Last year the Atlanta Hawks took the NBA by surprise as they finished 60-22 and 12-4 in divisional play. This year poses a different challenge for Coach Bud and the team with expectations much higher than in recent seasons. Additionally, not only did the Eastern Conference get a much-needed face-lift, but the Southeast Division will also pose a much tougher challenge to these Hawks. Here’s a preview of what to expect from Atlanta’s division opponents in 2015-16:
The Hornets fan base came into last season with high hopes coming off a 7th seed finish two years ago and the acquisition of Lance Stephenson in the offseason. So last year’s 33-49 record along with Stephenson’s 39% field goal percentage seemed like a bad joke Michael Jordan played on everyone.
In his third season, coach Steve Clifford will need to take the next step by placing more emphasis on improving the offensive scheme that ranked 28th in offensive efficiency last year. The addition of Nicholas Batum adds to an already stout defensive unit as well as a small forward that can stretch the floor. His presence on defense will be much needed with the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a torn labrum and seperated shoulder, suffered in last weekend’s preseason game against Orlando, that will sideline him for 6 months.
Players like Pj Hairston, Jeremy Lamb and Troy Daniels have proven they can shoot the ball, something the Hornets did not have last year coming off the bench. But with the absence of Kidd-Gilchrist, they will need to show consistency on the defensive end to earn heavy minutes during his absense. Kemba Walker, the centerpiece, will be looking for a breakout season to prove the $48 million dollar extension he signed the day before Halloween last year will not haunt the franchise.
The Hornets will be much improved over last year, even though they still managed to split the season series with the top-ranked Hawks. Both wins the Hornets earned against Atlanta last year happened because of a solid scoring performance from the bench. The starting unit will defensively be able to keep the team within striking distance against the Hawks because of their size and athleticism. For the Hornets, it’s simple: can you put the ball in the basket enough to keep up with the Hawks when the defensive scheme breaks down?
So much of the focus last season for the Heat’s ups and downs was attributed to LeBron’s greatness. The franchise reached the Finals four straight years and raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy twice within that time span, only to be relegated to a 37-45 record last year.
Last season did not just highlight the absence of King James, but also the importance of former third wheel Chris Bosh. The Heat power forward missed the last stretch of the marathon due to the discovery of blood clots in his lungs. This season Bosh has been cleared for all basketball activities and is ready to return to his natural power forward position alongside center Hassan Whiteside. The backcourt of Wade and Dragic has had one season to gel together and find common ground on ball handling duties. The bench needed an upgrade from last years woeful 14 points per game. They received that help by adding the highly-talented Gerald Green, 6-time All star Amare Stoudemire and promising young rookie Justise Winslow.
Obviously with every team, health is the number one concern and for the Heat and could be the only thing that could get in the way of a LeBron vs. Wade duel in May. The Hawks were able to sweep the series against the Heat last season, but that may not be the case this year with a revamped and re-energized team in South Beach. Each time they faced off last year the Heat were either missing Wade (1st game), Bosh (2 games) or did not have the services of Goran Dragic yet as he was still playing for the Suns.
The Hawks, however, were not phased by their own lineup changes against the Heat. In each meeting, at least 3 starters finished in double digit points while shooting above 50% from the field as a team. This year the Heat will certainly test the Hawks’ defense with added depth and more offensively-minded players. Atlanta will need the additions of Tiago Splitter alongside Edy Tavares for rim protection with so many attacking guards on the Heat roster.
The rebuilding process has gone on long enough in Orlando and the time to become competitive is now. Top to bottom, the roster is full of young talent starting with the second overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, Victor Oladipo. Even though the Magic finished last in the division this past season, Oladipo along with Tobias Harris, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon showed flashes of a bright future when they are working as one unit. Elfrid learned firsthand how deep the point guard position is in this league and how important it is for him to add some scoring ability to his game.
