Exhibition games have begun and the regular season is fast approaching. The staff here at Hickory-High has been previewing the entire league, taking a stab at answering the big questions, division by division. We’ve already looked at the Northwest, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Central and the Southwest. In today’s final edition we’re looking at the Heat, Magic, Wizards, Bobcats and Hawks in the Southeast Division.
1. What is the most intriguing storyline in the Southeast Division?
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - The Heat’s title defense. While winning a title may have removed some weight from the shoulders of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James it does nothing to depress the interest that surrounds this self-created three-star experiment. While the same sense of urgency and purpose be in place this season? Will LeBron be willing to continue the interior-focused style of play he exhibited in the playoffs? How far can Ray Allen push his three-point record? Is Dwyane Wade still Dwyane Wade? The questions have changed but they aren’t any less compelling.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Can LeBron continue his dominance from the playoffs? I don’t expect to see the LeBron we saw throughout the playoffs for the whole season, but just how good can he be? The size, strength, vision, athleticism and intelligence were all on full display on the biggest stage last season and it was nothing short of breathtaking. It was one of the greatest stretches of basketball I have ever seen and what everyone has always expected, possibly unfairly, from LeBron. But now it leaves us all craving more and the question becomes when, and for how long will we get it. Will we see it on a smaller scale, but on a nightly basis with LeBron seemingly set to play more minutes at power forward this year? Or will that special stretch be reserved for just the postseason again? Selfishly I hope it is present all season, but no matter what when it comes it will be breathtaking and must watch TV for any basketball fanatic.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - The Miami Heat. Who can beat them? They answered all of the questions about the composition of their roster in the playffs and the answer was usually LeBron James. They’ve only gotten better. Eddy Curry and Juwan Howard are gone, along with their sluggish high fives. They’ve added Ray Allen, the best three-point shooter ever, who will get the best looks he’s ever gotten. His health is a question, though. My Knicks fanhood is showing, but Josh Harrellson is an underrated signing. He knows how to defend the paint and can shoot the three, though his hygiene is deplorable.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Race for the most ping pong balls in the lottery. The Heat are the defending champions, and their is no doubt that they are the real deal. The Hawks watched Joe Johnson leave for Brooklyn, but with a healthy Al Horford and the addition of Lou Williams, we know what they are: a talented roster that will be a be no higher than a 4 seed and no lower than a 7 seed. The remaining teams have very little upside on their current roster, and will have to get worse before they get better. The Bobcats are coming off a historically awful season, and while they added a nice piece in the draft (Michael Kidd Gilchrist), they have only a handful NBA level players. The Magic relied heavily on 3 point shooting last season, a strategy that simply won’t work without Dwight Howard in the paint. Andrew Nicholson will be a servicable pro in this league for years to come, but he isn’t the the dominating force that demands double teams. Their outside game took a hit as Ryan Anderson departed, as this has the feeling of a team that will struggle to score. Arron Afflalo is the team’s third highest paid player, and that simply isn’t going to get it done in this new era of elite duos and trios. The Wizards have the most promise, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. If John Wall continues to lack consistency, Washington will be a bottom feeder once again. The nation’s capital has experienced unexpected successes in baseball and football, but the culture of losing that surronds their professional hoops team is still present. The number one overall pick is going to come from this division, but who will have the chance to draft a potential franchise changer?
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - A division in progress. Let’s forget about Charlotte (who?) and Miami (a challenge for even the amnesiacs among us) and look at the radical facelift the other three franchises in the Southeast have undergone.
Atlanta – Danny Ferry should probably be honored with a medal or a key to the city or at least a street name like Danny Ferry Blvd. for somehow finding a human frivolous enough to take on Joe Johnson’s leech of a contract (not calling Joe a leech). But he did it and in the process picked up a few nifty pieces in Devin Harris, DeShawn Stevenson, Lou Williams and Kyle Korver—combined, these four guys will make just a hair over Joe’s 2012 salary and while none of these players is on Johnson’s level, combined they’re a solid group of veteran specialists. Whether or not Atlanta can build a team around Josh Smith and Al Horford remains to be seen, but now they at least have flexible options where previously Johnson’s contract stood watch like a scowling father cleaning his gun in front of his daughter’s would-be suitor.
