NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Southeast Division
Ben Nadeau finishes Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Southeast Division.
It’s hard to believe that the new NBA season is nearly a quarter of the way finished already — yet the calendar has just slipped into December. With some wild storylines and exciting narratives to follow, it’s been difficult to get a handle on many franchises through the first two months of the campaign. This week, Basketball Insiders started assessing each division and handing out first quarter grades for each team — so if you’re itching to head back to school, they’re all available below.
On Monday, Spencer Davies doled out grades for the Central Division — but don’t look, Cavaliers fans. Then Jesse Blancarte nailed down the Pacific, David Yapkowitz handled the Northwest, Drew Maresca tackled the tricky Atlantic and Shane Rhodes broke down the Southwest yesterday. Which, again, leaves the Southeast Division to wrap things up in this series. How should the Hawks, HEAT, Hornets, Magic and Wizards feel after a little more than 20 games played?
Atlanta Hawks — A
The Hawks, in no uncertain terms, were destined to lose this year. Fated, almost. With an incredibly young roster and a great opportunity to add another highly-touted prospect, they never had a reason to effectively compete in 2018-19. And, through 20-plus games: so far, so good. The Hawks’ 5-18 record trails just Cleveland and Phoenix for the league’s worst record and, honestly, they’re right where they want to be.
Over the last week, the Hawks moved Kevin Huerter into the starting lineup along with Trae Young, John Collins, Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon. Once you toss in DeAndre Bembry and Omari Spellman off the bench, Atlanta has collected a promising core to build their next era around. However, drafting one of the Duke Blue Devils’ cavalcade of rim-rattling, bucket-getting prospects — Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett or Cam Reddish — would be a game-changer for Atlanta.
Grading teams like the Hawks can be difficult as their letter could easily be in the D or F range if the narrative was just simply re-written. The Hawks rank in dead last in both turnovers and offensive rating, while their shooting percentages remain well-below par for competitive franchises. They’re barely playing veterans like Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter, but also look unlikely to move Kent Bazemore’s contract that will cost the Hawks $19.2 million in 2019-20.
And yet, none of that really matters. The Hawks get to develop their promising talent while also preparing for greener pastures next year and beyond — that alone is worth an A in the modern win-or-tank landscape.
Charlotte Hornets — B
Thanks to the ever-smoldering Kemba Walker, the Hornets have exceeded expectations early on. Still, they’re just 11-11 and deeply entwined within the Eastern Conference’s messy second-tier — a couple wins and they could have homecourt advantage, while a small losing streak might bump them outside the playoff race altogether. Despite some frustrating, uneven performances, there are plenty of reasons to stay excited about this new incarnation of a mostly similar roster.
Firstly, head coach James Borrego has done well to create an instantly-cohesive unit, bring the once-troubled Malik Monk along and carve out his own succinct rotation. While that’s left players like Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo out in the cold, others have begun to bloom. The addition of veteran Tony Parker has proven shrewd and Jeremy Lamb continues his breakout from 2017-18. Miles Bridges is good for a highlight or two (or three) almost every night and longtime members like Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams continue to contribute efficiently.
As of now, the Hornets rank sixth in offensive rating (112.0) and 10th in three-point percentage (35.9), while their defensive rating has been as high as 10th in recent days. Altogether, those numbers point toward an overall fearsome unit in this current NBA landscape, that should go without saying. Should any rumors about Bradley Beal come to fruition, then the Hornets would be really cooking with hot grease. If the Hornets can iron out their inconsistencies — three of their losses have come against the Bulls, Hawks and Cavaliers — then we’ll really see just how good this team can be.
Orlando Magic — C+
At 11-11 and the current holders of the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, it’s been an optimistically strong start for the Orlando Magic. Coming into the season, the Magic boasted talented prospects, but little cohesiveness — so far, they’ve done well to survive the early slog. Nikola Vucevic, a man reborn, is averaging a career-high in points (20.8), assists (3.9) and field goal percentage (55.5), shepherding the way for a mostly inexperienced Magic roster. Aaron Gordon has slightly trended downward statistically, but he’s making good on his new mega-deal worth about $76 million thus far, while Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba are still looking to find consistent footing.
