NBA Four Quarters (12/16/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz
Division Check-In | Southeast

In the weeks leading up to opening night we analyzed and previewed each of the six divisions in the league. We have reached a point in the season where it is appropriate to drop in on and take the pulse of each of the divisions, starting with the Southeast. You can check out our season preview for the Southeast Division here. So far, the most balanced division in the NBA has emerged as perhaps the worst as well. Through December 15, the Southeast Division has the worst overall record at 56-72. What follows are the top storylines of the underwhelming teams behind that subpar record.

The All-Star Game isn't until February, so I don't want to jinx my bold prediction, but Kemba Walker is well on his way to his first appearance on the Eastern Conference roster. In his age 26 season, Walker is having his finest showing to date. The most important place of improvement for Walker this season is his shooting, both in terms of accuracy and selection. From three-point range, Walker is shooting a career-high 41.2 % including 36.5 % off the bounce. This means teams can no longer go under on pick and roll or they will pay the consequences from beyond the arc. As a result, Walker is receiving more favorable coverage for his phenomenal driving game – Walker is getting all the way to the rim at the highest rate of his career and shooting a career-best percentage amongst the trees. Kemba Walker is easily the Hornets best and most important player and deserves to be a member of the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

In 2015, the Hawks starters had the fourth best net rating in the league on their way to 60 wins. Last season, most of the gang returned and came down to Earth a bit, finishing seventh in net rating amongst starters en route to 48 wins. After major shakeups to their starting lineup this season, Hawks starters have fallen to 18th in the league with a -1.7 net rating. But wait, there is more. Among lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together this season, the starting lineup Atlanta used in 15 of the first 18 games has been outscored by 9.0 points per 100 possessions – second worst behind Orlando's current starting lineup. We knew the departures of Al Horford and Jeff Teague along with the aging of Kyle Korver would be major hurdles for the Hawks coming into the season, which they cleary have not cleared yet. Watch closely the rest of the season as the Hawks attempt to recreate magic in the starting lineup with new ingredients.

This offseason, the Wizards handed out nearly $120 million in contracts to bolster its bench. The return on that sizable investment has been lukewarm at best thus far. In fact, I would go as far as to say it's been a disaster. Wizards' bench units have the second-worst net rating in the entire league, only slightly in front of the 76ers. Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson are each having career-worst seasons, playing well-below replacement level; foreign rookie Tomas Satoranksy has already fallen out of the rotation; and big free agent singing Ian Mahinmi has missed all but one game with various knee injuries. The poor performance of the bench has the added consequence of putting extra pressure on the starters – Wizards starters play the most minutes per game in the league. Considering the sizable investment they also made into the oft-injured Bradley Beal, the Wizards need to find solutions off the bench to ease the load of the starting lineup if they are going to make a legitimate run into the playoff race.

In the season preview I wrote that the success of the Magic this season would “depend on the development of Elfrid Payton and especially Aaron Gordon.” The struggles of the Magic are directly connected to the struggles of their young lottery picks. Payton has improved his game in some areas, particularly finishing around the basket, but his jump shooting not only remains broken but also may be getting worse, a feat I figured impossible. Payton has seen very little tangible, impactful improvement since his rookie season, in part as consequence of the weakness of the rest of the roster. Aaron Gordon's story is even more disheartening. How sad is it that perhaps the only area Gordon has seen evidence of improvement this season is his three-point shooting, which sits at just 32 percent? The most tragic part is that Gordon is not being given a chance to succeed. Orlando is sabotaging its own talent by pigeonholing Gordon into a small forward role when it was clear last year his destiny was as a small-ball four man. Let us not forget last year's number five overall pick, Mario Hezonja, who has been ousted from the rotation once again. With two lottery picks shipped out in the Serge Ibaka trade and three former lottery picks on the roster failing to improve adequately, the Magic are in one of the most precarious positions in the league going forward. Let's hope Gordon and Payton can elevate their games or else Magic fans could be in for more years of misery.

According to Man-Games Lost, the Miami Heat have lost the most players to injury thus far this season and that's without taking into account the unfortunate absence of All-Pro Chris Bosh. In other words, the Heat haven't stood a chance this season. It is a testament to the Heat coaching staff and the talent of Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, who have avoided missing significant time, that Miami has done this well. Coming into the season the playoffs was a tenuous proposition with Bosh out, but now the lottery seems like a near certainty, which could be a blessing in disguise. In possession of their first round pick this season, each loss strengthens their position in the lottery and thus the trade market. Look for the Heat to be major players in the offseason and potentially at the trade deadline.

The Raptors are rolling and the unsung hero of the team is non other than Patrick Patterson, our 6th Man of the Week. Somehow, the Raptors, an 18-7 team, feature a starting lineup with a negative point differential on the season. We saw the crippling effects of starting lineup trouble earlier with Atlanta. The difference is Toronto does not start its best lineups on purpose, bringing Patterson, a worthy starter, off the bench intentionally. Perhaps no player in the league has a more misleading conventional stat line – 7.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game is rather pedestrian. However, Patterson shoots the three ball well enough to dramatically open the floor on offense and moves his feet well enough on defense to not be a liability, making him the ideal stretch power forward most teams dream about. To put Patterson's impact into perspective, the next two most used Raptors lineups after the starters, both of which include Patterson, are beating teams by 30 points per 100 possessions. For all the great talent out of Coach Calipari's Kentucky in this league, Patrick Patterson deserves his due for finding a way to successfully impact winning in this league.

In Memoriam

On a sadder note, yesterday the great Craig Sager died, ending his long, inspirational fight with cancer. In memory of his wondrous joy and irreplaceable stature in the NBA media landscape I have a couple videos to share that I believe do a great job of capturing who he was and how he will live on a legend in this sport. Time is not in endless supply, time is simply how you live your life. Remember his words and sieze the day!

Memorable Moments:

ESPYs Speech: