Post-free agency breakdown of NBA's Southeast Division
FOX Sports South offers a capsule look at each Southeast Division club as they're presently constituted; and if some entity should trade for a superstar ... or sign restricted free agents Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe to max-contract offer sheets -- and keep 'em -- we'll address the changes at a later date.
Atlanta's Al Horford (far left) and Miami's Dwyane Wade (center) will have to contend with the vastly improved rosters of Charlotte, Orlando and Washington this season, featuring Kemba Walker (second from left), Victor Oladipo (second from right) and Bradley Beal (far right).
Brett Davis/Howard Smith/Brian Spurlock/David Manning/Brad Mills / USA TODAY Sports
By Jay Clemons
The NBA's Southeast Division has undergone a substantial facelift in the last five weeks, the dual result of fruitful drafts for the bottom-rung clubs and monumental free-agent moves -- both positive and negative -- involving nearly every team.
As such, the division race shall no longer be a preordained award for the Miami Heat keeping their Big Three healthy for a full season.
The new version of the Heat, minus LeBron James (rejoined the Cleveland Cavaliers after a four-year stint in Miami), will have to scratch and claw for every victory against quality competition.
And that includes every team in this division, fiven that Orlando and Charlotte have made tremendous strides, roster-wise, over the last 24 months.
FOX Sports South offers a capsule look at each Southeast club as they're presently constituted; and if some entity should trade for a superstar ... or sign -- and keep -- restricted free agents Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe to max-contract offer sheets, we'll address the changes at a later date.
1. When healthy, Wall (19.3 points/8.8 assists per game last year -- both team highs) and Beal (seven outings of 25-plus points since April 4) comprise the best starting backcourt in the Eastern Conference. Not bad for guys with averages of 22 years old.
2. Gortat had a great first season with Washington, showing marked improvement with points (13.2), rebounds (9.5) and assists (1.7), while keeping his blocks constant at 1.5 per game (compared to the previous year).
In fact, after the All- Star break and including the playoffs, Gortat racked up 26 double-doubles.
3. Pierce may be on his final NBA stop, but he's still an efficient scoring presence. For the Nets' five-game series defeat to the Heat in the playoffs, Pierce averaged 16.5 points and shot 46 percent or higher for Games 2-5.
4. The Wizards couldn't have timed their ascension better, in respect to the Heat (losing LeBron James to Cleveland) and Pacers (losing Lance Stephenson to Charlotte) poised for dropoffs.
WHAT TO LOATHE
Washington has a strong nucleus and the look of a division champion. But depth issues could delay that coronation, in the wake of unforeseen injuries to key personnel or Otto Porter (just 78 points in 37 games last season) not taking a positive step forward in Year 2.
1. There is no single replacement for LeBron James in today's NBA (or any other era), so kudos to the Heat for trying to replicate The King's absurd versatility with a combination of McRoberts (one of two NBA power forwards to average 4.0-plus assists last season) and Deng (eight double-doubles).
2. For a late-round draft pick (or trade, technically), the Heat scored with the Shabazz Napier acquisition. His playmaking skills, especially when facilitating offenses, would have been ideal for Miami during the NBA finals.
WHAT TO LOATHE
1. Wade has averaged only 57 games in the previous three seasons (2011-14) -- the dual result of the perennial All-Star enduring a number of injuries and resting for the postseason push. But with LeBron's greatness no longer a crutch for the franchise, the Heat should expect full participation from their stud contingent.
2. It'll be interesting to see if Bosh -- whose scoring and rebounding averages have dipped for four consecutive seasons -- re-establishes himself as a classic post player with James gone. Or will he primarily set up shop around the 3-point line?
3. The Heat's lack of quality depth will be a killer at various (low) points of the season. There's no way around it.
4. Miami finished dead last in total rebounds per game last season (36.9) -- with LeBron. That's a not good sign for the future.
1. Teague is on the precipice of joining the NBA's elite at point guard, averaging 15.5 points and 7.0 assists over the last two seasons.
Back in March, he had a two-game stretch of 60 points and 13 assists ... and for the year, Teague enjoyed a pair of four-game streaks of 20-plus points.
2. Atlanta's house is back in order, now that Al Horford (18.6 points/8.4 rebounds) has returned from a major shouler injury. By extension, the second-year Antic makes better sense as a perimeter-oriented reserve (three triples, 18 points against the Pacers on April 6).
