Obvious & Underlying Storylines: NBA’s Southeastern Division

O&U SoutheastNBA

You walk in, sit down, and stare at a long white section of wall at what has been deemed the front or the focal point of the room. Others do the same; one by one they file into the fluorescent lit and defined space. An older man walks straight to the front of the room, pulls out his notes that look like they’re written on parchment paper as old as the history he’s recalling. The man begins to speak and almost as soon as he does half of his audience loses interest and some fall asleep. He continues until a shrill metallic bell resounds throughout the entire building. Everyone leaves just as fast as they came.


The obvious storyline is what is happening. We can obviously see this is a classroom and the teacher is boring, or presenting their information in a monotonous fashion. Anyone could see that.

The underlying storyline is why those things are happening. Imagine you’ve just flown in from another planet that didn’t have schools. If you had no context for how a classroom operates you’d think, “How do all the kids know to come in a sit down?” or “Why don’t they just leave?” (I’m sitting in a classroom at 8am as I type this, sorry Mrs. Taylor, and I’m asking that same question myself). These kids are sitting in a classroom either because they chose to (i.e. High School or College) or they were required to (i.e. Elementary or Middle School). And the teacher is allowed to just walk up in front of the class and start instructing because he’s been trained and educated to do so.

kobe shrugA simple analogy, but that is what we’re interpreting for NBA teams. For every team there are obvious storylines. How could you even mention the Los Angeles Lakers without talking about Kobe Bryant? Then there are the underlyingstorylines that could shape the entire season for teams and effect how the team goes about their business. Kobe is also close to retiring but hasn’t said whether he is or not, how could that effect the way the Lakers operate?

As the NBA begins to creep up on us we’re going to be looking at every NBA team’s Obvious & Underlying storylines. We’re going to sort them by division and…I know, I know, divisions are basically useless besides scheduling but it’s still a good way to organize. Here are the Obvious and Underlying Storylines for every team in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division: Wizards, Magic, Hawks, Heat, Hornets


Atlanta Hawks

Obvious: All for One & One for All? DeMarre Carroll

If you’ve read anything about the Hawks on here you know that they’re considered the “Spurs East” because of their style of play and their approach to the game. They don’t necessarily have one standout player or leader, but they all contribute in their own way to carry out the common good. It wasn’t always like this in Atlanta, far from it, but in the two seasons since Mike Budenholzer was hired as head coach they’ve adopted and succeeded under this system. Last season was the best in Hawks franchise history (60 wins) and it’ll be tough to improve upon or even match that win total.

This methodology will be tested this season after losing DeMarre Carroll in free agency to Toronto (which we’ve talked about here). In complete Hawks/Spursian fashion, Carroll’s stats don’t jump off of the sheet at you but he proved in the regular season and more so in the playoffs that he could be worth that huge contract. Now the Hawks will have to not only replace his production but find the right player to fit into his starting spot and compliment the other four as well as he did.

That player would seem to be (most likely) Kent Bazemore or maybe Thabo Sefolosha when he returns. Both nice players in the correct position but Carroll, especially in the playoffs, was required to bail the Hawks out of possessions late in the shot clock and make plays and decisions that Bazemore just isn’t going to be able to make. Unless Jeff Teague can take another big step forward and become the star this team needs in close and playoff games I think the Hawks regress. The Spurs do this every year though, they lose someone who seems necessary (Bruce Bowen, Michael Finely, David Robinson) and replace them with under-qualified talent and they succeed. (Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter). Sometimes it takes a few years to replace those guys and that’s the problem I think the Hawks run into this season.

Underlying: How Can They Improve?

We just touched on this in the obvious storyline, (I think these two intertwine) but the Hawks may have hit their ceiling last season without a way to bust through it. Honestly though, how do you improve on 60 wins? The last 5 teams to win 60 games in the NBA have all regressed the next season:

2013-14 Spurs: 62 wins down to 55 the next season.
2012-13 Heat: 66 wins down to 54 the next season.
2012-13 Thunder: 60 wins down to 59 then to 45 last season.
2010-11 Bulls: 62 wins down to 50 the next season.
2010-11 Spurs: 61 wins down to 50 the next season.

