NBA off-season grades: Southeast up for grabs after Hawks, Heat undergo overhauls
- With Al Horford and Dwyane Wade leaving their respective teams, the Southeast Division is up for grabs after several teams underwent off-season overhauls.
With most of the NBA summer already in the books, SI.com is grading each team's off-season performance and examining their best and worst moves. Today, we dissect the Southeast Division, which features a host of teams that will look drastically different in 2016–17. For our Central Division grades, click here.
Best move: Giving Dennis Schröder the keys. For better or worse, the most important player on the Hawks’ roster is Dennis Schröder. Though he can be tough to rein in at times, the 22-year-old German guard has shown jaw-dropping flashes off Atlanta’s bench the last couple of years and has the type of athletic ability that suggests he’s capable of more. Frankly, the organization needs to see exactly what it has here. Dealing Jeff Teague to pave the way for Schröder came out of necessity as the Hawks chart their future. This will more than likely be a year of discovery, and that starts with figuring out exactly what Schröder looks like as the starter. It’ll be good theater. — Jeremy Woo
Worst move: Replacing Al Horford with one person. I don’t hate the Dwight Howard signing for Atlanta, but if Houston had offered Howard for Horford straight up last season, there's no way the Hawks would have said yes. If Howard commits to the pick-and-roll, Atlanta should not have a huge drop-off from last season. But counting on an older Howard to change his ways seems risky. The Hawks were likely better served trying to use the Horford cap space to sign role players who could fill in the team’s gaps. Conversely, Atlanta could have offered Horford a fifth year much earlier and possibly stopped him from ever leaving. — Rohan Nadkarni
The Skinny: Let’s be careful not to confuse activity with accomplishment when gauging Atlanta’s summer. There’s no doubt the Hawks were busy: they traded away an All-Star (Jeff Teague), lost an All-Star in free agency (Al Horford), and signed an All-Star in free agency (Dwight Howard), while also reportedly dangling another All-Star in trade rumors (Paul Millsap).
Did the sum total of those moves, and Atlanta’s secondary transactions, amount to much of anything? Probably not. The indirect Horford-for-Howard swap is a loss in terms of fit but a win in terms of money. While the Horford/Millsap pairing was a proven winner in coach Mike Budenholzer’s systems, committing maximum money to Horford for four or five years is slightly tougher than taking a three-year chance on Howard.
Nevertheless, it would be going too far to say that Howard represents a major upgrade, given Horford’s skill level, Howard’s injury history and the work that will need to be done to integrate Howard into an offense built around space and ball movement. When healthy, Howard remains a very good player whose numbers should benefit from a return to the Eastern Conference. The Hawks also deserve credit for avoiding an absolute disaster here: finding a way to make Howard work is a far better reality than being left high and dry by Horford’s departure.
Treading water, however creatively, doesn’t make for a winning summer. Atlanta’s other moves—paying up to re-sign two-way wing Kent Bazemore, shipping out Teague so that Dennis Schroder could step into the starting job, using two first-round picks to add wing depth, making a nice value signing with back-up guard Malcolm Delaney—look better in the long-term than the short-term. While there doesn’t appear to be an immediate difference-maker entering the fold, Atlanta has set itself up for significant flexibility next summer, when Millsap can opt out and numerous other veterans come off the books.
For now, though, one wonders whether Atlanta has enough. Even in the best-case scenario—Howard stays healthy and plays like an All-Star, Millsap keeps chugging along, Schroder steps seamlessly into the starting role, Kyle Korver enjoys a shooting renaissance—Atlanta probably didn’t do enough to hop out of the East’s thick middle.
It’s hard to blame the Hawks if they reached the conclusion that their current core, which took a step back last season, wasn’t worth the long-term mega dollars that Horford commanded this summer and that Millsap and Teague could soon command. But it’s also hard to truly celebrate an off-season that will likely produce some transition pains and that didn’t pull the Hawks meaningfully closer to the Cavaliers. — Ben Golliver
Best move: Keeping Hassan Whiteside. This off-season was a little awkward for the Heat, with Whiteside’s mega-deal making Miami unable to play ball with Dwyane Wade in free agency and, you know, then losing the most important player in the history of the franchise. It’s still hard to fully believe in Whiteside sometimes after watching him appear out of nowhere, and now that he’s cashed in, he’ll have to prove he’s worth the money. But with Chris Bosh’s health still a question mark, the Heat had to commit toward stability somewhere. Miami may not be better for it now, but as the young pieces congeal together, keeping Whiteside as the center of the defense should pay dividends over the next few seasons. — J.W.
