NBA Season Preview: Southeast Division (09/23/16)
We are about a month away from the beginning of the 2016-17 NBA season on October 25. And before you ask, we are but a week away from the return of the NBA preseason! If you predicted that I would join the month-long NBA season preview party, then I assume you read the title of this article. If you read the title of the article, you may be wondering what the Southeast Division is. Although the NBA removed the automatic top-four playoff seed for division winners last season – effectively eliminating any substantive incentive to pursue division championships – the NBA does in fact still have six divisions, the Southeast being one of them. Maybe it's the recently retired player in me, but I still value the division championship and, because the league has not removed them yet, I will treat them with respect. Over the next 31 days, I will drop my season preview in six divisional packages, filled with All-Division teams, plenty of nerd stats, and a few dubious predictions. Enjoy!
The Miami Heat emerged from the three-way tie for first place to claim the division title last season – Charlotte and Atlanta matched their 48 wins. The worst team in the division, Orlando, finished with 35 wins – the highest among fifth place division finishers. With only 13 wins separating first from last, the Southeast Division was the most balanced in the league. Collectively, the division finished with a .537 win percentage – good for third behind the Central and Southwest. However, the overall 1.2 net rating was the highest of all the divisions.
But much has changed. Two new head coaches – Frank Vogel and Scott Brooks take over in Orlando and Washington; an exodus of franchise fixtures – Dwyane Wade, Al Horford, and to a lesser extent Al Jefferson; marquee trades – out with Victor Oladipo and Jeff Teague, in with Serge Ibaka and rookie Taurean Prince; and the unfortunate health uncertainty of Chris Bosh leave this division in a state of flux and mystery. Let's see if we can't make sense of what to expect this season.
All-Southeast Division Team
G – John Wall | Washington Wizards
The remarkably underpaid three-time All-Star is the best guard in the division, if not the best player. Entering his age 26 season, Wall is firmly in his prime; however, his biggest Achilles' heels still plague him now six years into his career. Taking on a larger role in the offense amidst an injury-riddled season, Wall fired more mid-range jumpers than any guard not named DeMar DeRozan, shooting just 36.2 % - down from 40.2 % in 2015. While his penetration skills remained elite, his finishing and ability to draw fouls dipped – propelling his true shooting percentage down to 51.0 % easily the lowest amongst the top point guards in the Eastern Conference. Also in accordance with his career, Wall turned the ball over at an astounding 17.5 % rate last season, again easily the worst figure amongst his peers.
For all his struggles last year, his brilliance with the ball prevented the Wizards season from completely falling apart. Each of his returning teammates shot a better percentage from three-point range on passes from Wall. Assisting on over 46 % of his teammates' baskets while on the floor, Wall is the most dangerous playmaker not just in the division, but in the whole conference. The numbers speak for themselves, but to see him in action puts it all in perspective. Below is a compilation of how Wall uses his size and ball handling skills to create advantages and passing angles for his teammates in a variety of manners. Whether drawing in the big defender on pick and roll and dropping it to the roll man, skipping it across court when help defenders creep into the paint, or, my personal favorite, releasing a pass early in pick and roll as the help defense is rotating setting up the hockey assist, John Wall is the conductor of this division. Hopefully the Wizards find some stability around him with dreams of KD in the rearview mirror.
G – Kemba Walker | Charlotte Hornets
If it weren't for the player above, Walker would be the best point guard in the division. Despite his smaller stature, Walker has developed into a lethal scorer, able to take on larger and larger shares of the offense throughout his career without sacrificing efficiency. In 2016 he posted a career-high usage rate, but also managed a career-best 55.4 true shooting percentage – thanks in large part to a newly found three-point shot. Additionally, and in opposite fashion of Wall, the former NCAA Champion is perhaps the best point guard in the entire NBA at taking care of the basketball – he posted the lowest turnover rate amongst point guards this side of Mike Conley while commanding the third most pick and rolls last year. Whether or not his impressive shooting gains shown in 2016 are sustainable remains to be seen, but at just 26 years old it is likely he will continue to build upon the improvements he exhibited in 2016.
It is almost certain he will be asked to take on an even larger load on offense this year with the shakeup to the roster in Charlotte. Fortunately, as the video below shows, he has a complete arsenal of moves and shots to deploy all across the floor out of pick and roll. If the big defender gets too high, Walker's nasty in-out move can get him all the way to the goal. If the defense hangs back, he can call upon his floater game. Facing a smaller defender, Walker can create space with a Big East step-back. If the defense is tired of getting shredded and goes under the screen, Walker can now stop and pop from beyond the arc, completing the unsolvable puzzle for defenses.
F – Paul Millsap | Atlanta Hawks
Like a worker in almost all other professions, Paul Millsap gets better with age. At 30 years old, Millsap posted the best year of his career and the best year of any player in the division last season. Pick your PM plus-minus catch-all value metric, Millsap was near the top last year – ESPN's RPM had him 11th overall, Basketball-Reference.com's BPM had him 10th. Since arriving in Atlanta and adding a three point shot to his game, his versatility has unlocked everything for the Hawks. Combining his ability to play inside and outside on offense with his heady off-ball help defense instincts puts him in nearly unmatched do-it-all territory in this league. He accumulates steals like a point guard for crying out loud.