A lot of things have to go right for a team to win 60 games, aside from health which is at best erratic, everyone has to buy into the system and the hierarchy of the team. The Hawks won’t have a problem with buying-in but you also need talent, congruent talent, and I can’t see how the Hawks either improved or even replaced the talent they’ve lost. Bazemore in Carroll’s place will look like it works for a while because the other starting four of the Hawks are so good but not for the whole season and especially in the playoffs he’ll be exposed. Much like he was this season when he attempted to replace Korver, Korver’s role and skill set was much harder to replace so Bazemore has that working in his favor.

This may seem small to most people but I think the Hawks may have made a fundamental change in replacing Pero Antic with Tiago Splitter. Antic played just over 1000 minutes in the regular season for the Hawks (compared to Korvers 2400+) but when he came in the game (mostly for Horford or Millsap) he was a threat to shoot the three. He’s a fairly mobile big that stretched the floor and at times could put the ball on the floor. Tiago can do none of those things, and although he brings a separate set of skills that Antic couldn’t, he’s a lumbering big man who clogs the paint both on offense and defense. Of course he just came from the Spurs system so he’ll probably fit in fine and do well but the change will be noticed. Last season the Hawks almost always had 5 guys out on the court that could shoot the three-ball, now not so much. Their ceiling will depend on which players step up or breakout much like this next team.


Washington Wizards

Obvious: Playoff Success & Change in Leadership

The Wizards have had two solid seasons in a row winning 44+ games and a playoffs series, most teams would kill for that right now even in the East (see: Hornets, Charlotte). This season it’s time to take the next step. We know John Wall is a star, we think Bradley Beal is his “Robin” and there are solid role players in place. It’s time for Wall to be that star, Beal to establish himself in the NBA, and players like Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat, and Nene to step up and support them. That’s the only way they’re going to win; if the hierarchy settles into place and everyone knows their role (see: Warriors, Golden State and Spurs, San Antonio). This is going to be especially true this season after losing veteran leader, fake wheelchair user, and “Truther” Paul Pierce.

During his lone season with the Wiz Pierce became the vocal and on court leader of this team and if you don’t believe me ask him yourself. Not only did “they bring him there” to lead this team but to win games for them, and “call bank” doing it. The Wizards may have still gone onto win that series without Pierce but you can’t overstate what he did for them during the playoffs. As long as Pierce was on the Wizards side they just had to keep the game close and there was a chance to win. Who’s going to be that for them now? Every team needs a guy to bail them out of games, to take the tough shots, or put the team on his back and win it. Pierce wasn’t at a point in his career to put the team on his back but it felt like he did. Now the responsibility of leadership lands solely into John Wall’s dougie-doing hands. Adding Jared Dudley helps, he’s a consummate professional that did a lot to help the Bucks last season. Gary Neal is also a guy who played solid minutes in the Finals with San Antonio in 2012-2013. Both of those guys can help on the court and in the locker room but going into Wall’s 6th season it’s his team and it’s all on him going forward. If the Wizards want to improve upon or repeat their success John Wall is going to have to step up and make big shots and decisions, and that’s the honest Truth.

Underlying: Kevin Durant’s Looming Free Agency

This seems like cheating because it might as well be a second “Obvious Storyline” but my hope is that the local & national media will lay off the “Durant Saga” for a while… Not going to happen? Yeah, you’re probably right. Whether they do or not it’s still going to hang under over this team until Durant signs somewhere long-term.

If you’re not sure why Durant’s name keeps coming up with the Wizards attached to it then you have a lot of catching up to do. This article from the Washington Post should help though.