Worst move: Losing Dwyane Wade. Let’s not get cute here: Losing Dwyane Wade was a big blow to the Heat. On its face, it wasn’t a terrible basketball move. Underneath the surface, the Heat lost an NBA mover-and-shaker who sold tickets and proved to be a solid recruiter when he wanted to be. Miami rebounded from Wade’s loss with a bunch of one-year deals to set the team up with cap space for next summer. But with Russell Westbrook off the market, who can Miami realistically target that will help lift the franchise? And with Wade no longer in South Beach, can Miami still be considered the culture capital of the NBA? The Wade situation was very complicated, and Miami wasn’t necessarily wrong to let him go, but now the team stares down an unclear rebuild with no great options in sight. — R.N.
The Skinny: Take this one straight from the horse’s mouth. “Bad, bad summer for us,” Heat president Pat Riley told the Miami Herald after Dwyane Wade opted to sign with the Bulls. “But there will be another 10 years, and it will be someone or something else in 2026.” Ten years? Ten years!?!?
Miami’s summer of no fun wasn’t just a matter of losing Wade in contract negotiations gone wrong. Here’s a laundry list of their misfortunes: Chris Bosh remains in limbo with potentially career-threatening health issues, Luol Deng left for the Lakers, Hassan Whiteside required a max contract commitment, Tyler Johnson pulled down a massive offer sheet from Brooklyn that Miami felt compelled to match, and a host of 2017 free-agent targets disappeared in thin air.
Not only did the Heat’s roster take a body blow at the top with the loss of Wade, but it’s dream back-up plan scenarios went poof. LeBron James? Signed up in Cleveland through 2018. Kevin Durant? On track to re-sign for monster money with the Warriors. Russell Westbrook? Locked into a long-term extension with the Thunder. What’s the new plan? Hope that Blake Griffin decides to ditch Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan for Goran Dragic and Whiteside? Hmm. No wonder Riley is talking about a decade.
Heat fans can lick their wounds with the knowledge that Dragic is surely capable of upping his production in a Wade-less environment, Justise Winslow looks destined to build on a solid rookie campaign, and the likes of Wayne Ellington, Dion Waiters, Derrick Williams and James Johnson are all taking their talents to South Beach on budget-friendly, short-term contracts. And the biggest win of the summer, ironically, might be the fact that the Heat won’t need to pay Wade a cap-clogging golden parachute contract a la Kobe Bryant.
On balance, though, there are too many moving parts and new questions to do anything except agree with Riley’s self-assessment. Miami is left relying on Whiteside to take a step forward without the structure and star power that surrounded him over the last two years. That could easily prove to be asking too much; if so, the Heat could be headed for a steep slide. — B.G.
Best move: Keeping Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. The Hornets were greater than the sum of their parts last season, finally adding shooters and staying solid on the defensive end. Ensuring continuity by retaining two essential cogs was as much as Charlotte could have hoped for, and Batum and Williams had plenty of interest and certainly had a chance to bolt. Though nothing they did will push the Hornets over the top, simply staying relevant and sustaining competitiveness is a perfectly acceptable place to be. Keeping their two most versatile forwards makes that eminently doable. — J.W.
Worst move: The Roy Hibbert signing. Uh, so Charlotte had a pretty eventful off-season. It’s tough to top a “worse move” than losing an All-Star Game because of your city’s anti-LGBT bathroom bill, so let’s just nitpick Roy Hibbert here. Charlotte did what it had to do in keeping Nic Batum and Marvin Williams, but that meant pinching pennies elsewhere on the roster. Enter Roy Hibbert, a man who three short years ago struck fear into the heart of LeBron James, but one year ago was a non-factor on a laughably bad Lakers team. Hibbert now enters a frontcourt that lost dependable scorer and lovable big man Al Jefferson. At least Hibbert can plod up and down the court like Big Al? — R.N.
The Skinny: The Hornets’ course for this summer was set one year ago when they agreed to trade for Nicolas Batum, who was set to enter the final year of his contract. With that move, Charlotte set itself up to make some difficult choices, as it would likely be cost-prohibitive to retain Batum, Marvin Williams, and Al Jefferson, to say nothing of Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee.
As it turned out, Charlotte appeared to handle the cash dispersal well on its three biggest counts. Batum indeed broke the bank to the tune of $120 million over five years, but he played well enough in his one year under coach Steve Clifford to justify the must-keep treatment. The Hornets came within one win of advancing to the second round thanks in part to Batum’s versatile playmaking on offense, and they would have been hard-pressed to replace his skillset given the costly and competitive market for similar players. Batum wound up taking approximately $30 million less than his absolute max contract, so retaining him was less painful than it could have been.
