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The NBA Story Lines Beneath the Surface: Southeast Division

Can Trae Young strike a balance between Steve Nash and Stephen Curry? We’re digging deep into the overlooked in-season developments for the Hawks, Heat, Hornets, Magic, and Wizards.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is very good. This long hiatus is … not. If there’s a small silver lining, it’s that the break provides time to dig beneath the surface and explore each team’s core identity, whether the games are played in front of cardboard cutouts of fans at Disney World or not. This is the dramatic conclusion of our series looking at the overlooked story line for each team.

Atlanta Hawks: Steve, Stefan, Stephen

There’s a running subplot in the ’90s sitcom Family Matters in which the nerdy next-door neighbor, Steve Urkel, discovers a way to splice his one “cool” gene and transform himself into the suavest MFer imaginable: Stefan Urquelle.

Stefan ends up coming in a little too hot, naturally, and Steve eventually has to figure out a way to balance who he is with his alter ego. (He ends up cloning himself in the seventh season of the show, which feels like a missed opportunity to teach TGIF viewers about self-actualization, but whatever.)

Trae Young is in a similar predicament as Urkel: He needs to find a balance between his own Steve and Stephen tendencies.

Like Steve Nash before him, Young far and away uses the most ball screens of any player in the NBA, keeping his dribble alive and patiently waiting for passing windows to creak open. And like Stephen Curry, he plays the game in constant heat-check mode, firing up off-balance 3s whenever the mood strikes him. Only one player in NBA history has averaged a higher assist percentage (45.6) while scoring more points per game (29.6) than Young. He’s only 21.

He’s also still in need of some help. The Hawks are 25th in offensive rating this season, and the players outside of Atlanta’s core of Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish combined to shoot a laughable 27.4 percent on 813 3-point attempts. If Atlanta is committed to running this much pick-and-roll (fourth-most possessions used by the ball handler and third most for the rollers), then more outside shooting, better off-ball cutters, and fewer paint-clogging big men are a necessity. Collins can perform a reasonable approximation of Amar’e Stoudemire, but there’s too much clutter as is. When healthy, trade deadline pickup Clint Capela won’t be standing in the corner.

It does make you wonder if Atlanta should help Young embrace a different part of his Curry side. The impossible pull-up 3s are what capture the mind’s eye when you think about Curry, but it overshadows the bulk of his real work: zipping around screens, relocating after drive-and-kicks, somehow getting easy spot-up looks when everyone is dead set on stopping him. The Hawks don’t use Young that way: Only 2.1 percent of his offense is generated from off-ball screens.

Part of what makes Curry great is that he’s willing to trust and rely on his teammates to make the game easier for him. Young can’t do that within the current framework of Atlanta’s offense. Heurter has some juice as a secondary playmaker, but there’s no Draymond Green type to stir the drink. Almost everything is generated by Young.

Even with all that responsibility, Young already makes the game look easy. Just wait until it actually is.

Miami Heat: Balance and Options

Bam Adebayo averaged 0.8 assists per game in college at Kentucky. Three years later, and he’s one of just 10 centers in NBA history to record an assist percentage higher than 23.5. How did we get here?

It helps that Erik Spoelstra knows what he has. How many centers in the league have the license to do stuff like this in transition?

When he’s not boarding and pushing, Miami’s offense is built around Adebayo holding court at the elbow, seeking out backdoor cutters or teammates slipping screens. No team generates a higher percentage of its offense from cuts and dribble handoffs, and in turn Miami is balanced—nearly eight players average double-figure points.

Adebayo’s the center hub of it all, and his non-discriminatory approach to distributing also carries over to defense: He’ll guard anyone, anywhere, under any circumstance. Some of the league’s isolation specialists still haven’t received the memo, and will dribble Adebayo out to the perimeter like they’ve got something good cooking.

They do not.

Adebayo’s two-way versatility allows Spoelstra to play his patented funky lineups around him and not lose much in the way of identity. Jimmy Butler may be the team’s alpha, but it’s Bam who leads all Heat players in frontcourt touches with 40.1 per game. For context, that’s more than both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James.

What makes Adebayo special is that he possesses a skill set you can choose to cater to or not; you’ll be fine either way. Spoelstra gave Adebayo the ball and his trust, and in return Adebayo gave back what every coach craves: balance and options.

Orlando Magic: Steve Clifford, Defensive MacGyver

Please take a moment to appreciate Magic coach Steve Clifford’s legacy of building good defenses, mostly out of Michael Jordan’s favorite college basketball players, discarded lottery picks, and the stiffest collection of centers imaginable.