There will surely be more and more speculation as the season progresses so I’m not going to waste more words here. Just hope that the Wizards don’t hold their breath until he signs or put their entire hope in Durant. They have a pretty good thing going here and there are other ways to improve, and if Washington knows those ways then this next team would really like to know…


Charlotte Hornets

Obvious: New Guys & Kidd-Gilchrist’s Impact

After a 43 win season that secured the franchises second playoff spot in 10 years the Hornets (then-Bobcats) seemed set to embark on their re-rebrand as the Charlotte Hornets. The blue & teal was back with a vengeance and #BuzzCity was stamped at the end of every Hornets related tweet. Top it all off with the Honeycomb court and the renovation was complete. On the basketball side of the organization the team was mostly intact with possible upgrades due to the additions of Lance Stephenson and 9th overall pick Noah Vonleh. Neither player performed up to the BuzzCity standards and were both shipped out of town (Lance to LAC & Noah to POR). The team itself came 10 wins shy of its previous win total and finished out the season with a disheartening 33 wins and no playoff spot to speak of… Then this offseason the Hornets made a couple of pretty franchise shaking trades (and non-trades) that have shaped this organization’s future.

The Non-Trade I mentioned, if you clicked the link you already know (but you didn’t…), was declining 6 draft picks including four potential first-rounders for their #9 pick that they used to select Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky. Yeah, prepare your Hive for that to sting you in a few years. (SPNG).

The biggest move was sending the aforementioned Vonleh and regular starter Gerald Henderson to the Trailblazers for Frenchman and Spaniard-hating Nic Batum. There has already been a lot said about Batum and his fit between thenstarters Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, mostly positive.

Then-starters” is a sad statement coming right before a season because that means we lost someone to injury. This is a bad one because as much as people made fun of MKG’s jumper he’s a crucial part of this team’s potential to succeed. MKG dislocated his right shoulder in the Hornets first preseason game and will probably miss the entire season. They’re going to miss his defense and transition game a lot, and if there was any hope of a rejuvenation for this team some of the air was taken out of that effort when he went down. Leading to some questions in the teams overall construction…

Underlying: Are Al Jefferson’s Days Numbered?

These storylines were all written before Media Days, Training Camps, and Preseason games even started. Some were tweaked due to incidents that occurred during those previously mentioned events. After MKG’s season ending injury this storyline became more plausible than ever. There were talks that the Hornets might trade Big Al due to his age (31 in January) and his contract situation (unrestricted free agent at the end of this year) earlier this summer. Now the Hornets are going to be in an odd place for the start of the season trapped between a “win-now” Center-piece and a young, inexperienced supporting cast.

Kemba Walker and the newly acquired Nic Batum are 25 & 26 years old respectively and just entering into the prime of their careers. Kaminsky & MKG are surprisingly both 22, Cody Zeller is 23, and the rest of the Hornets are all role players between 20 & 29. However, regardless of age, are we even sure any of these guys are worth building around? They all seem like nice pieces but would any of these players even start for the Warriors? This is probably the real underlying storyline but I’ve already used that same concept for both the Pistons and Celtics. Sometime this year, and it will depend on early success or failure, the Hornets’ front office is going to decide whether to keep Big Al and risk losing him for nothing this offseason or to try and swing a mid-season trade to acquire more assets or young talent. My guess is the latter and that Jefferson will find himself wearing his 5th different jersey since entering the NBA. One of which was not from this next team…



Orlando Magic

Obvious: Player Development

There are only three teams in the NBA with an average age lower than the Magic. Guess who they are. Ok, fine I’ll tell you: 76ers: 23.8, Jazz: 24.6, and the Blazers: 25.3. Then the Celtics are tied with the Magic at an average age of 25.5. This team is young and with young comes talent, you’re not on an NBA roster at 20 or 21 unless you have it. Talent in the NBA is interesting, like most sports things, it doesn’t always pan out. Most of the stars that the NBA markets were not the most talented or touted players coming out of college, just look at some of their draft positions: Curry 7th, Paul George 10th, Marc Gasol 48th, Kyle Lowry 24th, Jimmy Butler 30th. There were all these players that were considered better prospects, and now if you look at it it seems ridiculous, I mean… and there even 47 players in the NBA better than Marc Gasol? I’d say no. However they were selected in the NBA Draft and that proves these players do have both potential and talent. These players became who they are now because theyworked, practiced, and studied. Even the #1 picks had to do this, for every Lebron and Anthony Davis there is an Andrea Bargnani or a Kwame Brown.

