The wait is finally over for basketball fans. The three arduous months of the offseason, retirements, trade talks, draft picks, and free agency signings have come to a halt. Training camp is upon us, NBA 2K is here for gamers thirsty for early basketball, and the actual preseason games are underway. Here at Cove Alpa we’ll be bringing a preview of all NBA Teams throughout the month of October in preparation to tip-off. To begin, I will look into the Southeast Division’s regional success stories that still find a way to break a Virginian’s heart like mine.
Charlotte Hornets (ended 2015-16 6th in Eastern Conference, 48-34):
At the cusp of their rebrand as the Hornets franchise, the decade-long embarrassment of Charlotte basketball has made an 180 last season. Backed with a strong mix of battle-tested veterans and youth, the Hornets surprised many with their strong season start, eventually finishing sixth place in the Eastern Conference and taking the Miami Heat to the limit in the first round of the Playoffs. The tough defensive play of Jeremy Lin and Nicolas Batum kept Charlotte in the fight, but they were too exhausted towards the end against Miami and their Cinderella run ended prematurely. The hill would only get tougher as Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, and Al Jefferson all left during free agency, leaving a void of star power and talent to the team.
Not all hope is lost with the team however as now the younger frontcourt of Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky have more to prove after stellar playoff performances. The team also retained the services of Nicolas Batum with a five-year $120 million max deal along with signing Marco Benelli and Roy Hibbert, ensuring that star veteran presence, perimeter penetration, and defensive attributes. Add Marvin Williams coming off his best season in years (11.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Kemba Walker continuing to improve as a all-round point guard and scorer, Charlotte can remain consistent in their playoff hopes. The only issue that still lingers is the health of their star shooting guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the chemistry of their backcourt.
Washington Wizards (ended 2015-16 10th in Eastern Conference, 41-41):
Now this one might hang on a little fan bias, but the Washington Wizards’ trajectory of success took a major dip from the impressive seasons in 2014 and 2015. Toiling with injuries, horrible defensive breakdowns in late-game situations, and plain bad coaching, the Wizards barely played .500 basketball and the lack of depth didn’t help matters as it was tough for the team to gain any momentum. Fortunately, it was the final nail in the coffin for the Randy Wittman era, who 178-199 record with the team didn’t set the District on fire (in a positive manner anyway). In comes offensive guru Scott Brooks, who was the third winningest coach in Oklahoma City Thunder history. His time with OKC ran its course and he hopes to bring that winning mentality and culture to Washington.
It should come sooner than later as John Wall’s time in a Wizard’s uniform may be coming to a close. With three years left of his contract, Wall (19.9 ppg, 10 apg in 2015-16), the Wizard’s franchise player may be looking for opportunities elsewhere if Washington can’t crack the second round woes of the Playoffs. Add to the fact that Washington hasn’t been the strongest destination for top-level free agents and his relationship with Bradley Beal becoming more turbulent by the day, Wall’s potential in seeking more money at a bigger market is more plausible than ever. What makes things even worse is that Wall won’t even be available for the first month of the season as he’s recovering from a knee operation from the summer. All of it is left on the newly maxed out Bradley Beal to step up and play to his value.
Giving an injury-prone Beal a max deal worth $130 million might come to bite the Wizards organization in the ass, but it might work in their favor if he plays to his potential and stay healthy doing it. Consistency is key and for Beal he can show flashes of brilliance at times, but also have abysmal games offensively. This season will be the test of if he can bring it all together as a player while being a valuable contributor to the team and mending fences with John Wall.
Another interesting factor will be the full-time additions of Markieff Morris and Marcus Thornton along with the signings of Andrew Nicholson, Ian Mahinmi, and Trey Burke bringing the youth needed to run the floor and and stop transitions. Burke in particular will have a major opportunity to break through after languishing in Utah. With Wall inactive for the preseason and much of November, Burke is going to get well-adjusted into the starting role of the five. The second unit frontcourt of Mahinmi and Nicholson will provide the rim-protection and rebounding that was missing in previous years.
Only time will tell, but the next three years will be one to watch for the Wizards and Wall.
Atlanta Hawks (ended 4th in Eastern Conference, 48-34):
Much like the aforementioned teams above on this post, the Hawks is another organization completely intent on the changing the culture after a number of solid campaigns. In three seasons, Mike Budenholzer has made the Hawks a credible threat in the Eastern Conference with its fast-paced ball movement, spacing, and 3-point shooting. Capitalizing off of their immensely successful 2014 season, the Hawks met the exact same fate in the playoffs as they did before last year: swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Last year they weren’t as big as an offensive juggernaut as they were in 2014, as Jeff Teague’s play declined and teams began to figure them out. With rumors floating around of the team being broken up yet again, their initial experiment with Teague and Al Horford ran its course with both leaving to Indiana and Boston respectively. Denis Schroeder will now be manning point as a role he was groomed for last season and replacing Horford with be an Atlanta native looking for redemption. Joining the Hawks on a three-year, $70.5 million deal, Dwight Howard has a chance to prove that he’s still a defensive powerhouse and in the Eastern Conference once more he can wreak havoc.
Well, that’s what many fans on the Hawks are hoping he will be, but his reputation precedes him and tons of detractors are hoping for a trainwreck. But in a different system, back at home, and surrounded by versatile players that let him play his game will benefit him. This will also give ample space and time for Paul Milsap to come to his own as an all-star forward and with 2017’s free agency looming, he’s looking for a big pay day.