NBA season in review: What went wrong for Pacers, Heat and Hornets
The teams in the lower tier of the Eastern Conference collectively became the butt of running jokes aimed at their general ineptitude and unsightly play. No matter how many one-liners were hurled their way, though, a few teams below .500 were bound to make the postseason, even if it was by default.
But the East's cellar dwellers didn't finish as forecasted, with the Celtics, Pacers and Nets all putting up real fights to extend their seasons. Boston was first to punch its ticket, while Brooklyn beat Orlando on the final night of the regular season and waited for Indiana to shoot itself in the foot. Brooklyn lucked out, as Memphis proved to be too much for Indiana, setting the Nets up for a first-round series against the Hawks.
With that settled, we can now examine the final three teams pushed out of the postseason picture, asking what went wrong, what reasons they have to believe and what concerns remain:
Record: 38-44 | Missed playoffs by: Lost on tiebreaker
Projected draft pick: 11
Why things went wrong: The easy answer here is the absence of Paul George, but take a more nuanced look at the Indiana Pacers and you'll see they were more than capable of making the postseason in the Eastern Conference. They have more talent than teams who are locked in now, including the Bucks and Celtics, who sit at sixth and seventh, respectively. The Pacers' real problem was inconsistency. Look at their schedule and the swings become obvious. Indiana started with a win and followed with a string of five straight losses. They would post three more losing streaks of at least five losses, topping out at eight in mid-December.
This result mirrored the team's roster. With George out George Hill missing large stints of the season to start the year, Indiana depended on inconsistent players. Roy Hibbert, who once played well enough to demand a max contract, has been a shell of himself for a few years now. Donald Sloan had a nice start to the year, but his play was not sustainable. And C.J. Miles is a nice outside shooter, but he offers little else.
Reason to believe: Paul George. The Pacers' best player didn't touch the basketball court in a game until April 5 after suffering a broken leg during a Team USA scrimmage. Few expected to see him back this season, but George never wavered and remained determined to return this season, even if he only made it for the stretch run. George's six-game appearance wasn't always pretty. In fact, he was carried off the floor after suffering a calf injury in the season finale. But he still showed flashes of the plays he once completed on a nightly basis. Because of George's transcendent talent and determined approach, there is little doubt that he will return to form. The only question left to answer is when.
Reason for concern: Aside from George, the Pacers have little else to hang their hat on. Hill played inspired basketball down the stretch, but he hasn't always maintained the level of play expected when he was traded to Indiana from San Antonio. While still stout and savvy, David West is aging and needs to be on a contending team. Indiana may become that with George at full health, but they do need to make improvements. It moved in the right direction by adding complementary pieces like Miles, Rodney Stuckey and Ian Mahinmi—players whose value will increase once they play alongside George.
Record: 36-45 | Missed playoffs by: 1 game
Projected draft pick: 10
Why things went wrong: There was a time, not long before the stretch run of the regular season, when the Miami Heat sat at seventh in the Eastern Conference. With Dwyane Wade playing his best basketball and Hassan Whiteside rounding into the form, Miami appeared as prepared for the postseason as anyone. The Heat had slogged through a slow start to the year, only to find themselves in solid position and on course for a first-round matchup against LeBron James, who left Miami this past offseason to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Miami had pushed out to a 10-6 post-All-Star Game start, with a March 22 game against the Oklahoma City looming. The Heat lost, 93-75, and slipped into a tailspin that would last for the duration of the regular season. Astoundingly, they won only five games between that Thunder meeting and their last contest of the season, a rare tank game against the Sixers on April 15. After fighting through a month-long span in which it lost nine of its final 14 games, Miami played out the regular season for a draft pick, not playoff positioning.
Reason to believe: But while it was demoralizing for a veteran Miami team to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007-08, there are positives to getting an early start on the summer. With Chris Bosh ruled out for the season with blood clots in his lungs, Miami was going nowhere fast in the playoffs. Had they steered clear of that late rut, the Heat would have been run out of the playoffs in the first round.
In this alternate scenario, the Heat can rest Wade after four consecutive Finals runs kept him playing into late June, they can prepare for the return of Bosh and they can court free agent point guard Goran Dragic earlier than expected. There is also the promise of using the draft to add young talent to a team that struggled on both sides of the ball. Miami could use the help after finishing the season 21st in offensive efficiency, producing only 101.5 points per 100 possessions, which rates below teams like Detroit and Sacramento.
Reason for concern: At times Wade can still break off into a spell of dynamic play that reminds you what he once looked like every night. Unfortunately, that is not the reality for him now, and it has been clear for some time that his career has a definitive expiration date right around the corner. Wade, the center of the Heat franchise, has chronic knee injuries and hasn't played more than 70 games since 2010-11. The same father time reference goes for several other critical players on the Heat, with Wade, Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen all over the age of 30.
Record: 33-49 | Missed playoffs by: 5 games
Projected draft pick: 9
Why things went wrong: The trajectory of the Charlotte Hornets' season was tied to the performance of Lance Stephenson, for better or worst. When the Hornets added him in the offseason, they assumed his ballhandling and playmaking could improve a team that made an unexpected postseason run last year. But Stephenson's season was torpedoed almost from the moment it started.
Stephenson started the year with nagging injuries that slowed his acclimation, feeding into the belief that it was only a matter of time before he came around and made good on a three-year, $27 million deal. That never happened, however, as Stephenson struggled to find himself in an offense structured around Al Jefferson in the post and Kemba Walker on the perimeter. Hornets coach Steve Clifford added offensive wrinkles and played Stephenson with the second unit to no avail. In the end, he barely played Stephenson before he ended the year on the bench with a sprained right toe.
What's more, he became far worse than anyone could've imagined. Stephenson had the worst three-point shooting percentage ever posted with at least 100 attempts, knocking down only 17.1% of shots from behind the arc. Stephenson averaged 8.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game, but the issues didn't end at his shooting struggles. When Stephenson was on the floor, the team's offensive and defensive ratings dropped to 94.3 points per 100 possessions and 101.8, respectively.
Reason to believe: Because the Hornets have spent several years at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they have young pieces who continue to improve every season. That still stands for Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. Each player took steps forward this year, and there is reason to believe this pattern will continue. Walker played some of the best basketball of his career at the start of March, before missing time for a knee injury. He averaged 29.8 points over a six-game stretch, flashing those familiar heroics at the end of games. When fully healthy, Walker is capable of running a team and scoring in big spurts. So far Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller have proved they can at least defend, rebound and run the floor.
Reason for concern: There are a number of issues the Hornets must address, including their outside shooting and Jefferson's health and impending free agency. Charlotte made a number of moves to address its lack of shooting, but none had a viable impact. Trading for Gary Neal, who was later moved for Mo Williams in a separate deal, did little to raise the team's shooting ability. Young players P.J. Hairston and Troy Daniels could be counted on for shooting next season.
Jefferson's presence on the post made outside shooting a priority for Charlotte. Spacing is necessary for Jefferson to operate on the block, and for the Hornets' offense to run properly. When the Hornets don't have issues getting Jefferson the ball, they have problems keeping him on the floor. Jefferson suffered a plantar fasciitis injury in the Hornets' 2014 postseason series against the Heat, and he spent most of the summer allowing the injury to heal. That set back Jefferson's conditioning, then he played in only 65 games because of the foot injury and concerns with his knee. Jefferson has all but pledged to return to Charlotte, but his health could become an issue if the injuries continue to pile up.