The Orlando Magic
Key Additions: Draft- Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Roy Devyn Marble. Free Agency: Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour, Willie Green. Trades: Evan Fournier.
The Magic continue to build up their young core, and made a couple very good picks in the draft. Payton was one of my favorite prospects, and while he still can't shoot and has had early struggles with turnovers, his playmaking and defensive abilities are already being put on display. He is a sleeper candidate for ROY and should be their point guard of the future. Payton will eventually be joined by Victor Oladipo (fractured face), who I think should have won rookie of the year last year. Oladipo will move back to shooting guard this year, and he really needs to improve his shooting sooner rather than later. In the meantime, Evan Fournier will start. While he makes some flashy plays, he wasn't that effective in Denver and needs to step his game up to remain in the rotation upon Oladipo's return. Tobias Harris and Moe Harkless will handle the small forward duties, and while both are young, neither is at a starting level yet. The Magic hope one of them will pan out, and they are already solid rotation players.
Channing Frye was brought over in free agency to be a professional in the locker room, a leader, and a stretch four. He is very capable at all those things, and will contribute across the board when he plays. Nikola Vucevic is their best player, a beast in the post on offense and a dominant force on the glass. His extension now looks like a bargain as he aims for his 3rd consecutive year of averaging a double double. Aaron Gordon is already making an impact defensively and in transition, but he won't get a ton of playing time this year barring injuries. Behind him are more young big men, but due to lack of playing time I think trades are a likely possibility. The reserve guards, on the other hand, are all washed up veterans such as Ben Gordon, Green, and Ridnour. Jacque Vaughn has faced some criticism for his coaching, but he was dealt pretty poor hands in his first two years with the Magic. I am curious to see how he does with a more talented roster. The Magic need growth from their prospects, and I like their young talent, but I think they are still a year away.
Projected Record: 26-56
Players to watch: Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Moe Harkless
The Magic blog is Orlando Pinstriped Post
The Charlotte Hornets
Key Additions: Draft- Noah Vonley, PJ Hairson. Free Agency: Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts, Jason Maxiell, Jannero Pargo (re-signed).
The Charlotte Hornets finally made the playoffs in 2014 after a four year absence, though they were swept by the Heat in the first round. Building off that success, they signed a big name free agent in Lance Stephenson for the second summer in a row, and re-signed Kemba Walker to a four year deal, creating a core group of players. Unfortunately, I don't think Kemba and Lance are a good fit, as both want the ball in their hands, and both think they should be the ones running the show at the end of games. Theoretically they should score a lot of points and play pesky defense, but I just don't know if it will work out like that. They are still young and can improve, but the biggest question mark for each player is decision making. They are joined by young wing Michael Kidd Gilchrist, formerly the owner of the most broken jump shot in the history of jump shots. He has worked on it though, and he now has an expanded offensive game to go along with his already stellar defense. Marvin Williams is the only true floor spacer in the starting lineup, but even he isn't a knockdown shooter, and the rest of his game is inconsistent. The offense runs through center Al Jefferson, who is the best post player in the NBA. His defense has also improved, and he is a terrific rebounder. Al deservingly made the All NBA team last year, and should make an All Star appearance this year.
The Hornets bench, like their starting lineup, is a decent blend of youth and veterans. Brian Roberts and Jannero Pargo are the backup point guards, and while solid in that role, neither is a capable fill in if Kemba goes down. Gary Neal was a disappointment last year after several years with the Spurs, but his final stat line wasn't too far off where he was in San Antonio, and he is capable of winning games with his shooting. Gerald Henderson will come off the bench for the first time in a few years, but it's a role that suits him, especially with his lack of a consistent three point shot. He too can get hot in a hurry, though he is more of a mid-range shooter. Cody Zeller and Jason Maxiell are the backup big men, and Zeller improved a lot after a dismal start in his rookie season. Bismack Biyombo and Noah Vonleh will need bad play or injuries to get consistent minutes, though Vonleh is probably headed for the D-League. Coach Steve Clifford got the Hornets to buy into his defense last year, and the result was a playoff berth. This year might be more about managing personalities and play styles with the new pieces, but the Hornets should sneak in with a low seed yet again.
Projected Record: 44-38
Players to watch: Michael Kidd Gilchrist, Cody Zeller
At the Hive is the Hornets blog here
The Miami Heat
Key Additions: Draft- Shabazz Napier. Free Agency: Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng, Danny Granger, Shannon Brown, Shawne Williams James Ennis (2013 draft pick in Australia)
Re-Signed: Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Chris Anderson
Key Losses: LeBron James (Cavaliers), Ray Allen (FA), James Jones (Cavaliers), Shane Battier (retired)
The Heat had a rough summer, first getting dominated by the Spurs in the NBA finals, and then losing the best player in the world in free agency. There is no replacing LeBron James, but the Heat were able to retain most of their other key free agents, and even got a moderate pay cut from Dwayne Wade. Their point guard rotation of Chalmers/Cole/Napier is one of the worst in the NBA, with only the Lakers clearly below them. It isn't awful enough to be historic, but they are going to be at a mismatch at the point in almost every game they play. Dwayne Wade was very good last year, but rested in 25 games to compensate, and he won't be able to afford that this year. It will be interesting to see if his body holds up, especially come playoff time. A few years ago a Luol Deng signing might have been a very nice substitute for LeBron, but all the miles have worn on him, and his defense is not nearly as good as it used to be. His three point shot has also deserted him in recent years, though that is something he could still recover. Josh McRoberts was also an excellent acquisition, as he is a good playmaking big and can also stretch the floor as well as play defense. Their franchise player is now Chris Bosh, who remains one of the best big men in the NBA. He is a better defender and shooter than he used to be, and can still take over games when needed.
