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Ranking The NBA’s Southeast Division

Buddy Grizzard ranks the NBA’s Southeast Division and projects a possible win range for each team.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the migration of All-Stars Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap to the NBA’s Western Conference, the East could be as top-heavy as it’s ever been. The Washington Wizards should be among the prime beneficiaries of this new order as the team figures to join the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors as the prohibitive favorites to finish in the top four in the conference. This week Basketball Insiders begins a series ranking the teams for each division and projecting a possible range of wins. We’ll start with the Southeast Division, which the Wizards figure to dominate (last season’s record is listed next to each team’s name).

Washington Wizards — 49-33 

When the Atlanta Hawks traded Dwight Howard to the Charlotte Hornets and declined to make an offer to free agent Paul Millsap — who departed to the Denver Nuggets — the Wizards became the only Southeast Division team with a record over .500 from last season that is certain to have one again in the upcoming season. Washington is among the most top-heavy units in the NBA, with a starting lineup that rates among the league’s best but a bench that crippled the team’s chances to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against the deep Celtics.

It’s astonishing to think that Bradley Beal has never played in an All-Star game. That will end this season as Beal and Wizards point guard John Wall will both make the team, and could even start as the East’s All-Star backcourt. The Wizards matched a four-year, $106 million offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets to retain Otto Porter as starting small forward. On the surface, this is an overpay for a player who may never make an All-Star team, and it will hurt the team’s ability to address the depth issues. But Porter was sixth in percentage among NBA players with at least 100 three-point attempts last season, making him the perfect release valve for a ball-dominant backcourt. Starting power forward Markieff Morris is underrated, having drastically outperformed Millsap in net rating in the first round of last season’s playoffs.

Projected Wins: 50-55

Miami Heat — 41-41

The Heat exploded after an 11-30 start to finish 41-41, but it wasn’t enough to win Erik Spoelstra a long-overdue NBA Coach of the Year Award. Nonetheless, with the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers figuring to plummet in the standings, Miami could be among the most upwardly-mobile teams in the East. The team has rightly rebuffed trade inquiries for point guard Goran Dragic and will have the opportunity to be among the upper echelon of the conference.

With shot-blocking force Hassan Whiteside entrenched in the middle, Miami made one of the more under-appreciated moves of the offseason by adding playmaking power forward Kelly Olynyk via free agency from the Celtics. Olynyk doesn’t just stretch the floor. He can make plays off the bounce by attacking the basket. The Heat also inked shooting guard Dion Waiters and power forward James Johnson to new four-year deals and boast a young and developing corps of wings that includes Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Richardson. Miami won’t be on the bubble for next season’s playoffs. They’re in.

Projected Wins: 44-49

Charlotte Hornets — 36-46

The Charlotte Hornets were crippled last season by two factors: Lack of athleticism and rim protection from the center position and a lack of production at backup point guard. Charlotte declined a team option for Ramon Sessions, who suffered a left knee meniscus tear last season, and will hand some of those minutes to free agent signing Michael Carter-Williams and rookie Malik Monk, possibly the most elite shot maker of the 2017 NBA Draft. The Hornets also made a major gamble by acquiring Dwight Howard via trade from the Atlanta Hawks.

Howard is no longer mobile enough to show on the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, but he did serve as an effective deterrent at the rim for Atlanta. Howard was also third in the NBA with 212 dunks, trailing only DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert, nearly as many as the 222 the Hawks had as a team in the season before his arrival. Charlotte will be able to alternate Howard with smaller lineups featuring the emergent Cody Zeller at center, but will need to avoid the spacing issues that would come from pairing Howard with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Expect another All-Star season from Kemba Walker.

Projected Wins: 40-45

Atlanta Hawks — 43-39

New Hawks head of basketball operations Travis Schlenk is true to his word. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he dislikes the word “rebuild” and plans to retool the Hawks while remaining competitive. By signing Dewayne Dedmon from the Spurs and inking stretch power forward Ersan Ilyasova to a new one-year deal, Schlenk has provided Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder with a front court that accentuates his ability to attack the basket. Millsap shot around 32 percent from three the last two seasons and no longer stretches the floor, while Howard attempted fewer than 100 pick-and-rolls last season. Dedmon averaged over 16 points and 17 rebounds per 36 minutes in last year’s playoffs, per Basketball Reference.

Adding to Atlanta’s revamped front court is rookie power forward John Collins, the 19th pick in this summer’s draft who was just named First Team All-NBA Summer League. NBA front office types gushed to Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler about Collins in Las Vegas and said he could be one of the special players to come out of the 2017 NBA Draft. Atlanta wisely declined to match the Knicks’ four-year, $71 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Tim Hardaway. Kent Bazemore figures to see more time at shooting guard after Taurean Prince emerged as a rookie starter at small forward in last season’s playoffs. DeAndre Bembry — another Summer League standout — will finally have an opportunity to crack Atlanta’s wing rotation. While the Hawks will miss the playoffs, the team will still exceed many win projections and won’t participate in the NBA’s annual tanking “process.”

Projected Wins: 33-38

Orlando Magic — 29-53

Two of the Magic’s three highest-paid players are Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic, both traditional centers in a league where such players are becoming less relevant each season. It will take the newly-hired front office tandem of President Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond a long time to dig out of the rubble left by their predecessors, which included the disastrous trade of Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Ersan Ilyasova — three rotation NBA players — for a 56-game rental of power forward Serge Ibaka.

The third player among Orlando’s highest-paid is Evan Fournier, a skilled scoring wing who will never come close to making the defensive impact of Oladipo. The Magic’s intriguing corps of wings includes Terrence Ross — all Orlando was able to salvage from the Ibaka debacle — and free agent signing Jonathon Simmons, who played well for the Spurs in last season’s playoffs (including 35 percent from three after failing to crack 30 percent during the regular season). But the issue for Orlando remains point guard, where Elfrid Payton doesn’t deserve all the criticism he gets but hasn’t proven good enough to elevate the Magic out of the Eastern Conference’s cellar.

Projected Wins: 27-32

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The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized

After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.

Matt John

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On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.

Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.

This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.

And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.

Cap Flexibility

When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.

It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.

Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.

The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.

Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.

Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.

Promising Youth Movement

Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.

That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.

Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.

Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.

Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.

In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.

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NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man

Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.

In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.

Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.

“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”

In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.

He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.

“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”

It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.

“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”

Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.

While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.

“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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