The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
As far as divisions go, it’s hard to play uglier than the Southeast Division did last season. It wasn’t just that it housed the two worst teams in the East—even the best team in the Southeast won only 44 games. The last time a division winner had a lower winning percentage was in 1975-76, before the 3-point line existed. Each team in the division got worse during the season, and no team had a winning record in the second half of their schedule. And yet somehow, this year’s iteration of the Southeast might be even worse.
In 2018, the only purpose a NBA division serves is to ensure that its teams face each other four times a season. For good teams, this means extra games against potentially bad regional foes, which allows for some win column padding. But in a woeful Southeast Division, it’s not that simple. Vegas oddsmakers have set the highest over/under line for a Southeast team, Washington, at a measly 44.5. The Wizards and Heat are the only two Southeast teams Vegas expects to make the playoffs, and only barely, as seeds six and seven. The other three teams—which all installed new head coaches in the offseason—received even less love. At 23.5 wins, Atlanta was given the lowest over/under in the league.
This might be the bottom floor of a long descent into misery for the division, one that started at the beginning of the decade. The thing is, no one noticed at the time, because LeBron James’s arrival in Miami hid the symptoms. Outside of that four-year run of Heat teams, no Southeast club has been a real championship contender. And the only other superstar the division has housed outside of Miami was the Orlando iteration of Dwight Howard.
Besides James and Dwyane Wade, Howard was one of two Southeast players in the top 10 for win shares in any season since 2010-11. And that was the version of Dwight who didn’t want to be in Orlando, and who sparked the most uncomfortable interview in NBA history en route to his ugly exit from the Magic.
LeBron leaving Miami created a vacuum of star power in the division. Heat center Hassan Whiteside posted a division-best 9.5 WS in 2016-17, and Kemba Walker’s 8.5 WS led the crowd the following year, but those numbers were good enough for only 20th and 23rd in entire league, respectively. Last season, the only player from the division in the top 30 by player impact estimate, an advanced stats metric from NBA.com/Stats, was Whiteside. His defensive liabilities on the perimeter disappointed coach Erik Spoelstra so much in the Heat’s first-round matchup against Philadelphia that he played his big man only 15.4 minutes a game that series.
Despite the Eastern Conference having developed a reputation as being wide open in recent years, the Southeast has never really capitalized on that opportunity. Since LeBron’s departure from Miami, 14 non-Southeast teams have logged 29 combined 50-plus win seasons. In the Southeast, one team has achieved that, once. No team did so last season, and neither team that did reach the playoffs looked particularly threatening before they bowed out in the first round.
The Southeast didn’t do much with their summer vacations either. No franchise in the division answered with a grand-slam offseason. Quite the contrary: In TNT reporter David Aldridge’s offseason rankings, Orlando, Charlotte, and Miami placed 25th, 28th, and 30th. “The Heat is not any better than last season. It isn’t any worse. It just … is,” he wrote. In an Eastern Conference in which every playoff team not named the Cavs got better, lack of movement is a poor strategy to achieve an uptick in wins.
If there’s one team to come out of nowhere, it’s the Magic. Replacing Bismack Biyombo with no. 6 pick Mo Bamba—who averaged a double-double on top of 3.7 blocks per game at Texas—will provide defensive fortitude under the basket while giving a boost to Orlando’s 25th-ranked offense. Improved play by 25-year-old Evan Fournier and 22-year-old Aaron Gordon—both coming off career-best seasons—as well as summer league standout Jonathan Isaac could elevate Orlando far above their projected 31.5 win line.
But, as a counterpoint, it’s the Magic. Betting on a team that has regressed in the win column in each of the last three seasons—all the way down to 25 wins last year—and is on its fourth full-time coach in a so-far six-year postseason drought would be ill-advised. It’s an indictment of their divisional peers that Orlando is the most likely team to add substantially to their win total from last year.
The Hornets and Heat earned dire offseason rankings because they stood still. Both teams are trapped by bad contracts, and are shopping their stars in an attempt to move the needle. Sure, Dion Waiters’s return from injury might add a win or two to Miami’s season as he did in 2016-17. But, with him shooting 39.8 percent overall and 30.6 percent from 3, there’s a reason he’s called “Headache” and there’s a reason he’s on the trading block alongside Whiteside and Tyler Johnson. Even if Charlotte can offload Kemba Walker, and Miami can trade Whiteside, they’ll likely receive a package that points them towards tanking, not contending.
Atlanta, meanwhile, is already there. More than half their roster has two years or less of NBA experience, making it clear that they hired ex-Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce to coach the team through its own version of The Process while Trae Young hopefully blossoms into their franchise cornerstone.
The only team to have a loud, win-now offseason was Washington. With no Eastern Conference finals appearances in eight years with centerpiece John Wall, the Wizards needed to take some risks before the window closes on its Wall-Bradley Beal-Otto Porter core. Acquiring a maligned duo of Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers might just pay off, but it feels just as likely that it could cause Washington to implode.
All reports indicate that no one likes Dwight Howard. Not the fans. Not his teammates. Least of all his coaches. Ever since Superman left Orlando, the coaches of his new teams are ousted within a season of his always ugly, always inevitable departure. Scott Brooks naysayers, rejoice!
“The fact that I played with a Kobe [Bryant], a James [Harden], and they were ball-dominant, affected me,” Howard said before last season, shortly before repeating his antics in Atlanta. Somehow, he made Dennis Schröder look like the good guy (maybe that’s what he meant when he said he “learned Magic for eight years.”) That’s bad news for Washington, as Wall went into isolation last season more often than any player not named Harden, Chris Paul, or LeBron James.
Even if Howard doesn’t destroy the team, Washington is another Wall injury away from fighting for an eighth seed again. Bradley Beal proved last year that he is unable to be the no. 1 option, and averaged fewer points (21.9 versus 23.4) despite taking more shots (18.5 versus 17.7) in the 41 games Wall sat out.
Still, of all the teams in the Southeast, Washington has the best chance to rescue the division from a historically atrocious season. Wall has a good chance to play 70-plus games and be the leader who prevents Howard from becoming a locker-room cancer again. Counter to Rivers, Porter tallied a 11 on/off court net rating last season. Porter is a sleeper All-Star pick if he continues to improve as an ultra-efficient third or fourth option—his .581 effective field goal percentage last year rivaled Kevin Durant’s .586. Add to that the potential for a contract year-level effort out of Kelly Oubre Jr. and the Wizards could hit 50 wins.
Since the introduction of the Eastern and Western conferences in 1970, not counting lockout years, only five teams besides the 2017-18 Heat have won a division with 44 wins or fewer. Betting on at least one of the five teams to hit 45 wins is a safe move, especially in a wide-open East made even more volatile by LeBron’s exit.
But it’s not hard to imagine Dwight collapsing D.C.’s house of cards. It’s not hard to imagine Miami and Charlotte regressing with their dead-end rosters. It’s not hard to imagine Orlando’s young, inexperienced core playing like a young, inexperienced core. It’s certainly not hard to imagine Atlanta in rebuild mode because that’s exactly where they are. In 2015, the league retooled the postseason so seeding would be determined solely by record. If all five predictions stand, this could be the first year in NBA history that an entire division misses the playoffs.