How many players in the league can do all the things he flashes in this video below? As you would expect from a power forward, he can post up and score. He can also step out and knock down threes. If you close out too hard on him, Millsap can attack the basket and finish. Oh and let's not forget he can lead a fastbreak and make correct decisions. There are only a couple players in the league you could plug in for Millsap in that video, a phenomenal luxury for the Hawks.
F – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | Charlotte Hornets
This is probably the most contentious pick on the list, but let me make a note that I eliminated Chris Bosh from consideration given the uncertainty surrounding his health. I am an MKG believer. The man played just seven games last season due to multiple shoulder injuries and has perhaps the most appalling jump shot ever to grace an NBA television screen. That being said, he is a hellish defender with ambition and athletic tools to be the best defensive player in the league – envision a 6-7 Tony Allen, terrifying. In 55 games in 2015, the Charlotte Hornets were nearly 9 points better on defense with MKG in the lineup.
Surely playing more MKG combined with departing Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin will cost the offense that ranked 9th last season. But the defensive versatility should allow the Hornets to climb into the top five on defense. With MKG taking the toughest assignment on the opposing team – from LeBron to Chris Paul – the Hornets are free to play more versatile lineups and take defensive burden from key offensive players like Walker and Nicolas Batum. Health is obviously a major concern for the UK alum, but when healthy, MKG is as disruptive and impactful on the defensive end as any of the other forwards in this division.
C – Hassan Whiteside | Miami Heat
When I look at Hassan Whiteside, I see the DeAndre Jordan of the East. Maybe not quite the fluid athlete Jordan has proven to be, but Whiteside does possess absurd nimbleness for his 7-0 frame. Does he go for blocks to the point of detriment to his team? Yes. Were the Heat ‘better' on defense with Whiteside off the floor last year? ‘Yes'. But, just two years ago, the Clippers also had a lower defensive rating with Jordan off the floor. Last year, in Jordan's eighth season, the Clippers were only slightly better defensively with Jordan on the floor, and Jordan was 1st team All-Defense. Whiteside is entering just his third year and second full season with the Heat, so, despite his age, I believe his potential has only been scratched, and it would not surprise me to see him supplant Jordan on the All-Defense 1st team this year as he learns to harness his rim protection powers for good.
It is on the offensive end where Whiteside can really cause havoc in the same way Jordan does: rolling to the hoop in pick and roll, painting terror on the eyes of the defense. The video below displays the variety of ways he can impact the offense with and without the ball – whether it be catching roll passes and finishing, following for a tip slam, or sucking in weak side defenders – in the same way the Clippers maximize Jordan. Icing on the cake? He shoots 60 % from the free throw line.
Best of the Rest
6th Man – Bismack Biyombo | Orlando Magic
You may remember Bismack Biyombo from the Eastern Conference playoffs where he took over for the injured Jonas Valanciunas at the center position in Toronto, blazing a trail down the middle of the floor from rim to rim, finger-wagging the whole time, befuddling Tristan Thompson with his physicality and effort. Regardless of whether he lives up to the value his enormous contract, Biyombo is the quintessential backup center. He plays with incredible energy, cleans the defensive glass with force, and sets bone-crushing screens. His stone hands and overall lack of offensive touch prevent him from receiving starter's minutes, but he's the type of player that changes the tone of the game when he steps on the floor – exactly what you want off the bench.
Player to Watch – Goran Dragic | Miami Heat
The Miami Heat invested several draft picks and many, many million dollars into the former Phoenix Suns point guard; however, they have yet to let him be the guy they acquired from Phoenix. He shared playmaking duties with Dwyane Wade, often deferring to Wade especially at the end of games. Dragic is capable playing off the ball but he makes the magic happen running high pick and roll with a spread floor – a plausible scenario this year particularly if Bosh returns healthy. He turns 30 this year, so his best years may be behind him – his free throw attempt rate has declined steeply – but it is worth paying attention to what a team led by Goran Dragic can do. Last time it was quite a show.
Key Offseason Acquisition – Serge Ibaka | Orlando Magic
Is it possible that a man traded for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and a first round pick is underrated? It was easy to write off Serge Ibaka given his rather pedestrian numbers this past season. However, his playoff performance was a reminder why the Thunder were willing to bet on him over James Harden back in 2012 - shooting nearly 45 % from beyond the arc and playing a key role as the small ball center in the lineup that humiliated the Warriors' previously infallible “Death Lineup” in the Western Conference Finals. His ability to slide to the center position on defense while providing shooting out to range makes him one of the most unique players in all of the NBA. Having Ibaka gives the Magic roster options to play big with Biyombo or Nikola Vucevic at center or small with Aaron Gordon at power forward. The name of the game in the NBA is flexibility and the Magic have the perfect ingredient in the front court (the back court is a whole separate issue).