  • 2013-14 Charlotte: 6th
  • 2014-15 Charlotte: 10th
  • 2015-16 Charlotte: 9th
  • 2016-17 Charlotte: 17th
  • 2017-18 Charlotte: 17th
  • 2018-19 Orlando: 8th
  • 2019-20 Orlando: 10th

When Orlando lost one of the league’s premier defensive players in Jonathan Isaac to injury 34 games into the season after already being down Al-Farouq Aminu, the wheels should have fallen off completely. They didn’t, largely because of Clifford’s careful scheming.

What’s the common thread between all of Clifford’s teams? They always prioritize two main areas defensively above everything else: rebounding, and contesting shots without fouling.

In seven seasons as a head coach, Clifford has had the league’s best defensive rebounding team three times, and a top-six team in defensive free throw rate in all but one season. Clifford’s teams have never fallen outside of the top 10 in either category, which seems almost impossible given the youth, lack of talent, and roster turnover he’s encountered throughout his career as a coach.

Clifford is a natural-born fixer, but he’s been given a redundant collection of tools to work with. The Magic used the sixth pick in the 2018 draft on Mo Bamba, then relegated him to backup duties by re-signing Nikola Vucevic for $100 million over four years. Evan Fournier was the only above-average 3-point shooter this season, which is far from ideal for a team trying to revive Markelle Fultz. Orlando’s pieces are good in a vacuum, but almost none of them make sense together.

Clifford is a good enough coach to make it run well enough for now, but the long-term fix is better roster-building.

Washington Wizards: Isaac Bonga!

There’s an Isaac Bonga video on YouTube from his rookie season that has 3.8 million views. The Lakers are down 27 in garbage time, and Bonga tries a spin move and falls over. LeBron James and his teammates have a laugh about it.

And that was the most notable thing from Bonga’s rookie year with the Lakers! After barely seeing the floor, the 39th pick in the 2018 draft was shipped off to Washington as part of the Anthony Davis deal (don’t think the Lakers have many regrets there).

Bonga quickly hustled his way into the starting five, flanking Bradley Beal on the wing. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, Bonga is one of the most positionless prospects in recent memory. He’ll lurk at the dunker spot along the baseline and flash into the paint like a big on one possession, and the next he’ll push the ball in transition like a point guard. It’s disorienting.

The early returns show that opponents have been just as flummoxed. The Wizards have a plus-8.0 net rating with Bonga on the floor, and force 3.4 percent more turnovers (a 99th percentile increase) and grab 4.7 percent more offensive boards. Although he’s shown an ability to knock down corner 3s in a small sample size, Bonga barely uses any possessions for himself, instead focusing more on creating extra opportunities for his teammates. That’s the right kind of player to have next to someone like Beal.

Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard has made a bunch of small moves since taking over that have already paid dividends; some of the best adjustments have come by facilitating other team’s deals, like taking on Davis Bertans so San Antonio could clear cap space for a failed pursuit of Marcus Morris.

There’s a lot of development left on the plate, but Bonga earning this level of trust from Scott Brooks when he’s still very green should tell you what you need to know. There’s some serious glue-guy potential here.

Charlotte Hornets: Les Miserables

There was a time when Boris Diaw was wasting away in Charlotte, unmotivated and in peak wine-tasting shape. Diaw was only 29, but his career was clearly in jeopardy; a seven-win team eventually decided they’d be better off without him.

But the Spurs, in all of Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford’s infinite wisdom, snatched Diaw up and paired him with Tony Parker, his teammate on the French national team. The rest is history—Bobo eventually dominated the summer of 2014, going heads up with LeBron James in the Finals and coming out with a championship.

Diaw’s other teammate on the French national team, Nicolas Batum, is now the one languishing on Charlotte’s bench. It’s hard to fault second-year head coach James Borrego for keeping Batum glued there—Batum hasn’t been good for quite some time. He also owns a player option that will pay him $27 million next year, meaning he’s completely untradeable. Any reps that go his way are a sunk cost, and Charlotte has young players who need time instead.

A buyout next year isn’t out of the question, though, and it seems like Batum is trying to make it clear there’s no advantage to keeping him around. It’s in his DNA to defer, but his 505 minutes this season were a master class in passive-aggressive passing, as he compiled a usage rate of 9.4 percent on one of the most offensively starved rosters in the league.

Charlotte is almost finally clear of the salary cap hell they’ve resided in for years. Bismack Biyombo comes off the books this offseason, and Cody Zeller and Batum will be on their last year. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Batum figures it out on a contender (maybe with Rudy Gobert in Utah?), but that shouldn’t give Charlotte any pause. It’s time for everyone to move on, and it’s time for Charlotte to learn from this and use its cap space a little more like the Grizzlies, and a little less like the Knicks.

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.