As the 2019/2020 NBA season inches closer, 30 franchises are preparing themselves for what will ultimately be a long season. Successful teams will extend their play into the playoffs, and less successful teams will by the beginning of March look to pivot into the off-season, while still having to suffer through the final month-and-a-half. As is the case with every team, unknown factors hover above them going into training camp, presenting great anticipation for their fanbases – and themselves. So let’s talk about them.
Other Division Previews:
Atlanta Hawks – Does Trae Young have his long-term supporting cast in place already?
The Hawks have drafted well in recent years, which has put them in the fortunate situation of being able to surround second-year point guard Trae Young with competent young players over the next few years.
The year before Young’s arrival, John Collins was selected, who last season put in 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds in just 30 minutes of playing time a night. Collins, who recently turned 22, is a supremely effective scorer, hitting 56% of his overall shot attempts, a respectable 34.8% of his attempts from long-range, and 76.2% from the foul line. His 1,188 points came on just 831 shot attempts, in large part due to his 73.4% accuracy from within three feet of the rim, which took up over 54% of his offense.
It’s fair to assume Collins is only going to get better, and he left breadcrumbs last season to show how. Of his 158 attempts from three, 31% of which came from the corners, in which he hit a remarkable 49%, further showing potential as a shooter, which will help provide multiple options in pick and roll scenarios with Young.
Kevin Huerter, who was chosen 19th last season, also showed promise, in particular as a shooter. Huerter was almost equally devastating as a pull-up and spot-up shooter, connecting on 38.4% when spotting up, and 37.7% on pull-ups from behind the three-point line. Granted, the volume was much in the favor of his spot-up attempts (three a game), but for Huerter to be able to knock down shots off the dribble is a major key for Atlanta’s offense moving forward, as that could lessen the offensive burden on Young.
This past draft, the Hawks came away with De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando, which projects to be quite a haul. Hunter is a two-way wing who led Virginia to the national championship by being one of the most polished players in the nation last season. While his on-ball skills need work, he looks ready to contribute as a shooter, hitting 46.7% of his three-pointers during pre-season. That percentage is not sustainable, but given how he found shots within the rhythm of the offense, it’s a fair bet to expect him to be, at worst, a reasonable shooter from the get-go.
As for Reddish, the inconsistency he showed at Duke is a real concern. But Atlanta may be the best place possible for him to develop. Not only will Reddish get minutes immediately, but he won’t be high on the pecking order, meaning he can get selective about his shots. Atlanta isn’t a big market, which ultimately means he won’t have to suffer much from media pressure either.
There’s still much to do to round out a proper roster, but for a 21-year-old Young, the groundwork for a long-lasting core has already been laid, which puts him in a unique situation of developing alongside them. If Atlanta’s selections this year hit, the Hawks could the most intriguing team in the East in three years.
Miami Heat – Will an unleashed Jimmy Butler return to the NBA elite?
During his final year in Chicago, Jimmy Butler was inarguably a Top 10 player. He took a somewhat talentless team to the playoffs and a six-game series against Boston before getting traded to Minnesota during the 2017 draft. There he lasted just over a year before he was sent to Philadelphia, after which he signed with the Heat.
There’s no other way to say it: It’s been a wild two seasons for Butler, and four teams in two calendar years doesn’t look great on the resumé. However, Butler is finally in a position where he can duplicate what he did that last year with the Bulls, as he’s got the green light to do whatever he wants in Miami. He not only will be the team’s primary scorer, but likely its primary ball-handler, despite the increasing responsibility Justise Winslow has gotten in that role.
While never a high-volume three-point shooter, Butler is elite in other crucial areas. For one, he takes care of the ball. Butler has only twice coughed the ball up on more than 10% of his possessions, which is impressive considering his evolution as a passer, and his increased scoring load.
Furthermore, Butler knows how to get to the free throw line. He’s averaged 7.3 free throw attempts over his past three seasons, a number which is skewed by playing with Joel Embiid last year, who took up as many shooting possessions as he did.
Defensively is where Butler made a name for himself, and it remains a major part of his game. At 6’8 and roughly 235 pounds, Butler is not afraid to put his body on opponents and use his strength to force them out of their comfort zone. He’ll also play passing lanes and switch onto post players, swiping away the ball and coming away with a fair number of blocks.
Butler’s primary weakness isn’t on-court related, but rather his durability. He’s only played 70-plus games in a season twice in his career, as he’s prone to pick up nagging injuries due to his workload and physical nature.