Most Missed Player – Jared Dudley | Washington Wizards
Did you know that Jared Dudley was the Wizards most proficient three-point shooter last season? He shot 42.9 % on catch-and-shoot opportunities from downtown on nearly three attempts per game. Hardly an aberration, Dudley is a career 40 percent shooter from three. To compliment his shooting, Dudley plays with great intelligence on both ends – he is a pure small lineup power forward. The power forwards that Washington has on the roster now are all career 33 % shooters and below from beyond the arc. While Dudley certainly is a liability on the defensive glass, letting him go and failing to replace his skill set removes a key piece from the board for Washington. Short of massive improvement from Markieff Morris, the Wizards threaten to clog the floor for Wall and Bradley Beal without the spacing relief option off the bench – and ultimately threaten another season out of the playoffs.
As an aside, I must mention that the Hawks will miss Al Horford but they at least attempted to fill his void with the hometown hero, Dwight Howard. I would also be remise if I did not mention the departure of Dwyane Wade from Miami. Certainly an emotional and leadership loss for the team, his lack of shooting and heavy usage made for a tough fit alongside Dragic. The Heat have exciting options to fill backcourt roles more appropriately alongside Dragic in Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson.
Play of the Division - Atlanta Hawks
Nothing in the NBA makes me mark out harder than a well executed back screen. Therefore, it is fitting that the play of the division involves a back screen. The Hawks and Kyle Korver understand that a great shooter plus a back screen equals big problems for the defense – or what I like to call easy money. The play starts off with a simple ‘zipper' cut by Kent Bazemore to the top of the key, seemingly initiating the point guard loop play trademarked by the Spurs and Tony Parker - as you can see the other three players are arranged to set a series of screens for Dennis Schroder to use. However, this is a counter and Dennis runs for the corner and Millsap pops out for the catch.
From here, the Hawks are simply misdirecting the ball to put Millsap's defender in a position to be unprepared for a back screen. The screen comes right after Millsap gives up the ball, leaving his defender vulnerable if he instinctually relaxes, even momentarily. Bazemore screens for Horford to receive the ball at the top of the key. On the catch, Kyle Korver ambushes Millsap's man with a perfect back screen. The key to this play is using Korver as the back screener – notice how his man stays with Korver, a dead eye shooter, refusing to help on the screen. As such, Millsap is wide open and Horford delivers a nice over the top pass for the easy dunk. Beautiful.
Stat of the Division – 3
Three is the number of consecutive years the Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats have led the NBA in both lowest rate of turnovers and lowest rate of offensive rebounds allowed. Before the 2014, season, the last team to lead the NBA in both of these categories in the same year was the 1980 Washington Bullets. This speaks to the remarkable job Steve Clifford has done creating a sustainable winning culture in Charlotte, despite roster instability. The areas the Hornets excel at do not require tremendous talent – something that cannot be counted in Charlotte – while also providing a means to enhance their own possessions while reducing opponent possessions.
Bold Prediction – Kemba Walker will be an All-Star in 2017
Now that Charlotte has moved on from Al Jefferson, the Hornets are officially Kemba Walker's team. After the All-Star break in 2016, the Hornets officially replaced Jefferson with Zeller in the starting lineup and Kemba Walker went off. Across the board, he saw a boost in his numbers, most notably his plus-minus, which ranked first amongst point guards in the East – ahead of All-Stars John Wall, Isaiah Thomas, and Kyle Lowry. Walker faces stiff competition for what is typically three available All-Star spots for point guards, but I envision him making another leap forward as a playmaker in the featured role on a team I believe will play well earlier – Charlotte struggled in the first half of last season.
Division Winner – Charlotte Hornets
As you may have noticed, I am a fan of the Hornets this season. I'm a believer in the culture that Steve Clifford has built in Charlotte and I believe phasing Jefferson out of the starting lineup in the second half gave us an insight into how the Hornets may fare this season. After the All-Star break, the Hornets had the third best record and third highest net rating. As previously discussed, replacing Jefferson, Lee, and Lin with Roy Hibbert and the returning MKG means the potential for continued defensive improvement is certainly there. They will probably take a step back on offense, but their defensive improvements and a healthy roster should allow them to pick up where they left off last season.
It is so difficult to forecast the Heat with all the uncertainty surrounding Bosh and his potential return. Between him and Wade, there are a lot of possessions to potentially go around. Note that the Heat have one of the most favorable schedule structures in the East and remain a dark horse to repeat for the division title with or without Bosh. Washington is receiving a lot of buzz with a new coach at the helm, but the Wizards have a lot to prove from a health and an on-court chemistry perspective before they can be trusted to perform. Atlanta is making a big bet on Dennis Schroder to emerge as a reliable starting point guard – something he's never done in his career. Also, introducing Dwight Howard will require structural changes on both sides – changes I think have the potential to be beneficial, especially solving their defensive rebounding issues. Orlando is an intriguing team with lots of options in terms of how they want to play, but their success will depend on the development of Elfrid Payton and especially Aaron Gordon, who they will rely upon to wear multiple hats on both ends. This should be a very competitive division once again, but Charlotte is my favorite as we sit a month from the start of the season.