Washington – With Andray Blatche fired, the Wizards have officially exorcised the connections to the Gilbert Arenas reign. It was a fun time for the nation’s capital, but everyone has to grow up sometime and John Wall’s time is now. I know he’s hurt to start the year, but the Wiz have gone out of their way to provide Wall with pieces that compliment his game: Strong post defenders, a couple of shooters, versatility on the wings and plenty of maturity and experience. Growing pains will be had, but it could be worse (looking at you, Orlando and Charlotte).
Orlando – I get that Rob Hennigan is cut from the Spurs/OKC cloth and that equates to something like a Masters in NBA Roster Architecture. And I’m sure there’s a plan in place and that young Master Hennigan (30-years-old—I feel like an ageist holding that against him, but 30, really?) can probably articulate deliberate, intentional moves intended for current players, assets, future picks, etc. All that genius aside, the Dwight Howard thing was a historic disaster and it’s possible Orlando hasn’t hit rock bottom yet.
2. Who will be the top newcomer in the Southeast Division?
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Ray Allen. Is there a more perfect fit of one player and one skill into a team dynamic? Allen, the premier marksman of our time will now be able to skillfully maneuver around the perimeter and find open spaces and open threes as opponents worry about Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. Allen takes a dimension the Heat had for stretches when Mike Miller or James Jones or Shane Battier would get hot, and makes it a permanent installation. While I wish Allen never left Milwaukee, I couldn’t be any happier to see my favorite player land in a spot that seems like such a perfect fit for his skills and gives him a chance to win another title.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Lou Williams. The Hawks’ likely starting lineup is essentially unchanged from last season, except for shooting guard. Williams was one of the best sixth men in the league last year, adept at getting to the line and taking care of the ball, especially considering how frequently he had the ball. In those aspects of the game Williams is an upgrade. He’s much smaller than Joe Johnson, and he may have difficulty defending his position in a starting role. But aside from that, the Hawks shouldn’t see too much of a dropoff, except in payroll—Williams is $15 million cheaper per year.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Bradley Beal. The Wizards are trying to build a winner around John Wall, and that means drafting players to excel in areas that their star struggles. Beal fits that bill perfectly, as he can make shots from the parking lot and spread out a defense. His 6’5″ frame should allow this Gator to take advantage of defenders who are only concerned with his jump shot. He has been compared to Eric Gordon, but I believe his ceiling could be even higher than that, as I love the potential connection with Wall. Beal was locked into at least 20 minutes per game the second he was drafted, and he should improve rapidily. He may not only be the best rookie in the NBA, but it is possible that he is best player from UF in the NBA sooner rather than later.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Lou Williams. What can I say? I’m a sucker for these pure scorer types. I don’t mean that in any kind of chemistry-forming or winning sense. Rather, I’m personally entertained by these guys who carve out a niche for themselves as elite scorers in the greatest basketball league the world has conceived. I can imagine a Lou Williams transported to the ABA in the 1970s (he already has a name that belongs in the 70s) and becoming a cult hero who averages 30 a game and never apologizes for any of the ridiculous shots he takes or his massive sideburns. Or put him in the Rucker in the 60s (complete with a Rucker-esque nickname) and maybe he’s the next Fly Williams (literally) or Earl Manigault; an invisible legend who lives endlessly through word of mouth stories. Instead, he’s the best scorer on the Atlanta Hawks and depending on how Coach Larry Drew deploys him, could be asked to shoulder the scoring load for this 2012 version of the Hawks.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. There are lots of newcomers in this division and plenty of them will make a significant impact on the basketball court. However, Kidd-Gilchrist also has the potential to make an even bigger impact by changing the putrid culture the Charlotte Bobcats. Last season the Bobcats played with the requisite professionalism, attempting to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. But you could see it on their faces that most nights they knew they were beat before the game even started. Kidd-Gilchrist plays with an intensity that can blind his teammates to the talent deficit they face, and inspire the kind of outsized belief in self that leads to drastically outperforming expectations. Kidd-Gilchrist will make basketball plays, but he also can be a leader in turning a franchise around.