Charlotte re-signed Williams on a four-year, $54 million with similar thinking: he shot the ball extremely well from deep last season and his positional versatility helped Clifford modernize his offense. While both Batum and Williams are at risk of declining before their new deals are up, Charlotte is in pay-to-play mode with a core that’s competitive right now. The extra years are understandable as a means to keep a well-fitting team intact.
That left Jefferson as the odd man out, a turn of events that would have seemed highly unlikely two years ago, when he averaged 21/11 and earned All-NBA Third Team honors. But injuries and a shift in offensive style decreased his effectiveness and relevance to Charlotte’s plans. GM Rich Cho signed Roy Hibbert to maintain depth at the center spot, but look for Clifford to continue to employ the spread looks that made Charlotte so successful last season.
If there was a bone to pick with Charlotte’s summer, it came at the shooting guard spot, where midseason acquisition Courtney Lee opted to sign with New York on a four-year, $48 million deal. Perhaps anticipating that Lee would be too rich for their blood, the Hornets traded a first-round pick for Marco Belinelli, a 30-year-old wing coming off a poor season with the Kings. While Belinelli should find a better fit as an off-ball option in Charlotte’s offense, the costs to plug this hole really added up.
Charlotte parted with two second-round picks to rent Lee for a few months and then gave up a first-round pick, and the opportunity to develop a young wing on an ultra- cheap deal, for a shot at rehabilitating Belinelli’s career. That series of events simply looks regrettable. On the bright side, a healthy year from oft-injured forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would allow Batum to shift down to the two more often, and Jeremy Lamb was re-signed last fall to give Clifford a younger, developmental option.
Lin, meanwhile, left for a bigger role and better money in Brooklyn; Charlotte filled the hole with the unspectacular but more affordable Ramon Sessions, a move that, at the very least, adds one more experienced player to Clifford’s bench.
With so many free agents hitting the market, the Hornets were forced to play defense this summer. They did so in a thoughtful and fairly prudent fashion: Cho kept the players he needed to keep and didn’t have to drastically overpay to do so. — B.G.
Best move: Committing to defense. After bringing in Frank Vogel, the Magic got aggressive, raising some eyebrows but creating a new-look roster that should have what it takes to compete. Though they’re a bit short on scoring, it was always going to start on the defensive end, and Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo instantly give Orlando one of the league’s toughest frontlines on the glass and around the rim. Figure in that Aaron Gordon will see a lot of time at small forward, and the Magic should be able to bang with most teams’ top lineups and grind out games if the backcourt can shoulder the scoring load. There are still a lot of questions to iron out, but the fundamental shift in roster construction is a start. — J.W.
Worst move: The Jeff Green signing. The Magic swerved into full-on Nick Young confused meme when they signed Jeff Green for $15 million this summer. Where does Green play? No matter where you slot him on the roster, someone more important loses valuable minutes. Orlando allllmost had something when they acquired Serge Ibaka to anchor a smallish-ball team with an intriguing group of guys on the wing. Instead, they continued to sign high-priced 6’9” dudes who throw the roster balance all out of whack. At least Orlando will become the latest team to find out Jeff Green doesn’t move the needle, and I’m looking forward to them dumping him off on the next delusional general manager. — R.N.
The Skinny: The Magic are just making it up as they go along through their never-ending rebuild. Despite four straight years of quality draft picks, Orlando’s top young talent (Aaron Gordon) hasn’t yet found his NBA position, its point guard (Elfrid Payton) has yet to inspire much long-term confidence, its promising scoring forward (Tobias Harris) was dealt to the Pistons at the deadline for a pair of players who are no longer with the Magic (Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova), and its 2013 and 2016 lottery picks (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) were sent out for a No. 3 option (Serge Ibaka) who is set to enter a contract year. Why? Why? Why?
Orlando has lost and lost and lost in recent years, and yet it’s made very little progress in developing its young players into keepers or tradeable assets. Harris, Jennings, Channing Frye, Moe Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn, and Dewayne Dedmon are among the Magic players that have moved on in recent years with little or no lasting compensation in return. Surely, the Magic’s last two coaching regimes had a hand in these failures and, for that reason, the hiring of coach Frank Vogel looks like the organization’s best move of the summer.
Vogel will be forced to play gimmick basketball: hoping for quality defense and praying for sub-mediocre (rather than atrocious) offense. Ibaka’s arrival from Oklahoma City, coupled with the signing of Bismack Biyombo, gives the Magic a clear identity for once. This squad will attempt to win games defensively from the inside-out, using the two long-armed shot-blockers to massage Nikola Vucevic’s defensive limitations. Re-signing Evan Fournier to a five-year, $85 million contract also stands out as a reasonable decision given his demonstrated improvement as a scorer last season.
