Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the most pressing training camp questions in the Northwest, Southwest, Central and Pacific divisions as the 2014-15 NBA season approaches. The series continues with a look at the Southeast, which could have a new king this season.
How will Al Horford come back from injury?
The injury last season to Al Horford left a huge void in the Hawks’ lineup and severely limited their ability to make a deep run in the playoffs. Although Horford was playing the best basketball of his career prior to the injury, the Hawks still managed to sneak into the playoffs and pushed the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week that Horford hasn’t yet reached 100 percent, but remains hopeful he’ll be ready to go by the team’s season opener on October 29. The Hawks remained fairly quiet over the summer and didn’t make any big-time moves, so the team will be banking on Horford to return to the level of basketball that he was playing prior to his injury where he averaged a career-high 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. The Eastern Conference is much more competitive than it was a season ago, so Horford’s return will be critical to the Hawks’ success.
Can the Hawks make a deep playoff run without a superstar?
The Hawks have managed to make the playoffs seven seasons in a row and have done it while having no real superstar on their team. With no superstar-caliber player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs – ever. While Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague form the Hawks’ big three, none of them are capable of single-handedly taking a game over – at least not yet. As many teams in the league have illustrated, a go-to player in crunch time is needed and with Horford still not 100 percent, he may not be the answer. Head coach Mike Budenholzer’s style of offense may be best to replace the need for a superstar as his game plan of ball movement and spacing keeps the offense moving effectively.
Outside of the Hawks’ big three, who will step up?
After Horford, Millsap and Teague, the Hawks will need to rely on other players to step up. Outside of those three players, the Hawks’ will likely have Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll in the starting five again. Korver shot a blistering 47 percent from three-point range last season and earned an invitation to try out for Team USA for his efforts. Carroll’s first season in Atlanta went about as well as it could have as he increased his points per game from six per game with the Jazz to 11.1 with the Hawks. Carroll made the best out of his starting role with the Hawks and should continue to improve this season. While the Hawks didn’t make any huge moves over the offseason, they did add Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore and first-round draft pick Adreian Payne. Sefolosha will fill an immediate need on the defensive side of the ball as the team has long lacked an elite perimeter defender. Bazemore has shown flashes of the type of player that he can become, and he should see plenty of opportunity in Atlanta to prove himself.
How will the Hornets handle the spotlight?
The Hornets will be entering the 2014-15 season with some huge expectations after a trip to the playoffs last season and the addition of Lance Stephenson, but how will they handle the pressure of being in the spotlight? Head coach Steve Clifford has proven that he is the right guy for the Hornets, but the team is expected to not only return to the playoffs, but to compete for a division title. Kemba Walker is one of the most underrated point guards in the league, but he too will now be faced with expectations that he hasn’t yet had. The signing of Stephenson shows that the Hornets are serious about competing. This could be the season the Hornets show the rest of the league exactly just how good they can be.
Which will be bigger for Lance Stephenson: his play on the court or his antics?
The conversation around Lance Stephenson usually involves his play on the court, but the talk quickly turns to his antics and whether he is worth the risk of signing. There’s no doubt that Stephenson is one of better players in the league on both sides of the ball and if engaged, could bring the Hornets to the next level. The Hornets were apparently not bothered by Stephenson’s past and welcomed him to the club. With a young locker room building in Charlotte, many have questioned the move partly because of how Stephenson could quickly disrupt that. He’ll be joining a team led by Michael Jordan and Steve Clifford and all indications are that they won’t tolerate anything extracurricular that Stephenson may be up to.
Will the Hornets receive any national recognition this season?
Given the lack of success the franchise has endured over the past several seasons, they haven’t received much national recognition as a result. Jefferson had an All-Star-caliber season averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and earned just a spot on the All-NBA Third Team. His 21.8 points were good for 11th best in the league and his 10.8 rebounds ranked eighth. As previously stated Walker, remains one of the most underrated point guards in the league and should only continue to get better. Surrounded with even more talent now, Walker should benefit and could even play himself into the All-Star race, especially if the Hornets are winning games. Rookies Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston could also have a chance to place among the league’s top rookies this season.
How will the HEAT fare without LeBron?
Perhaps the biggest question heading into training camp for the HEAT this season is how they’ll do without LeBron James. Many speculated that if James left, others would follow suit and head elsewhere, leaving the HEAT with practically no one on the team. The majority of the remaining members of the HEAT proved that theory wrong and remained in South Beach. Chris Bosh re-upped on a new max deal, Chris Andersen is back on a two-year deal, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem are on new deals to give the team financial flexibility and the front office brought in new players in Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. The HEAT drafted Shabazz Napier to help run the offense, but an awful showing in the Summer League showed that he has a lot of work to do before he’ll take over point guard duties. While the team will have core players in Bosh, Wade, Andersen, Deng and McRoberts, they may not be enough to legitimately compete in the Eastern Conference. While replacing an MVP in James is never easy, the HEAT assembled a team that will win games and should easily make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
How will Dwyane Wade hold up this season?
