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What the Heck Happened in the Southeast Division?

Atlanta Hawks

Offseason in 5 words or less: Trae Young — star to superstar?

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I’m not sure if there is any more room on the bandwagon, because it seems like the NBA world is a full believer in Trae Young, the Atlanta Hawks, and how they're building a contending team.

Atlanta spent huge money last year and once they upgraded to Nate McMillian, all their plans clicked into place. Young proved to be much more than a logo-level scorer with his passing and playmaking. Clint Capela is the defensive Robin to Young’s Batman, John Collins got his max deal and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t earn it, and the rest of the pieces fit into place as shooters and athletes and defenders.

The biggest difference this year? Expectations. They aren’t getting a pat on the head for winning 41 games like they did last season. People fully expect them to compete in the East. Can they?

Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to Young. He’s one of the worst defenders in the NBA, and the team either needs to build an entire scheme around hiding him or he needs to get better defending the point of attack. He also was a big impetus in the league changing the rules on shooters who unnaturally lean into contact. With that trick no longer allowed, can he be as effective a scorer?

The Hawks bolstered their bench in a big way to help them on the path toward being a legitimate threat with Delon Wright and Gorgui Dieng being more than serviceable reserves. And Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper might turn out to be two of the biggest steals in the last NBA Draft.

I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but I think this Hawks team is legitimate. At least to make noise in the playoffs. I continue to think that there isn’t really a way to build a title-contending team when your best player is as atrocious on defense as Young is. It’s one of the reasons I wanted Cade Cunningham instead of Jalen Green in the draft. Perhaps Young can prove me wrong.

Miami Heat

Offseason in 5 words: What is Heat Culture worth?

2021-22 Miami Heat Media Day Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The Miami Heat believe they have gone all in. Always big-game hunting, Pat Riley didn’t find an avenue to add a James Harden or a Kevin Durant or an Anthony Davis the past few years. But the man hates losing so he assembled the best squad he could in hopes of title contention.

That has led to a core of Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson. Look, I love Jimmy Butler and have always been a fan of Kyle Lowry. It’s unwise to bet against them. And it is certainly a fool’s errand to doubt the job Erik Spoelstra will do to mold this team.

And yet. Here I am, thinking this team is less than the sum of its parts. Butler is 32. Kyle Lowry is nearly 36. I want to love Bam, but I think I love the theoretical version of him more than I love what the results are showing me. And I’m all the way out on Tyler Herro living up to the immense hype he already receives on a regular basis.

Add that to the fact that I think the team is going to be missing Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa an awful lot. I’m just out on the Heat. I’m usually wrong about them, so their fans can take this as the best sign this season will be great.

Better or Worse?

Worse. Even with Lowry, the roster blood-letting they’ve seen will not be staunched by bandages known as PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris. I don’t care what their body fat percentage is or how much I see the hashtag #HeatCulture. I just don’t see it for them.

Playoff Contender?

Even with all the smack I just talked about the Heat, they are not going to be a bad team, really. They will just be disappointing. They’ll make the playoffs. But they probably won’t avoid the play-in games. And by that game, you’re putting a lot on older players with a lot of mileage.

Washington Wizards

Offseason in 5 Words or Less: Failing the Peter Principle Test

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

I’m not even sure what the expectations are for the Washington Wizards this season, but if there was ever a team who was one guy away, it’s this one. The Wizards feel like a more extreme version of all the Pistons teams who were supposedly meant to contend over the past few years.

If you’re looking at the roster up and down you see a lot that make sense, and you see a lot of skill and competence. But besides Bradley Beal, it feels like every single player on the roster is missing that one guy in front of them in the pecking order that would really allow their game to blossom.

That makes them the ultimate Peter Principle Team. This is the concept that good people are promoted to the level of their incompetence. In basketball terms, that means a great player as the third-best player on your team like Spencer Dinwiddie is promoted to second-banana alongside Beal. And fellow former Piston Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who shined as the fourth-best player on the Lakers, is now forced into an outsized role for the Wizards. And go on down the line — Kyle Kuzma is a great sixth man who is a starting power forward. Daniel Gafford is a great center when nothing is required of him. Aaron Holiday, Montrezl Harrell, Davis Bertans, and Rui Hachimura are great off the bench if they have the starting-level talent to support them.

Better or Worse?

This team clearly got better in the offseason, but in a way that might ultimately prove to be very unsatisfying and frustrating for the team and for fans. Will it be enough for Beal to want out? I doubt it. There will be just enough to keep the belief going. And maybe if Kuzma, Rui, and Deni Avdija take a step in their development, the math of this franchise’s potential completely changes.

Playoff Contender?

Last year, the Wizards were an eigth-seed and four games under .500. I could see them finishing with a better record this season and being out of the play-in completely as the East has improved significantly.

Charlotte Hornets

Offseason in 5 Words or Less: Welcome to the LaMelo Show

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hornets surprised last year with the addition of LaMelo Ball who ran away with Rookie of the Year behind some transcendent passing and a big improvement for his Charlotte Hornets.

The franchise is completely in his hands, and he certainly seems like he has the kind of talent as a playmaker to make his teammates better — one of the most important skills in basketball. Ball missed a bunch of time after breaking his wrist, however, and he wasn’t the same player when he returned from injury.

Was Ball just hot out of the gate and was the second half a closer representation of how he’ll have ups and downs as a pro? Or was the wrist holding him back from the kind of shooting/scoring/playmaking he’ll provide this year and beyond?

Your answer to that question is your answer to what you think about the Hornets’ fortunes this season because they won’t be anything without a very good LaMelo Ball. That’s not to say Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier are bad players. But they can only take you so far. To reach another level, Ball will need to get the most possible out of Miles Bridges, PJ Washington and Mason Plumlee.

Better or Worse?

Having a full season of Ball makes them better, but this team is extremely health dependent because I do not trust their depth.

Playoff Contender?

This seems like a team that should hover around .500 if things go reasonably well. But if Ball or Hayward miss significant time, the wheels could fall off and they could be staring at a win total in the 20s.

Orlando Magic

Offseason in 5 Words: Collecting Lottery Balls like Pokemon

Orlando Magic Pick, Read & Roll Event Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Most of the offseason work actually occurred at the trade deadline when the team officially hit the reset button and traded away Nic Vucevic and Aaron Gordon. They’re going all-in on youth, which is definitely the right call. But it’s going to make for a messy year.

Their contingent of veteran leadership is Robin Lopez, Terrence Ross, Gary Harris and Michael-Carter Williams. They have a handful of interesting prospects, but none outside of Jalen Suggs who figures to be more than a quality rotation piece.

This year is all about playing the young guys a ton of minutes, seeing who can develop some chemistry with each other, and lots and lots of losing. Like worse team in the NBA type losing.

Better or Worse?

Their Media Guide might have featured Disney superfan Robin Lopez. Enough said.

Playoff Contender?

They have zero interest or expectations in the playoffs. As it should be.

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