3. Who has the most to prove in the Southeast Division?
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - John Wall. Year three is when Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant took the leap. So far, all we’ve seen from the Wizards’ former No. 1 pick is turbo speed and good court vision coupled with a broken-looking jump shot and a league-leading knack for turnovers. He’s already off to a rough start—a knee injury will keep him out for the first month of the season. The Wizards will almost certainly pick up his contract option, but Wall has to show something this year for them to feel good about it.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Lou Williams. He was the straw that stirred the 76ers drink last season, averaging a career best 14.9 ppg. But he played only 26.3 minutes per game and was used a weapon off of the bench. With Joe Johnson leaving Atlanta, they are in need of a starting SG who can play upwards of 30-35 minutes every night. Is Sweet Lou the type of player (see Ginobili, Manu) who needs time to feel out the pace of the game before producing? If that’s the case, he figures to disappoint the Hawks faithful. But his talent is undeniable, and it’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to the environment change.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - John Wall. We’ve been able to make plenty of excuses for him (transitioning team, head case teammates, losing culture, distractions, injuries), but he’s the undisputed champion of pro basketball in Washington DC right now and we want and need to start seeing results instead of
the slivers of talent we’ve witnessed over the past two seasons. Give me a jump shot or better shot selection or a more purposeful pace; just show us that your skills are developing so we can exhale our worries away. All that being said … the kid just turned 22 last month. Some people need to chill.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Atlanta Hawks. This team has been standing outside the fire for several years. The Al Horford, Josh Smith, Joe Johnson trio wasn’t the right mix to take the leap to elite status. Now Johnson is gone, replaced by Devin Harris, Lou Williams and Kyle Korver. Some may see this as a step in the right direction, a move towards depth, diversity and versatility. To me it looks like a franchise starting to unravel and beginning a multi-season slide back towards the lottery.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Josh Smith. The time has come. By moving Joe Johnson and his incredibly large contract, the Hawks have turned the reigns of the franchise over to J-Smoove. Whether or not that’s a good thing is still to be determined. While I like Smith a lot as a player there are still some things that make you wonder if he can ever be the best player on a really good team. He takes too many long jumpers and sometimes floats in and out of a game while doing so. But when Smith has his head on straight, which he has for the majority of the past few seasons, there are few like him. Smoove is a terrific defender when motivated and possess the ability to take many power forwards off the dribble using his quickness and ball handling skills. He also is an underrated passer and pick-and-roll roll man; surrounding him with shooters like the Hawks have was a great idea. The only question left is can the Hawks win with Smith and Al Horford playing together. This season may be the duo’s last chance to prove so. In the end I think the Hawks will be glad they made the decision to turn the reigns to the Highlight Factory over to Mr. Smith.
4. Who is the most likely to be moved in the Southeast Division?
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Hedo Turkoglu. Players that can score in bunches have a way of finding their way onto a playoff roster, and Turkoglu is no exception. At 33 years of age, Turkoglu’s best days are behind him, but he can still put the ball in the basket, something a team like the Bulls or Mavs could use come the postseason. The Magic are going to rebuild, and I doubt very much that Turkoglu is going to be a part of what figures to be a long process.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Anyone on the Orlando Magic. For Hennigan’s sake, I hope Orlando’s long-term plans don’t include the majority of these
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Anyone on the Magic except Arron Afflalo and Moe Harkless. Orlando is actively looking to remake their team and Harkless and Afflalo seem like the only two players guaranteed a place in their long-term plans.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Any Magic Veteran. The Magic have one goal this season and one goal only – bottom out. The package that the team got in the Dwight Howard trade was almost universally killed but it made one thing clear; the Magic were not going to be stuck in the 8th and 9th seed purgatory for the next few years. Instead they will play the young players on the roster like Mo Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, and Nikola Vucevic and find ways to turn other older players into assets they can use in the rebuild. I think that this season we see at least one of the team’s older players move on in exchange for someone younger, a draft pick or cap space for the future once an offer rolls in. It could be Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis or someone they acquired this summer like Al Harrington or Gustavo Ayon once the CBA allows it. Maybe even J.J. Redick or Jameer Nelson (once the CBA allows it again) finally move on to another city after spending their careers in Orlando. But one way or another I guarantee the Magic will move at least one of the older players on their roster by the end of the year.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Hedo Turkoglu. Orlando had Hedo Turkoglu, wouldn’t pay him what he wanted, let him leave for a bigger contract in Toronto, and then traded for him again. I don’t know why they got him, and I don’t know why they would keep him, especially after drafting Moe Harkless. Somebody will want to rent the Turkish Michael Jordan for their playoff run.
5. What will be the order of finish in the Southeast Division?
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - 1. MIA 2. ATL 3. WAS 4. ORL 5. CHA
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - 1. MIA 2. ATL 3. WAS 4. CHA 5. ORL
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - 1. MIA 2. ATL 3. WAS 4. ORL 5. CHA
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - 1. MIA 2. ATL 3. WAS 4. ORL 5. CHA
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - 1. MIA 2. ATL 3. WAS 4. CHA 5. ORL