3. The Hawks would certainly solidify their future at the 4-spot if they acquired big man Greg Monroe (restricted free agent with the Pistons) in the coming weeks, even if it meant a minutes reduction for All-Star Paul Millsap (17.9 points/8.5 rebounds/1.1 blocks) -- a free agent next summer.
The players possess strong, but noticeably different skill sets for the same position. It would be quite a coup for Atlanta's frontcourt.
4. The Hawks boast the division's deepest bench, highlighted by Schroder (15.7 points per game in the summer league), Muscala (13.8 points/7.8 rebounds) and the rookie Payne (12.5 points/7.0 rebounds).
Payne should be an immediate contributor with interior defense and 'pick-and-pop-' opprortunities in half-court settings.
WHAT TO LOATHE
1. The Hawks (opponents shot 46 percent last year) remain a work-in-progress on the defensive end, although they surrendered 100-plus points just four times in their final 15 games.
2. Atlanta has solid pieces to make a division-title run and advance far in the playoffs. But the club still needs an unmistakable go-to scoring option -- during lulls of action in the first half and/or buzzer-beating chances.
1. It's a shame Stephenson is more famous for blowing in LeBron James' ear (during the Eastern Conference finals) than leading the NBA in triple-doubles last season.
On the flip side, that random act of immaturity might have helped the Hornets land a potential superstar at a decent pay rate (3 years, $27 million).
2. Al Jefferson (21.8 points/10.8 rebounds/1.1 blocks last year) is more than just a stellar frontcourt option. He also brought credibility to a Charlotte franchise that desperately needed a boost in star power -- outside of the team's owner.
Gordon Hayward's max-contract offer sheet might have been matched by the Jazz ... but it also established a baseline of expectations for the Hornets' front office, leading to the Stephenson signing.
3. Walker has been a remarkably consistent asset for the Hornets, averaging 17.7 points for each of the last two seasons. His secondary tallies with assists (6.1 per game) and rebounds (4.2) are on a steady incline, as well.
Not bad for a smallish guy who was considered a "reach" at No. 9 overall in the 2011 draft.
WHAT TO LOATHE
1. The Hornets are staring at a boom-or-bust scenario at the 4-spot. As elite first-round picks, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh obviously have high upsides. But then again, the same statement once applied to Marvin Williams, who hasn't averaged more than 30-plus minutes in any of the previous four seasons (2010-14 with Hawks and Jazz).
This group needs to (quickly) find consistency with their production, taking some frontcourt pressure off Jefferson.
2. It's important to remember: Neither Biyombo (age 21), Zeller (age 21), Kidd-Gilchrist (age 20) nor Vonleh (age 18) have come close to realizing their full potential in the pros.
As such, they're still prone to wild swings of production (or lack thereof) within a team that must learn to handle success.
3. It'll be interesting to see how Kidd-Gilchrist (7.2 points/5.2 rebounds last year) adapts to the transition from starter to reserve, in lieu of the Stephenson move.
1. OK, it's Summer League. We know that. But the rookie Payton (league-best 7.0 assists per game) had the look of a future dynamo in summer action.
In fact, no team had a better draft night than Orlando, which landed the supreme talents of Payton and Arizona's Aaron Gordon (No. 4 overall) in the first 12 picks. This is how a young, energetic club gets better in a hurry.
2. Oladipo (13.8 points, 4.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds) took his rookie production to a new level after the calendar turned to "2014" -- averaging 15.3 points, 4.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals over a 43-game stretch, with shooting tallies of 43 percent (field goal) and 36 percent (beyond the arc).
The scoring numbers are particularly impressive, since Oladipo endured five games of single digits during that span.
3. It's fun to think about Nikola Vucevic's numbers (2014 tallies: 14.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 0.8 rebounds) whenever he builds up the endurance for 36-plus minutes a night.
WHAT TO LOATHE
1. The Magic are still a work-in-progress ... and a high-ceiling group that still requires a lot of patience. Bottom line: The first 41 games of the season likely won't entail more than 17-18 victories.
2. The wing options, particularly at the 3-spot, are neither plentiful nor prolific. The Magic finished in the bottom third of three-pointers made last season (6.9 per game).