The 2019-20 NBA season is just around the corner. After an offseason chock-full of player movement, the title race appears as wide-open as it has been in years.
Over the coming weeks, we will examine one big question hanging over each team heading into the season. We’ll continue today with the Southeast Division, where two teams weigh a full-scale rebuild, two others will jostle for the division crown and one will continue building upon its promising foundation.
Atlanta Hawks: Do they have their core in place?
The Atlanta Hawks’ future is beginning to come into focus.
After a slow start to his rookie season, 2018 No. 5 overall pick Trae Young soared to a second-place finish in the Rookie of the Year race. Meanwhile, third-year big man John Collins is on the precipice of becoming a nightly, high-flying 20-10 threat, and second-year sharpshooter Kevin Huerter is an ideal conceptual fit alongside Young.
The Hawks added to that core during the draft by trading up for Virginia wing De’Andre Hunter at No. 4 and selecting Duke forward Cam Reddish at No. 10. The former doesn’t appear to have superstar upside, but he should be a strong three-and-D complementary piece, while the latter was the second-ranked prospect in his recruiting class coming into college (ahead of Zion Williamson!).
Reddish was a relative disappointment during his lone season at Duke, where he became an afterthought behind Williamson and No. 3 overall pick RJ Barrett. But playing alongside Young, Collins, Huerter and Hunter should allow him to develop at his own pace rather than become the focal point of Atlanta’s offense right away, which should only help him in the long run. He could truly be the wildcard of the group.
With former lottery picks such as center Alex Len (No. 5 in 2015) and Jabari Parker (No. 2 in 2014) also floating around on the roster, the Hawks boast one of the NBA’s most impressive young collections of talent. The 2019-20 season will be all about sussing out which of those players other than Young and Collins factor into their long-term future.
Charlotte Hornets: What’s their long-term direction?
This Charlotte Hornets’ season may be dead on arrival.
After wildly overpaying their supporting cast over the past few years, the Hornets balked at offering All-Star point guard Kemba Walker a market-value contract. He thus decided to sign with the Boston Celtics in free agency, who sign-and-traded point guard Terry Rozier to the Hornets in perhaps the most egregious overpay of the summer.
The Hornets will get some salary-cap flexibility after this season when Bismack Biyombo ($17 million), Marvin Williams ($15 million) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($13 million) come off their books. But unless Nicolas Batum declines his $27.1 million player option for the 2020-21 season—spoiler: he won’t—they’re still going to be saddled with mediocre players on bloated contracts until 2021.
Beyond hoping Rozier will shoot above 40 percent from the field for the first time ever, the Hornets must now turn their attention to their trio of recent lottery picks: Malik Monk (No. 11, 2017), Miles Bridges (No. 12, 2018) and PJ Washington (No. 12, 2019). General manager Mitch Kupchak told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer that the team will pivot toward a youth movement in the wake of Walker’s departure.
“If there is a master plan, it is to transition from a team built around a superstar to a team built around our young players and a style of play,” Kupchak said.
Bridges conceded that he “played like ass” as a rookie, while Monk has been underwhelming through his first two seasons. So… unless Monk, Bridges or Washington display star upside, it’s possible that the Hornets don’t have a single long-term building block on their roster, which means they’ll be starting from square one this season.
Miami Heat: How much does Jimmy Butler raise their ceiling?
Despite entering the offseason well over the $109.14 million salary cap, the Miami Heat finagled their way into landing star free agent Jimmy Butler via a four-team sign-and-trade. It wound up costing them underrated three-and-D wing Josh Richardson and a 2023 lottery-protected first-round pick, but that’s a trade they’d make 10 times out of 10.
Acquiring Butler isn’t without risk, though.
The 30-year-old quickly wore out his welcome in Minnesota, and it remains unclear how doggedly the Philadelphia 76ers attempted to re-sign him this summer. Butler is a top-15 player when fully engaged, as he proved during this past year’s playoffs, but he appeared to be conserving energy at times during the regular season.
Butler had that luxury in Philadelphia while playing alongside the likes of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick, but the Heat will need him to be their nightly leader on both ends of the floor. Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk make a strong supporting cast, but Butler has to be the No. 1 option on offense without taking plays off defensively.
The starless Heat—no, retirement-tour Dwyane Wade does not count—finished 39-43 last season, two games out of the final playoff spot in the East and three games out of the No. 6 seed. So long as Butler stays healthy, they should have the inside track to one of the East’s last few playoff spots this year.
Whether they’re first-round-knockout fodder or a conference-finals dark horse will come down to whether the Butler of this past postseason reappears next spring.
Orlando Magic: Can they count on Markelle Fultz?
The Orlando Magic have a frontcourt logjam to sort out, but they likely won’t resolve that anytime soon. It’ll take injuries or a major trade for head coach Steve Clifford to find enough minutes for all of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Nikola Vucevic, Mo Bamba and Al-Farouq Aminu, which makes that more of a long-term issue.
Heading into the season, the biggest X-factor for Orlando is Markelle Fultz.
The Magic took a low-risk, high-upside swing on the 2017 No. 1 overall pick at the February trade deadline, sending only Jonathon Simmons, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s top-20-protected 2020 first-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for him. Fultz has yet to suit up for the Magic as he continues to recover from a mysterious shoulder ailment that limited him to only 33 regular-season games in Philly, and he remains without a timetable to return.
“We’re not going to put timelines or expectations on how that all unfolds. It will come as it comes,” Magic team president Jeff Weltman told Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel in mid-August. “As I’ve been saying, he continues to be in a good place and get better and improve. I can’t predict exactly how that’s going to look when it unfolds, but we’re very excited about the progress that he’s made.”
Isaac told HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy that he’s seen Fultz’s “work ethic and seriousness about getting on the floor” during workouts, adding, “I think that’s what’s going to pay off for him and that’s what’s going to make him the player that he is.”
The Magic are intentionally keeping expectations low for Fultz to reduce the pressure on him to make an immediate impact. But if he begins to resemble the player he was heading into the 2017 draft, he could transform Orlando from a fringe playoff team to a legitimate conference finals hopeful.
Washington Wizards: Can they appease Bradley Beal?
The Washington Wizards offered Bradley Beal a three-year, $111 million maximum extension in July, but he has yet to sign it. According to David Aldridge of The Athletic, Beal still has questions “about the team’s short- and long-term plans during the prime of his career,” although he is “grateful for the gesture” and doesn’t want “to abandon the team as it approaches a likely rough season.”
If Beal doesn’t sign the extension by the Oct. 21 deadline, the Wizards will have to start trying to convince him that they’re heading on the right trajectory.
Their front-office overhaul this offseason was a promising first step, although that doesn’t rectify the unintended calamitous effect that John Wall’s four-year, $171 million supermax contract has on their long-term financial outlook. Barring a miracle Wall trade, it’ll be nigh impossible for the Wizards to bring in enough outside help to maximize Beal’s prime.
Washington does have a few potentially intriguing young players such as Thomas Bryant, Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura, but they’ll have to hit the ground running to convince Beal to stay long term. Otherwise, the Wizards may be banking on Isaiah Thomas’ return to form to keep them competitive enough in the East and stymie a potential Beal trade request.
It’s difficult to foresee a scenario in which the Wizards can convince Beal to stay in Washington beyond 2021, although they’ve refused to entertain trade discussions for the time being. If they get off to a slow start and Beal begins to grumble behind the scenes, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll become the top star on the trade market heading into February.
Check out our other division previews:
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.