The Heat bench is where troubles lurk. Whoever doesn't start of the Chalmers/Cole duo is a solid backup, but neither is dynamic off the bench. Shannon Brown will never be as good as he was on the Lakers title teams of five years ago, and he was overrated to begin with. Danny Granger used to be one of the most underrated players in the game, but injuries have sapped him to a shell of his former self, and now it is questionable if he will even be a rotation player when he is able to play. Shawne Williams is a one-dimensional stretch four, and even his three point shot is inconsistent. Chris Anderson is getting old, and his effectiveness is diminished, but he still brings energy and defense for the Heat when called upon. The Heat also have little upside, with Napier, Ennis, and Justin Hamilton being their only real young guys, with Ennis being the most promising. Erik Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league, but he requires a healthy Dwayne Wade to be a decent playoff team, and that is largely outside of his control. Nonetheless, he should be able to cobble together a solid record out of this talented but flawed group.
Projected Record: 46-36
Players to watch: Norris Cole, James Ennis
The Heat Blog can be found here
The Atlanta Hawks
Key Additions: Draft- Adreian Payne. Free Agency: Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Shelvin Mack (re-signed), Mike Scott (re-signed)
Key Losses: Lou Williams and Bebe Noguiera traded to Raptors
The Hawks were the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference last season before Al Horford went down, and the biggest change this year will be welcoming him back to the lineup. He is their best player, and one of the top 30 players in the NBA; a very good defensive and offensive big man who can do almost anything on the court but shoot threes. He is joined in the frontcourt by equally underrated Paul Milsap, who finally won an All Star berth last year after a few borderline seasons. He is not as good defensively as Horford, but is superb on the offensive end and started to shoot more threes last season to help space the floor. DeMarre Carroll is another undervalued player in their starting lineup. DeMarre plays above average defense, hits outside shots, rebounds, and does all the little things. The NBA's premier shooter in Kyle Korver and speed demon point guard Jeff Teague round out the starters. The whole group is in their prime, with Teague being the only one who can be reasonably counted on to improve still.
The Hawks bench is not to be underestimated either. Shelvin Mack was very solid last year after a rough start to his NBA career, and Dennis Schroeder is a terrific playmaker if called upon. Sefolosha's shooting percentages fell off a cliff last season with the Thunder, but he remains a top of the line perimeter defender, and there are hopes that his shot could return as well. Kent Bazemore was known for his bench celebrations until a mid-season trade to the Lakers last year, but now his athleticism and moderate shooting ability are actually put to use with the Hawks. Mike Scott broke out in 2014 as a stretch four, and he along with Pero Antic are capable of playing 20+ minutes a night if need be. Elton Brand is a very good 5th big, even this late in his career, and can step up in case of injuries. Coach Mike Budenholzer is one of the best young coaches in the NBA, and was a huge success in his rookie campaign last year. His offense, developed with the Spurs as an assistant, is beautiful to watch, and he gets the job done on defense too. If healthy, this Hawks team could be very dangerous in the playoffs, and will be fighting for a top 3 seed in all likelihood.
Projected Record: 49-33
Players to watch: Jeff Teague, Mike Scott, Kent Bazemore
Look at Peachtree Hoops to see what Hawks fans think about their team.
Key Additions: Paul Pierce, DaJuan Blair, Kris Humphries
Re-signed: Marcin Gortat, Kevin Seraphin, Garrett Temple, Drew Gooden
The Wizards made the 2nd round of the playoffs last year for the first time since 2005 with a very good starting lineup powered by John Wall. The point guard from Kentucky made the leap to stardom in 2013 and led the league in total assists last year. Wall is possibly the fastest player in the NBA with the ball in his hands and is a terror on the break, but combines that athleticism with top notch playmaking abilities and a willingness to pass. He started making his three pointers last year, and his shooting is trending up in the early going this season. Bradley Beal had an uneven sophomore year, with poor decision making and shot taking contrasting with a deadly outside stroke. However, he came to life in the playoffs, putting up one of the best performances ever for someone his age in the NBA playoffs, and against two top notch defenses to boot. He still needs to work on his pick and roll game and ball-handling, but he is behind only Klay Thompson as the best young shooting guard in the game. Paul Pierce signed with the Wizards shortly after Ariza's departure, filling the hole at small forward. He showed some age last year, but was still a solid performer, especially in clutch situations. Nene and Gortat are a punishing duo inside, and work together very well on both ends of the floor.
The Wizards bench was a source of misery for most of last season, but has been considerably strengthened. Blair and Humphries are solid big men, and Drew Gooden was a terrific signing down the stretch last year. They all continue the theme of tough big men who aren't afraid to bang down low. Seraphin is an enigma, capable of taking over games on offense, but equally likely to completely sink the team with a series of awful mistakes. If he ever gains some basketball IQ, watch out. Otto Porter had a useless rookie season on the court, but was able to get adjusted to the NBA, and after a terrific summer league has been good off the bench so far. He is a perfect Ariza replacement down the road, but with more playmaking skills as well as a superb midrange game. Garrett Temple has been filling in for Beal, and his defense and improved outside shot have truly impressed. He has done enough to maintain a hold in the rotation even when Beal and veteran 3 and D wing Martell Webster return. At point, the aged Andre Miller continues to hold down the fort, though there are some games where he is basically invisible. Coach Randy Wittman got a two year extension to a mixed response. He is beloved in the locker room and is a good defensive mind, but the offense he runs is archaic and he is not a fan of advanced statistics. Regardless, he has a tough and well rounded squad with a lot of young talent. The Wizards could very well make another deep run in the playoffs this year, especially if Beal is able to continue his play from the 2014 playoffs.
Projected Record: 50-32
Players to watch: Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Kevin Seraphin
Check out Bullets Forever to get the Wizards fans perspective on their team.