For Miami to get the most out of Butler, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to give him a few games off over the course of the season, in an effort to preserve his energy. Miami doesn’t have great depth, so prioritizing Butler’s health is a must if they wish to make the playoffs. If that means sacrificing a handful of regular season games, so be it.
Orlando Magic – Is this the year they solve their front-court logjam?
Aaron Gordon is entering his sixth NBA season, and one can’t help but wonder if that should have been elsewhere than Orlando. The Magic currently have five players, who share two positions, who all should receive at least 20 minutes a night. Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nikola Vucevic, and Mo Bamba.
With Gordon’s contract declining in value every year, he’s an attractive trade asset. At just 24 years old, Gordon still oozes talent, even if last season indicated stagnation in that regard. While still productive at 16 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, Gordon was supposed to take a leap after his fourth year, wherein he averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 boards. He did improve on the ball as a playmaker, but saw his offensive role diminish due to Vucevic’s All-Star campaign where he netted 20.8 points and 12 rebounds.
Overall, it’s tough to see how Gordon is going to optimize his potential in Orlando, and much the same can be said of Bamba and Isaac who are also looking for opportunities to break through. Vucevic re-signed with Orlando this summer for $100 million over four seasons, so unless the Magic pivot and make him available in trade talks, it seems unlikely those guys will get their fare share of minutes.
Further complicating the situation is the signing of Aminu, who played the four in Portland in recent years. The Magic are almost forced to play a few guys down a position, which seems like an imperfect solution.
With the organization’s hole at point guard – and we’re not counting Markelle Fultz as an asset quite yet – it would make a lot of sense to flip Gordon for an established floor leader. Sure, the Magic would still have to find a way to get everyone of Vucevic, Bamba, Isaac, and Aminu on the floor, but it’s least easier to figure out a four-man rotation, than five.
There is risk in moving Gordon, however. He’s currently the second-most established player in the aforementioned group, and he’s got, by far, the more intriguing contract between him and Vucevic, meaning the Magic would lose a player who is only going to earn less as he gets better. The risk of Gordon blowing up as a star elsewhere also exists, and the Magic have wasted enough assets in recent years (drafting Mario Hezonja, who they let walk after his third season – trading up for Elfrid Payton and sending him away for a second-rounder) to be afraid of that notion.
However, something’s gotta give. It might be time to figure out what.
Charlotte Hornets – No. Just no.
Sorry, but there’s no way this team does anything remotely interesting or worthwhile, unless Michael Jordan decides to lace them up again.
Please direct your attention to Bryan Toporek’s piece on the team if you wish to read about their brutal and painful upcoming season.
Washington Wizards – How much responsibility will Bradley Beal be asked to have?
After John Wall went down with a ruptured achilles last season, Bradley Beal took it upon himself and averaged 27.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 6.0 assists in the 47 games that Washington were forced to play without Wall.
Beal, who last year shared the court with Otto Porter, and later Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis, will be much more alone this year from a quality perspective, as Wall’s injury is likely to keep him out all of the 2019/2020 season, and both Parker and Portis now play elsewhere.
That leaves Thomas Bryant, the 22-year-old center who broke out last season in Washington and was freshly re-signed to $25 million over three years this July, as the second-best player on a roster that otherwise is filled with either youngsters or fringe NBA players.
With limited competition for shots, Beal will find himself in a similar situation as Jimmy Butler in Miami, only much more souped-up. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if Beal becomes a Top 3 scorer in the league next season, as the only bright light for Washington.
The 26-year-old two-time All-Star has averaged 23.8 points over his past three seasons, and has seen significant increases in his shot output during those years, which seems destined to be a trend which will be continued given the circumstances.
But more so than scoring, Beal will be asked to do much more, especially as a facilitator, as the alternatives at point guard are Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas, which frankly isn’t saying much these days. While it’s unlikely Beal puts up James Harden-esque numbers, there’s a good chance his raw scoring and assist numbers will both see career-highs be established.
The workload for Beal will be a lot, but at least he’ll be compensated for it, as he just inked a two-year contract extension worth $72 million. Washington should be one of the league’s worst teams, but at least Beal should keep things interesting and have at least a handful of #LeaguePassAlert tags on Twitter.
As for the long-term outlook, Beal will have to figure out what the best course of action is for his own career. He’s been almost illogically loyal to the Wizards so far, and seems genuinely interested in making it work with them, which is commendable. Whatever happens this year could go a long way in establishing for him the amount of work that lays ahead for the franchise to return to relevance.