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.
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