This Orlando Magic team has been terrible since Dwight Howard left in 2013, and with terrible comes high draft picks and the ability to take risks on young guys. Which they have done in abundance. Now they have this talented and deep roster, just look at their draft positions: Oladipo 2nd, Payton 10th, Hezonja 5th, Gordon 4th. Those numbers represent potential and just like all of these NBA stars that were taken late in the NBA draft the Magic have to work, practice, and study to fulfill all of that potential. This is year is all about that, developing these young players and making sure that they don’t just represent that potential like a Hasheet Thabeet or Michael Beasley but live up to it like a Durant, a Harden, or a Wall.

So if this season is all about player development is it technically another throw away season for fan? Will the Orlando faithful suffer at the end of another 20 win season? Maybe not so much…

Underlying: Playoff Push?

In the first Obvious & Underlying Storylines for the Atlantic Division the Knicks were accused of being “Two-Faced” in the sense that they posses/obtained qualities of both an organization in rebuilding mode and a playoff team. For the Knicks this mantra was accredited as indecision as to which identity the team really saw in itself. For the Magic, they could be accused of the same split-personality but not due to indecision. Sure, they have signed and acquired a few veteran players (Channing Frye, CJ Watson, Jason Smith) but they didn’t bring them in in a last-ditch effort to appease fans or certain players. The Magic don’t/shouldn’t expect to be in the playoffs this year, just don’t tell Elfrid Payton that, but in their quest to grow and establish these young players the Magic just might stumble into contention.

This team has the talent, like we mentioned, to compete right now. Whether that talent is already developed enough to do so is a question new head coach Scott Skiles is going to have to be able to answer quickly. Skiles is an interesting case as a head coach. Much like the role Jim Harbaugh has seemed to play in football, anywhere Skiles goes a quick boost in wins seems to follow. Then somehow he wears out his welcome and the team/organization turns on him. This article by Kelly Dwyer from Yahoo Sports sums it up pretty well, though he’s way less optimistic that I am.

Whether players and front office members tire of Skiles in a few years or not we’re just focusing on this upcoming season. There’s potential for this team to pull off a huge 20 win improvement and make the playoffs, it’s happened fairly recently (See 2014-15: Bucks, Milwaukee or Cavaliers, Cleveland). We’ve also seen how much a coaching change can help a team. (See 2014-15: Warriors, Golden State or again Bucks Milwaukee).

Logic say this team is still a few years away from really contending and they’ll have to spend this year trying to establish not only its young players but also an identity. History says there’s potential for both to happen this year.


Miami Heat

Obvious: Return to Power?

Didn’t last year seem like this team just woke up from an incredibly improbable dream? Like the four years prior never really happened, it was just a huge “What if” imagined by Hollywood’s best producers. In case you’re a Miami fan and nodding your head profusely the Lebron era really did happened. This was real. This was absolutely real. And yes, sadly this is still real.

The drop off last season happened just as quickly as the boost in 2011 when Lebron and Bosh first arrived. You would think the recovery process from losing the best player in the world would be longer but the Heat have bounced back as well as anyone could have hoped. (Except for whoever photoshopped this).

The improbable three team trade between the Pelicans, Suns, and Heat (which sounds like a children’s book about weather) that sent Goran Dragic to the Heat was actually not the most surprising thing that happened last season. That “moment” belongs to everyone’s introduction to Hassah Whiteside, the Heat’s new starting center who bounced around the world before seemingly finding a home in South Beach.

