’s top two stars. The other star's relocation this offseason created even larger rippling effects in the Southeast. LeBron James’ decision to return to Cleveland knocked this division down a few pegs on the national intrigue scale while effectively eliminating Miami from title contention. Meanwhile, the Hornets (formerly the Bobcats) will enter this season feeling good about their chances of competing in the East after adding Lance Stephenson in free agency; the Hawks will look to move past the bad vibes of an ugly offseason scandal; and the Wizards hope last year’s playoff series win against the Bulls foretells a leap into the conference title conversation. That leaves the Magic, whose free agent strategy and roster composition point to another year of mass losing.
1. Washington Wizards
2013-14 record: 44-38 | Lost in East Conf. semifinals to Indiana (4-2)
Top addition: Paul Pierce. The 37-year-old Pierce left Brooklyn after just one season to join a ready-made contender in Washington.
Biggest loss: Trevor Ariza. The Wizards will hope their perimeter defense doesn’t slip too much without Ariza’s pesky man-to-man coverage.
Outlook: A Wizards team entering the season at the center of a quasi-debate over the league’s best backcourt must now deal with the question of how it can survive without one half of its famed duo. Shooting guard Bradley Beal is expected to miss approximately six weeks after undergoing surgery on his non-shooting wrist. That’s bad news in the short term, but as my colleague Rob Mahoney suggested, the Wizards may be better equipped to handle Beal’s absence than the Thunder are Durant’s.
When Beal returns, he and John Wall will form one of the best guard tandems in the East (if not the entire league, but let's not reignite that debate here). Wall added polish to his offensive game last season and improved his three-point shooting shooting (26.7 to 35.1), while Beal continued to show flashes of why all those Ray Allen comparisons aren't so far-fetched. As promising as the Wizards’ guard situation looks, their most significant moves this offseason impacted the frontcourt. The Wizards re-upped with Marcin Gortat, bolstered their big man rotation with Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair and Pierce on a palatable deal.
Pierce’s clutch shotmaking and postseason experience should do wonders for a team coming off its first playoff series win in nine years. A consensus has hardened on the revamped Cavaliers and retooled Bulls as the top two teams in the East, but the next tier starts with Washington.
Best case: Beal and Wall make good on Beal’s preseason proclamation, Nene plays a full 82 games for the first time since 2009-10 and Pierce gives the Wizards the late-game edge they needed to advance deeper in the playoffs.
Worst case: Wall regresses, Beal’s shooting goes haywire and Nene misses more than half the season. Pierce can’t rally the troops and rumors swirl about Randy Wittman’s job security as the Wizards slink to a eighth-place finish in the East.
2. Charlotte Hornets
2013-14 record: 43-39 | Lost in first round to Miami (4-0)
Top addition: Lance Stephenson. The Hornets nabbed Stephenson on a three-year deal after he reportedly turned down a longer offer to remain with the Pacers.
Biggest loss: Josh McRoberts. The skilled 6-foot-10 forward’s playmaking and distribution will be missed in Charlotte.
Outlook: The Hornets and Heat staged the most boring first-round series of last year’s playoffs, a four-game sweep that only reaffirmed Miami’s status as the East’s top championship contender. In the space of a few months, the balance of power has swung to such a degree that Charlotte looks like a decent bet to eclipse Miami this season. That can be explained in large part by one four-time MVP’s free agency decision, but Charlotte deserve some of the credit, too.
The addition of Stephenson has been described as a risky move, mostly because it’s hard to know whether Lance can reign in his petulance outside of the support system he clearly benefited from in Indiana. But any anxiety over his emotional volatility is tempered by the fact that Charlotte was able to lock up Stephenson on a short, cost-effective deal ($27 million over three years, with only two years guaranteed). If Stephenson can stay on an even keel, his ability to create off the dribble will boost an offense that ranked No. 24 in points scored per possession last season.
In his first year as head coach, Steve Clifford molded his charges into a fearsome defensive unit that managed to mask Al Jefferson’s lagging mobility and range. The Hornets might actually get better on that side of the ball this season thanks to Stephenson’s disruptive perimeter work. There’s cause for concern offensively with Marvin Williams replacing McRoberts, but visual evidence suggests Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot may be finally, mercifully rounding into form. Big man Cody Zeller’s development over the second half of last season provided reason for encouragement, while Kemba Walker and Jefferson are back to anchor the offense.
Best case: The Hornets remain one of the top defensive teams in the league while getting a lift on offense from Stephenson, who checks his buffoonery at the door. Charlotte rides the goodwill of its new name and logo, earns a top-three playoff seed and reaches the conference finals.
Worst case: Stephenson’s antics become a distraction, the loss of McRoberts leaves Charlotte’s offense short on creativity and Walker can’t evolve into a more effective scorer.
3. Miami Heat
2013-14 record: 54-28 | Lost in Finals to Spurs (4-1)
Top addition: Luol Deng. Deng’s production dipped after a midseason trade to Cleveland, but the Heat did well to add him on a cap-friendly deal (two years, $20 million).
Biggest loss: LeBron James. James’ move back to Cleveland likely signals the end of Miami’s streak of four consecutive Finals appearances.
Outlook: Any forecast of the Heat’s season must begin with a stark recalibration of expectations. With the best player in the world opting to change teams, Miami is starting anew hoping two of the now defunct Big Three plus a couple of free agent additions can keep them relevant in a deeper East. That’s a far cry from the championship-or-bust expectations that surrounded this group the last four seasons. Indeed, for the first time in a long time, the Heat begin a season decidedly under-the-radar.
