As we approach tonight's opening tip of the 2016-17 NBA regular season, The Shadow League looks at every one of the league’s six divisions and the players who will make this year an unforgettable one. Today, we examine the Southeast Division, where Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets are ready for their major breakthrough.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Charlotte Hornets – Last season, we saw a dynamic guard break through and carry a defensive-minded squad to the second round of the playoffs out in Portland. No reason to believe the same can’t happen in Charlotte.
Kemba Walker’s been on the cusp of an All-Star season for about four years now. The UConn legend put up 20.9 points and 5.2 assists a night last season and at only 25-years-old, he’s just getting started. Veterans Nic Batum and returning forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist fit in Charlotte’s system as great two-way players, capable of keeping up with King Kemba on one end, and guarding the best perimeter players on the other.
The Hornets forced a veteran Miami Heat team to seven games this past playoff run. The Heat are down, Orlando’s young, Washington didn’t get better and the Hawks might have gotten worse. The time is now for the Hornets to sting in the Southwest division.
2. Atlanta Hawks – Here are some of the accolades Dwight Howard grabbed up last time he was in the Southeast Division, playing for Orlando: three Defensive Player of the Year awards, league leader in rebounds (4x), league leader in blocks (2x), five All-NBA 1st Teams, four All-Defensive 1st Team and an NBA Finals appearance. But we’re a long way from 2012. And the Hawks aren’t getting an All-Star level player, much less an MVP candidate.
Howard’s best days are behind him. We've been seeing a steady decline in his productivity over the past four seasons. Not only is Dwight at the tail end of his dominance, but the league has changed. Small ball is in.
So how do the Hawks respond? By adding aging size to their roster to help Paul Millsap, their only remaining star? That doesn’t quite add up.
The true bright spots for Atlanta this year are Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder. Baze had a breakout season in 2016, proving he belongs in the league and that he’s worth the $70 Million dollar contract he signed over the summer.
Straight outta Europe, Schroder drew comparisons to Rajon Rondo early on. He’s shown improvements in each of his first three seasons, but never had the true room to grow. With Jeff Teague now playing with the Indiana Pacers, the show’s all his now.
3. Miami Heat – The Franchise existed way before him and carries on now, but seeing the Miami Heat without Dwyane Wade is just weird. You know what else is stranger than seeing the Heat without Flash? How good they looked in the preseason.
Now of course, preseason means less than a Kevin Hart Celebrity Game MVP trophy, but what does usually translate (somewhat) come the games that count is synergy.
Because of the team’s Lil Three: Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside, they actually don’t look lost on offense or defense. Whiteside signed an incredible max deal over the summer, locking him in as the franchise player. One with All-Star potential, who has quickly developed into one of the league’s best centers.
Winslow is out here locking up like the signature leg maneuver from Ric Flair, while showing new signs of life on the offensive end. And let’s not forget Dragic is a former Most Improved Player award winner, and is the only player in the last decade other than Andrew Bogut to be named to an All-NBA team (third) that hasn’t made an All Star Game. Not that he’s breaking through to the mid-season classic this season, but I wouldn’t call you a drunk and liar if you thought he could do it now with Wade gone to Chicago. To (mis)quote the great J.R. Smith “Hennything is possible.”
4. Washington Wizards – Just a season ago, it looked like everything had finally clicked for John Wall and the Washington Wizards. And I don’t mean “Oh, they made the playoffs” clicked. I mean “Yo, they look like they might challenge LeBron & Co. in the next round.” Only after sweeping the Toronto Raptors, the Wizards went down in six games to the Hawks. And things then went from bad to worse.
John Wall has emerged as an All-Star, but he and Bradley Beal openly can’t get it together. While the two have claimed to have worked out their differences, not having much help is bound to put a stress on their already waning relationship.
Wall, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul were the only players to average 10 assists or more last season. But he’s on a team with questionable chemistry, a new coach and the third option is Marcin Gortat. Even in the Eastern Conference, how confident can you be in a team like that?
5. Orlando Magic – This team has mad pieces. Evan Fournier is quickly turning into one of the league’s best international players. Nikola Vucevic could very well make the All-Star Game one day (soon) and we’re all just waiting for the full maturation of Elfrid Payton’s undervalued-prep-to-killer-pro narrative like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard before him.
Not to mention the kid who will soon be the Magic’s man, Aaron Gordon. One of the league’s most electrifying players who put on an incredible dunk contest performance along with the Timberwolves’ Zach LaVine, Gordon seems primed to put his skills on full display this season and get close to the double-double player we know he can be.
That said, everyone mentioned who didn’t use the Magic’s mascot as a prop in the dunk contest is probably up for trade bait. Which isn’t really a bad thing for Orlando if they can turn one of those pieces into a polished player to help establish a team identity.
Possible MVP – Paul Millsap
When you look around the Southeast Division, Paul Millsap is undoubtedly the player with the most talent in the best position to win. Not that he’ll truly challenge Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden or Damian Lillard for MVP this year, but he’ll be the division’s top dog en route to his fourth All-Star Game appearance.
Impact Rookie – Taurean Prince
The Draft was really top heavy this year, huh? No shots at Taurean Prince or anyone else drafted after Thon Maker, but if ever there was a year for a rookie to overachieve it’s this one. No one expects much of a race for Rookie of the Year beyond the Lakers Brandon Ingram, the Celtic’s Jaylen Brown and T’Wolves guard Kris Dunn. But maybe Prince, who starred at Baylor, can prove he’s worth the royal name in the ATL.
Breakout Player – Aaron Gordon
The California native has nothing but time, opportunity and a franchise in desperate need for a face/leader. He already stole the stage with his historic 2016 Dunk Contest performance, but the one-and-done dynamo is more than that. His work ethic has been raved about since his prep days and now that Victor Oladipo is gone, the Magic need a man in the forefront. No reason why it won’t be Gordon.
Division’s Defender – Hassan Whitehead
Leading the league in blocks per game is what got Hassan Whiteside that big offseason payday. Most coaches have to teach players to take pride in defense. Whiteside seems downright boastful when it comes to being an elite defender. With nearly four blocks and 11.8 rebounds per game (8.6 defensive), Whiteside has to be a leading candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
League Pass Alert – Orlando Magic
Oddly enough, the worst team in the division will most likely be the most exciting to watch. With their up-tempo style and athleticism, they’ll make games pretty entertaining this year. At the moment, they’re built for the small ball which is always fun to watch.
Prolly gonna quit basketball and start taking classes at the Derek Zoolander school of modeling – Kelly Oubre, Jr.
Quick story: a homegirl of mine used to work grassroots for adidas basketball but since she’s not a diehard fan of the game, couldn’t remember all the guys she’d seen on the prep circuit that are now pros. A few years removed, she could only remember one name: Kelly Oubre. Her face almost turned into the heart-eyes emoji. It was crazy. Dude does post mad model-esque shots on gram. Way more shots than he gets on the court.
Do ya thing, young homie. If hoops don’t work out, you can always hit the runway and deliver that blue steel stare.
Who HE Play For? – Various
While combing through the rosters in the division, I came across some names I’d never seen before: Vashil Fernandez (Miami Heat), Brian Roberts (Charlotte Hornets), Mike Tobey (Hornets), Tomas Satoransky (Washington Wizards) and Tyler Harvey (Orlando Magic).
Just looking at those names made me miss the post-game antics (fun) of the guys at TNT: Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaq and Charles Barkley, knowing full well the latter couldn’t name what team any of the aforementioned players are on. Can’t wait for the season to tip off so Chuck can say some more hilarious stuff.