So many of the Magic’s other moves, though, are hard to rationalize. Paying Jeff Green makes no sense, even on a one-year deal: he will either stand in Gordon’s way or rot on the bench. Committing to DJ Augustin for $29 million over four years makes little sense when Jennings signed for a fraction of that price and other teams managed to find bargain deals on back-up point guards. Even paying big to land Biyombo, who enjoyed a nice breakout season in Toronto, looks slightly questionable given his redundancy with Ibaka and Vucevic’s need for minutes. Parting with Oladipo at age 24 and Sabonis at age 20 for a player in Ibaka who lacks the all-around offensive game to lead a team to real postseason success already feels like a move that will be judged even more harshly in hindsight.
In sum, Orlando’s off-season generally feels shortsighted, a little too desperate, and liable to produce an excruciatingly expensive decision on Ibaka next summer. Even if this summer’s additions and Vogel’s arrival can lift the Magic into the bottom of the East’s playoff bracket, it’s hard to see how the key pieces will fit together even one or two years down the line. Then whose turn will it be to flourish elsewhere? — B.G.
Best move: Uh…Tomas Satoransky? It’s kind of hard to identify anything particularly sensible about Washington’s off-season. Missing on Al Horford hurt a bit. Can Wizards fans really get excited about having Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi? Does Andrew Nicholson move the needle? Locking up Bradley Beal was a necessary evil, but in lieu of a better option, bringing over the multi-skilled Satoransky appears to be a worthwhile upside play. Then again, maybe we should make sure Satoransky isn’t Czech for “Otto Porter” first. — J.W.
Worst move: What moves? What did the Wizards even do this off-season? They let Nene walk, which isn’t exactly a move. They signed Ian Mahinmi for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, considering Marcin Gortat has a pretty firm grip on the starting center spot. The Wizards stood about as pat as possible, and I don’t even think I blame them. (OK, after checking the Wizards' record from last season, I'm starting to blame them a bit.) Maybe it’s time Washington seriously considers some kind of rebuild. Trade Beal? Trade Wall? Giving Scott Brooks a year to run with this team and seeing if he can improve on Randy Wittman’s performance is not a bad idea. Maybe the Wiz actually reach the ceiling we thought they’d approach the last three seasons. There are worse things than being a perennial playoff team in a LeBron/Warriors era, but Washington hasn’t proven to be one yet, and pretty soon they’ll actually need to do something with this roster if it can’t play to its perceived potential. — R.N.
The Skinny: At least the bubble burst quickly: Washington’s hopes for a Kevin Durant homecoming never even got to the face-to-face meeting stage. Without that precious invite to the Hamptons, Wizards fans had no choice but to swallow hard and braced for another dreary summer from Ernie Grunfeld.
The final results were fine, no more and no less. New coach Scott Brooks cashed in big time, but his experience working with multiple talented perimeter players in Oklahoma City should come in handy as Washington tries to get the John Wall/Bradley Beal pairing to reach the next level. Speaking of Beal, he signed a max rookie extension, a deal that might cause some teeth-gnashing given his injury history but was never really up for negotiation given his youth and high ceiling.
Washington’s biggest free-agent addition was center Ian Mahinmi ($64 million over four years), who makes for a decent defensive-minded pairing with the more offensive-minded Marcin Gortat in the middle. While it’s unlikely the two centers can play together, Washington now has the luxury of playing starting-caliber fives for 48 minutes a game. On paper, both Gortat and Mahinmi fit fairly well with Markieff Morris and newcomer Andrew Nicholson, giving Washington the ability to mix-and-match its big pairings as needed.
And that was just about it for Washington. Somehow, Jason Smith pulled in a three-year contract to provide injury insurance in the middle. Back-up point guard Trey Burke arrives as a low-risk, low-reward flier after washing out thanks to terrible shooting numbers and poor defensive play in Utah. Tomas Satoransky, a 2012 second-round pick, will make the trip across the Atlantic after an extended professional career in Spain.
None of Washington’s outbound losses were catastrophic, but together the churn will put pressure on Brooks to find functional second-unit lineup combinations as quickly as possible. Jared Dudley, Garrett Temple and Ramon Sessions all found new offseason homes after logging 1,600+ minutes each last season. Nene also exited stage left to Houston, but it was time after four straight injury-riddled seasons.
The Wizards have good reason to believe they can bounce back after underperforming last season: Brooks was a badly-needed new voice, Beal only started 35 games in 2015-16, Morris had to be integrated on the fly at the deadline, and relatively unproven youngsters like Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre are another year older. Mahinmi should help provide backline stability, but Washington’s quiet summer will put pressure on its incumbent players to drive the turnaround. — B.G.