If one is bullish on the Heat outperforming expectations, it’s rooted in a belief that Chris Bosh, who resigned with Miami on a five-year max deal, can recast himself as the dominant player he once was in Toronto. Of near equal importance is whether Wade, who agreed to re-sign for less than the max, can still handle the rigors of an 82-game workload. And unlike last season, the Heat won’t have the luxury of leaning on James should Wade have to take nights off as part of another maintenance plan for his frail knees. Luol Deng’s wing defense will certainly help, and McRoberts’ savvy playmaking is a perfect fit for Spoelstra’s high-octane system.
But make no mistake: this is a transition season for Miami.
Best case: The Heat’s auxiliary scorers perform at levels unseen during the James era, and Deng and McRoberts step up in supplementary roles. Bosh and Wade have resurgent seasons and Miami makes an unlikely conference finals run.
Worst case: Wade’s knees hobble him for large stretches of the season, Bosh doesn’t hold up as a go-to scorer and the Heat’s thin guard rotation buckles down the stretch.
4. Atlanta Hawks
2013-14 record: 38-44 | Lost in East Conf. first round (4-3) to Pacers
Top addition: Thabo Sefolosha: Atlanta will hope Sefolosha can help shore up its perimeter defense and recapture his shooting stroke after seeing his three-point accuracy dip last season.
Biggest loss: Lou Williams: Cutting bait with Williams created cap space, but also cost Atlanta a capable scorer off the bench.
Outlook: This summer set up for the Hawks to add pieces to a so-so core with a modest ceiling. With a relatively clean cap sheet, the Hawks could have gone in for a high-profile free agent to complement Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Paul Millsap. In the end, they spent $12 million over three years for a defensive-minded role player whose minutes were limited in last year’s playoffs. That’s not the type of move that figures to vault Atlanta from fringe playoff team to conference championship contender.
Yet the Hawks’ biggest source of improvement may come from within. A torn pectoral muscle limited Al Horford to only 29 games last season. Getting him back will jolt a team that went 16-13 and was 5.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. There’s also hope for more steady progress from Teague, improvement from turnover-prone Dennis Schroder, an instant impact from first-round draft pick Adreian Payne and more production from Paul Millsap.
When discussing the Hawks, though, it’s impossible to block out what’s going on away from the court. The racially derogatory views expressed in comments from Danny Ferry and an email from owner Bruce Levenson will loom over this season like a dark cloud, and the team’s pending sale will only divert more attention away from basketball.
Best case: Teague finds more consistency, Horford hits the ground running and Mike Budenholzer wrings 48 wins out of a team with middling talent.
Worst case: Horford struggles to find his bearings and Sefolosha’s faulty jumper proves irredeemable. Teague stagnates as a solid, but not game-changing floor leader and the Hawks fall short of the playoffs.
5. Orlando Magic
2013-14 record: 23-59 | Missed playoffs
Top addition: Channing Frye. Frye’s three-point shooting will prove useful to a team that finished in the bottom third of the league in three-point shooting.
Biggest loss: Arron Afflalo. One can argue that Afflalo’s numbers (18.2 ppg) in 2013-14 were inflated by Orlando’s dearth of shot-creators, but the Magic now need to figure out out how to replace his production.
Outlook: The Magic begin this season no closer to competing for a playoff berth than they were last season. That aligns with Orlando’s plan of maintaining cap flexibility and stockpiling draft picks. Dealing leading scorer Afflalo for Evan Fournier and a second-rounder was another move aimed at greasing the skids for a long-term rebuild. Viewed through this lens, the Magic’s season should be evaluated on the promise shown by their young pieces. Another year of heavy losing may be tough to swallow for a fan base that’s endured three consecutive seasons with an average of 26.6 wins. But if the core general manager Rob Hennigan is in the process of assembling shows improvement, there will be hope, at the very least, for a future existence outside of the East cellar.
Backcourt sparkplug Victor Oladipo acclimated himself well last season and could be set for a sophomore leap, while Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon should get plenty of run in their rookie seasons. Coach Jacque Vaughn will mix that young talent with a pair of veteran imports in Ben Gordon and Frye, whose floor-stretching range should help free up space for Nikola Vucevic on the low block. One may take issue with the cost of adding two offense-first 30-somethings that don’t appear to be part of Orlando’s long-term vision (two years, $9 million for Gordon and four years, $32 million for Frye), but in the short term they should help keep the Magic from dipping into unwatchable territory.
Best case: Oladipo makes major strides in his second season and Gordon and Payton upgrade Orlando’s defense while showing signs of offensive potential. The Magic feel confident about their future but miss the playoffs and luck into a top-three draft pick.
Worst case: Payton and Gordon prove unable to adjust to the pro game and earn bust labels while Oladipo fails to make progress offensively.
X-factor: Southeast division
Lance Stephenson, Hornets: It’s hard to erase the image of Stephenson blowing into James’ ear during Game 5 of last year’s East finals. Similar behavior may give Charlotte second thoughts about brining in the high-profile free agent this summer. But if Stephenson can cut out the shenanigans and buy into Clifford’s system, Charlotte’s gamble will pay off handsomely. In a conference with an unsettled pecking order, the Hornets could make a push for a top-three seed, provided Stephenson keeps his cool.
Dark horse team
Hawks. The Hawks failed to significantly improve their roster through free agency, but it’s hard to overstate the gravity of Horford’s return. With their versatile 6-foot-10 power forward at full strength, Atlanta posted a 16-13 record last season. Having him for 82 games, coupled with improvement from Teague and a shooting upturn from 3-and-D newcomer Sefolosha should position the Hawks to add a few wins to last season’s total (38).
The Heat band together under Spoelstra, get off to a hot start and blow out Cleveland in James’ Miami homecoming on Christmas Day. A rejuvenated Bosh and a healthy Wade keep the Heat in the second rung of East contenders and they earn home court advantage in the playoffs before pushing James and the Cavaliers to a Game 7 in a thrilling semifinal series.