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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