Despite their lack of an absolute, undeniable star, Orlando has played unselfishly to the tune of 26.4 assists per game, a tally that’s sixth-best across the league. Even better, their turnovers also rank low at 13.7, as veterans D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier have taken care of the ball quite well. If the Magic want to make the most of the 2018-19 campaign, they’ll likely need to trade for another point guard — but would that price of such an acquisition be worth it? Even if Orlando sneaks into the postseason, they don’t stand much of a chance against the conference elite up north. Moving forward, it’ll be key to find opportunities for Isaac and Bamba as they’re franchise cornerstones and their development, no matter what ultimately happens in the standings, is the top priority.
Still, the early returns on the Steve Clifford-led Magic are sunny, so achieving anything else this season would be the cherry on top.
Miami HEAT — C-
At a cursory glance, the Miami HEAT roster looks like one of the Southeast’s most competitive bunches. Instead, the on-court performances and overwhelming injuries have left the HEAT reeling in the lurch, and, most importantly, in conference limbo. The HEAT are better than their 8-13 record, most definitely, but they need to get healthy in a hurry. This roster full of strong second and third-best options was screaming out for a gritty Jimmy Butler addition last month, but the front office stayed put — now where do they go from here?
The ever-reliable Goran Dragic has missed Miami’s last six games, over which they’ve limped to a 2-4 record. Earlier in the season, Dragic missed three more contests and the HEAT promptly went 1-2. Yes, Dragic (16.3 points, 4.7 assists) is truly that important, both in his scoring abilities and offensive facilitation. And yet, the struggles go beyond that. Tyler Johnson hasn’t played since Nov. 20 and the enigmatic Dion Waiters isn’t close to making his season debut either. Dwyane Wade, in the midst of his well-deserved retirement tour, took off for seven games to be with his family following the birth of his daughter.
Josh Richardson has performed admirably in his newfound role of the go-to, well, everything, but the HEAT fall short in some major categories. Miami turns the ball over at an alarming rate, and although their defensive rating holds firm (106.9, tenth-best), the offense ranks among the NBA’s worst so far. It’s far too early to panic about HEAT, especially in the Eastern Conference but this team’s strength is clearly its depth. Even Rodney McGruder has gone from undrafted to essential in the span of three years — 12.2 points, five rebounds, 3.4 assists per game — and James Johnson continues to be a hulking pest defensively.
But if they’re not going to pull the trigger on a star-worthy acquisition, Miami needs to look inward, get healthy and rediscover some of their grittiness that made them such a pleasant surprise last season.
Washington Wizards — F
This should come as no surprise, unfortunately.
The Wizards, by all accounts, should be good. With a backcourt featuring John Wall and Bradley Beal, they should have ascended to the conference’s upper echelon by now. After adding offseason talents like Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers, the Wizards just had to keep it all together for eight months. Instead, the front office brass was reportedly considering a full and total breakup before Thanksgiving dinner could be served. Wall and Beal are apparently available for trade, although the former will be tough to deal given his supermax contract starts next season.
Beal has already had to deny trade demands on national television, Otto Porter Jr. continues to labor on his max deal and, as if things weren’t already bad, Dwight Howard will likely miss two-to-three months following surgery on his lower back. The talent on this roster is undeniable, but this has been the disappointing story in Washington season after season.
Today, the Wizards rank 20th in offensive rating, 17th in assist-to-turnover ratio, 27th in rebounding and a staggeringly poor 29th in defensive rating. While Howard is no longer quite the defensive anchor he once was, his absence won’t make things any easier for his teammates. Thomas Bryant has struggled since becoming the de facto center, but the Wizards’ other options — Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith — don’t offer any upside at all.
At some point — perhaps sooner rather than later — the Wizards will finally accept that this formula isn’t working and attempt to start from scratch. However, since it’s still the Eastern Conference, the Wizards are 8-14 and remain just two games behind the final playoff spot. Of course, there’s time to salvage this cross-country trainwreck, but does anybody actually believe they’re headed down the road to recovery?
It’s now officially December, which means these five franchises must take serious stock of their conference-wide standing. While the Hawks are sitting pretty, developing their studs and coming closer to a higher draft pick every day, the other squads have room to improve. Between the HEAT, Hornets, Magic and Wizards, the Southeast Division figures to be plenty busy between now and the trade deadline. Blow it up or push all in, these early season grades could look completely different down the road — but, for now, these feel like a fair representation of each team’s respective status at this point in the season.
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