Meanwhile, fellow rookie Aaron Gordon missed most of his rookie year due to a foot injury but early on showed how his energy and athleticism will help impact the game on both sides of the floor. Gordon displayed in this year’s Summer League that he has worked extensively on his jumper, which was a knock on him coming out of college, as well as his ball handling. Oladipo and Harris spent a portion of their summer with USA Basketball, while Payton trained with superstar point guard Chris Paul. These are necessary steps taken by a young core to build something special similar to the early years in Oklahoma City with Durant, Jeff Green, Westbrook and Harden, as we watched them grow up right in front of our eyes.
The team struggled last year on the defensive end of the floor allowing 101.4 ppg, ranking them 25th in the league. Newly-hired coach Scott Skiles was brought in for that very reason, as his reputation as a defensive coordinator is well known. Skiles has also shown the ability to improve teams compared to the previous season. The Chicago Bulls promoted him midway through a 23-59 season in 2004. The following year, the team posted a 47-35 record. In his previous head coaching stint, he inherited a Bucks team that went 26-56 in 2007-08. The following year they went 34-58. His strict, disciplinary coaching style is much needed on a team where the core group is under age 24.
Expect Orlando to make some noise this season a year wiser and under the watch of skiles. Drafting Mario Hezonja has so many Magic faithful excited because the energy, desire to win, athleticism and most importantly ability to shoot from the outside has been missing on this roster for past couple years. The lack of shooters from the wing position made it tougher on Oladipo and Payton do what they do best as defenses would sag in the paint.
Facing the Hawks last year made that very apparent, as the Magic shot no better than 34% from three land and even shot 18% when the teams met each other in March. Hezonja and Evan Fournier will be able to provide energy and shooting off the bench, something the Hawks did not have to worry about as much last season. The key matchup between these two team is in the backcourt, as you have a defensively-driven duo of Oladipo and Payton versus the offensive firepower of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. The experiences those two had over the summer could prove to be the difference in each matchup this season, as their ceiling is much higher than that of Teague and Korver.
Despite the #1 seed in the East, the Hawks came into the second round an underdog against the Washington Wizards. Before the injury to John Wall, the wizards showed their superiority. Losing their All-Star point guard, who was having a career season in several categories, eventually became too much to overcome regardless of how well Bradley Beal shot the ball.
The devastation on Paul pierce’s face after his game tying shot as time expired in game six was waved off was not just about losing the series. He knew this team had a legitimate shot at taking down the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now looking to this upcoming season, Pierce has departed but his leadership, work ethic and passion for the game made a huge impact on John Wall and Bradley Beal’s play in his short stint.
John Wall took a step forward, showed improvement in his leadership, shot a career best 45% from the field and averaged a career-high 10 assists (second in the NBA to Chris Paul). Bradley Beal made a lot of heads turn with his playoff performance, averaging 23 points and more importantly showing he’s not afraid of stepping up in big moments.
The issue with the wizards this season is the same they faced last year: the amount of pressure on their talented backcourt and the lack of consistent production from a third option. Nenê was intended to be that third option in the low post but struggled last year, averaging just eight points, six rebounds and shrinking when they needed his veteran presence the most. That is why it is pivotal that Otto Porter contribute this season on both ends to help lessen the burden on Wall and Bradley. Porter has the length and size to bother opposing wing players defensively and will have many opportunities offensively playing with the kind of passer Wall has proven to be. The only question is weather he can handle that job night in and night out.
Last season the Wizards shot well from outside, and with the additions of Jared Dudley and Gary Neal this season that should continue. Washington will surely have plenty of motivation each time they face the Hawks, especially after watching the Cavaliers sweep the Hawks in the Conference Finals. The size of Marcin Gortat and Nenê always presents the Hawks trouble, but Al Horford and Paul Millsap are able to counter with their quickness and outside shooting touch. The point guard matchup of Teague versus Wall is always intriguing as Wall is able to match Teague’s athleticism, not allowing him to easily penetrate the defense. Every time these two face one another this season, expect plenty of emotions on both sides.