The key to the HEAT’s success this season will rest on the knees of Dwyane Wade. Heading into the season, Wade has to be one of the biggest question marks on the roster. Wade averaged a career-low 32.9 minutes in just 54 games last season in an effort to save him for the playoffs. Having James on the roster, the HEAT were able to afford that luxury of resting Wade, but with James gone head coach Erik Spoelstra may not have that luxury anymore. The team has added a plethora of guards that all will be competing to backup Wade. Reggie Williams, Shannon Brown, undrafted rookie Tyler Johnson and Andre Dawkins all figure to compete for the job in camp. Out of those players, only Johnson is on a partially guaranteed deal, so he may have a leg up on the competition and could be the frontrunner for the backup job, or eventual starter if Wade can’t go.
After Chris Bosh, who will be the team’s second scoring option?
Given the uncertainty around Wade, there will be competition to be the team’s second scoring option. The team’s best option with James gone now becomes Bosh, and if Wade was healthy then he’d be the second scoring option, if not the first option. Newcomer Luol Deng could very well step into that second option for Spoelstra. The signing of Deng could become one of the most underrated moves of the offseason as it will replace some of the scoring production lost with James. The HEAT’s offense is about to undergo wholesale changes and Spoelstra has his work cut out for him.
Who will lead the team in scoring?
The Magic traded away last season’s leading scorer in Arron Afflalo on draft day and will now look to replace his 18.2 points per game. In addition to Afflalo, the team also parted ways with the longest-tenured Magic player in Jameer Nelson, who averaged 12.1 points per game. That leaves the likely competition for top scorer to Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and newcomer Channing Frye. After Afflalo last season, Harris was next in line with 14.6 points a game and then Vucevic with 14.2 so the leading scorer for the Magic next season will most likely be one of them.
Can they jump to the next level?
With the team entering its third season in the current rebuild, the time to start winning more than 23 games is now. That’s not to say they need to fire off 40 wins this season, but an improvement is needed and an ideal number of wins should be between 27 and 32. The signing of Channing Frye seems to have increased the expectations a bit after handing him a contract worth $32 million over four years. The Magic added Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Devyn Marble through the draft and they all figure to see extended minutes throughout the season, but they all may not provide an immediate impact. Core players like Harris, Vucevic, Oladipo, Maurice Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn figure to have the most pressure to lead the team. The next jump for a team coming off of a 23-win season should be to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot until at least the All-Star break, which is an obtainable goal in the Eastern Conference.
How will head coach Jacque Vaughn perform?
This season may be a make or break season for head coach Jacque Vaughn. During this rebuild, Vaughn was touted as the man for the job and wasn’t expected to do much during the first couple of seasons. Now that the core players are becoming more developed, the days of winning 23 games are over. The front office seemed to have put some expectations on Vaughn after signing Frye; he could be on the hot seat if the Magic are competing for ping pong balls again rather than a playoff spot.
What does the arrival of Paul Pierce do for the team?
Paul Pierce’s decision to sign with the Wizards was a bit of a shock, but he helps solidify one of their weakest positions. During his session with the media this week, Wizards head coach Randy Wittman praised Pierce’s leadership skills and versatility on the offensive end of the floor. Beyond the experience and leadership that Pierce brings with him, he also has the ability to create his own shot, which will ease John Wall’s playmaking burden and give Wittman options on the offensive end of the floor.
Just how hot is Randy Wittman’s seat?
Even though the Wizards are fresh off of a playoff appearance, it seems that there is a lot of talk surrounding head coach Randy Wittman’s job even though the Wizards just rewarded Wittman with a contract extension after leading the Wizards to 44 wins last season and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. Players like John Wall and Bradley Beal have seen huge improvements in their game and Marcin Gortat has played well enough to warrant a five-year, $60 million contract extension, which have put big expectations on the Wizards to make some noise in the playoffs. With the improved roster and the arrival of Pierce, Wittman could be the first to catch blame if this team underachieves.
Will Marcin Gortat prove his worth?
Many around the NBA were ecstatic for Gortat when he landed his five-year, $60 million deal over the summer, but some were concerned. The biggest concern of this deal was giving a 30-year-old player a five-year deal and how the last few seasons of that deal might turn out. The fact is, Gortat forms an incredible front court with Nene and gives teams an incredible challenge when guarding those two big men. Certainly like the rest of the team, the expectations will fall on Gortat to help the Wizards make a deep playoff run and as long as he stays healthy, he should provide his worth on the contract.
A Few Good Free Agents Left
David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.
The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.
A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.
For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.
Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.
He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.
Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.
After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.
Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.
He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.
The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.
He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.
The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.
During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.
With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.
NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year
Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.
With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.
“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”
Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.
“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”
In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.
“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.
“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”
One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.
“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”
Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.
“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”
The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.
“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”
With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.
NBA Opening Night Storylines
Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.
The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.
Rejoice, hoop heads.
Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.
With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.
As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?
Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.
Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.
And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.
The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.
But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.
While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.
By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.
Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.
Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.
Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.
And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.
Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.
Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.
This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?
Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.
Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.
While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.
Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?
After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.
“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”
It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.
That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.
Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.
With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.