Take a full year from those two, then add the signing of veteran swingman Loul Deng to the base of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and you have a fairly successful rebuild. What they do now is still in question. There are a lot of people who think that the Heat are back, at least back in playoff contention, and I’m one of them. However, one of Dragic, Bosh, or maybe someone else is going to have to step up big time to become this teams “go to” guy. We just talked about this with the Wizards.

The other thing that will have to change for the Heat is their doctor bills. Remember this chart from the Cavaliers Storylines? (If you don’t you can check it out here). Travel a block and a half northeast and you’ll find the Heat who are basically tied with Houston for the most missed games by impact players. We’re probably at a point in his career where 60-65 games is the max for Dwyane Wade but the rest of the Heat need to stay healthy in order for then and us to see what they actually have here. Which is still a huge question that needs to be answered…

Underlying: How Hot Can They Get?

This is the real problem. It’s cool to look at a starting 5 of Dragic/Wade/Deng/Bosh/Whiteside and imagine pick-and-rolls all over the place but do you know how much time that whole group spent on the floor together? Just guess…humor me…0 minutes. 0!!!! This lineup that everyone is getting so excited about and that everyone has high on their standings/projections haven’t even all high-fived after a missed Whiteside free throw yet… So in order for us to figure out what they have they have to play together first. This is a classic example of how good a team can look on paper but what do you really have in real life?

The 2007-08 Celtics are the perfect example of a team of different stars coming together and succeeding. The Celts probably had a better roster but this is the best case scenario for the Heat.

The 2012-13 Lakers are the opposite of what of a best case scenario, but the 2014-15 Heat resembled this team much more than they wanted to. The Lakers top 5 of Nash/Bryant/WorldPeace/Gasol/Howard only played 189 total minutes in their lone season together. So once this Heat lineup plays together we have to hope it stays together before turning into another NBA-What-If.

For reference the 2014-15 Trailblazers starting 5 (Lillard/Matthews/Batum/Aldridge/Lopez) played 629 minutes together.

Once they play and stay together what are we going to see? The starting 5 look good on paper but the fit isn’t perfect, especially concerning shooting.

Whiteside is very good around the rim (65%) but that’s the extent of his range.
Wade has never been a long range shooter hitting only 29% of his threes
Deng isn’t lights out either, he’s a 33% career three point shooter but only 53% True Shooting
Dragic has the best career 3P% (36%) but shot only 32% with the Heat last year
Bosh shot 37% from three last year but it’s bad when your big man is the best shooter on the floor.

For Reference: Curry (3: 44% TS: 60%) & Lebron (3: 34% TS: 58%) career shooting numbers.
All stats via Basketball-Reference.

A lot of this is picking apart little things but that’s what happens when a team is vaulted into contention. After the starters the bench is very interesting. There are the usual suspects (Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Chris Anderson), a couple of veteran castoffs (Amare Stoudamire, Josh McRoberts, Gerald Green) and I can’t get through a whole section on the Heat without mentioning Justise Winslow.

As I mentioned earlier the Celtics offered the Hornets 6 draft picks to move up to the #9 spot in the draft, the Hornets denied their request and chose Frank Kaminsky. Had the Hornets complied the Celtics would have actually selected Winslow. In some mock drafts I saw him as high as #4, but in another improbable fashion he slide all the way to the Heat in the 10th slot. All of the “Starting 5” talk is all well and good but Justise Winslow is the real X-Factor on this team. Dwyane Wade is coming to end of his career, and he can’t carry a team like he used to. If Winslow can come into the League and contribute right away then this team has the luxury of resting Wade more often than originally intended, and that’s great for their playoff aspirations. If Winslow is going to take a few years (like most rookies) to develop and adjust to the NBA game then the Heat might be farther away from true contention than everyone is projecting.


One response to “Obvious & Underlying Storylines: NBA’s Southeastern Division

  1. Pingback: Obvious & Underlying Storylines: NBA’s Northwest Division | [Open] Practice·

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