Ah, my old stomping grounds. The Hawks are pretty much all set for another playoff run, with one of the league’s best top eights. Rounding out the bench on a $14 million budget should not be too difficult, either. Five players scored 35 points per game or better last season, something only two other teams in the league (Orlando and, oddly enough, San Antonio) can boast. If everyone stays healthy, this will be one of the best teams in the league.
Charlotte looks like it might be on the outside looking in in this ultra-competitive division, but the jury is still kind of out on that. A lot of these players last year – Kemba, Jefferson, Kanter, Bradley, Bogut – were all good, but not quite good enough. This roster amounts to essentially a bunch of good players, but it lacks that final piece that will push them over the edge. It’s not an especially damning problem, but the Hornets might find it difficult to find that piece. A lot can depend on some of the “trendy” guys on this roster – I know a lot of people love to hype guys like Wroten, Lamb, Biyombo and Aminu, and they all have high ceilings. The sudden emergence of Porter and Warren could be a huge difference maker, too, and the Hornets still have $32 million they can spend. Charlotte could be either very mediocre or surprisingly excellent depending on how things shake out, but there are too many unknowns for me to place a lot of confidence in this team.
The Heat had a rough go of it last season, with two different owners at the helm over the course of the year. The team ultimately finished with no owner and firmly out of playoff contention, despite being competitive for most of the year. This may be a simple case of the roster just needing some TLC – Bosh, Dragic and Jonas are not a shabby foundation – but quality depth is definitely an issue. Miami doesn’t have a huge budget, but those two lottery picks are nice indeed. I can easily see Miami taking the sidelines this year only to emerge as a near-powerhouse next season.
Last year’s regular season king looked indomitable for pretty much the entire year, thanks to the double-double factory that was Vucevic and Gasol. Vuc should easily replicate his numbers from the last campaign, but it’s tough to see the 35-year-old Gasol keeping up. Gibson, Mirotic and Portis are all knocking at the door and deserve a lot of playing time, and with Coach Thibs finally out, it’s likely they’ll see it. Oladipo and especially Martin will also see reductions in their scoring, too, due to the arrival of Hezonja in Orlando and the continued growth of Wiggins and LaVine in Minny. Still, this is a pretty darn good team and one of the better ones in the East. Playoffs for sure, but don’t expect anywhere near 67 wins again.
The stars aligned for the Wizards last year when it mattered most, and I’ll just leave it at that. Now, the Wizards – with no notable picks to speak of until 2017 and a relatively low free agent budget – are forced into win-now mode, especially with aging stars Dwyane Wade and Tyson Chandler taking up so much of the salary cap. Johnson, Scola and Green could also see bumps in value this season, but Washington will need a bit more than that in order to propel the engine behind the dynamic quadrant of Wall, Beal, Wade and Chandler. Then again, they could sneak into the playoffs and go on a run again. You never know in a league whose owners vote down daily lineups.
I’m not expecting much change in this division, except this time I’ve got Atlanta coming out on top and Charlotte surpassing Miami. The bottom four were basically tied all last season until the very end, but I expect to see clearer tiers this time around.
When you look at the roster, it’s kind of tough to see how the Mavs were so bad last season. If you remember back to last winter, they were one of the hottest teams in the West and seemed bound for a deep playoff run. Somewhere along the way, though, the team totally derailed and fell way out of the postseason picture. This roster likely just needs a bit of sprucing up. Given the status of the veterans on this team and $26 million million in cap space, the Mavs might be better off trading their high draft pick for an asset or assets that help them out more immediately, and flex that cap space muscle to acquire some needed depth. The Southwest is going to be extremely difficult this season. Can Dallas right the ship and earn a playoff berth?
This team looked undefeatable all season long, and was equally as dominant in the playoffs, making it all the way to the final before succumbing to the red-hot Wizards. The construct of this league favors depth (which Houston had/has plenty of) over the course of the season, but in any given series without daily lineup changes, it’s all about star power. Harden had an insane playoffs but ultimately did not get enough from his co-pilots to match Wall, Wade and Beal. Aside from the MVP runner-up, no name on this roster stands out as a superstar. That’s part of what made Houston so great a year ago. But with the owners voting against daily lineups this offseason, are the Rockets doomed to a similar fate again?
I feel like this team somehow flew under the radar all last season. Much like the real Grizzlies, there’s not too much flash here – just a solid, solid, well structured team. I don’t have much to say about this team other than that it’s in really good shape. They have all of their draft picks, plus $32 million in cap room. If they want to take the next step, the opportunity is there for them, but if they don’t, they’re still a 50-win team.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
With the news of Embiid set to miss another season, the Pelicans will likely not go too far out of their way to compete this year. Instead, they could take this year to lurk in the shadows and wait until 2016 and ’17, over the course of which the team has 10 first-round draft picks, and go for a rapid turnaround. Still, with coveted prizes AD and Kyrie on the roster, there’s no time like the present. Depth will be a huge issue this year, but this team has one of the two or three best long-term setups in the league with $50 million in cap space, bargain stars left and right, and those 10 picks.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
After the old owner fell asleep on the job, the new owner came in and immediately instilled a plan: to tank like crazy. That they did, and with a bit of luck, the Spurs ended up with the top pick in this year’s draft. The team has a decent number of good players already, but aside from Kawhi, I hesitate to call any of them solid, and the Spurs desperately need frontcourt help. Jennings will almost certainly be demoted to a bench spot by Reggie Jackson, and with a strict SVG at the helm, how much does a reckless player like him even see the floor (not that Jackson isn’t pretty reckless himself, but he’s clearly the better option)? How much offense will Noel play with Okafor in town? Can Holiday avoid injury (he’s played less than half of his team’s games the past two seasons)? Plus, there’s still the matter of Kobe Bryant and his contract. I don’t expect this roster to look exactly the same for much longer – but still, the Spurs might find themselves in for a bit of a longer retooling than anticipated. For now they seemed poised to make some noise in the division but I have to give them an incomplete grade because they’re sure to make some big moves before the season.
3. San Antonio
5. New Orleans
This division is completely different this year, though the standings may not reflect that. Houston and Memphis ran away with it last season as the Spurs tanked and the Mavs owner was MIA, but new life has been injected into both squads. New Orleans just missed out last year, and I really think the chance still exists for them to make the postseason this time – I just don’t know if they take that chance. San Antonio has a really dynamic group right now, but I have no idea how to rank them because I know the team isn’t done making moves.