In the last of our scouting on how the Eastern Conference teams are faring with the All-Star break over, it's time to go into the five making up the Southeast Division.
Through the first 59 games, the Miami Heat have ridden multiple inconsistencies. After starting out 12-15, the Heat have gone 20-12 to propel to sixth place in the East. Despite the injury bug sweeping through to main players Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry, and Victor Oladipo, Miami has been able to withstand adversity.
Whilst it's expected what Butler brings, the growth of Bam Adebayo in his next steps as an All-Star is significant. In seasons past, Adebayo would defer to his teammates, but given more responsibility offensively he is delivering. This season he currently has 29 double-doubles. What makes him difficult to defend is his supreme mid-range jumper - the main offensive arsenal to his game. Miami can count upon Adebayo to take over in crunch time. Especially in the 98-95 win over Boston on January 24 when he hit a foul line jumper to put the Heat ahead in the final minute.
Whilst veteran Kyle Lowry has dealt with multiple injuries, recently knee soreness sidelining for the last six games, Gabe Vincent's insertion into the starting role has been a bonus. Although being a streaky shooter, the undrafted guard has played his role. His best outings have come in back-to-back games against Milwaukee scoring 28 and 27 points whilst scorching from deep (52%).
Despite all the injuries, Miami has unheralded promising players in Haywood Highsmith, Orlando Robinson and more recently Jamaree Bouyea. All three have been more than up to the challenge.
In order to address its wafer-thin frontcourt, Miami landed 2016 NBA Champion Kevin Love from the Cleveland Cavaliers. In his prime, Love was a beast during his days in Minnesota averaging a double-double in five successive seasons. The veteran addresses what Miami needs most: rebounding. The Heat rank 27th in rebounding. Love will change that. It allows for Caleb Martin to play his normal small forward position having played as an undersized four before Love's arrival.
What remains is whether Miami can elevate its offence which fluctuates like a pendulum. However, it can always rely upon their unwavering defence to make up for their offensive inconsistencies.
Since its unbelievable run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021, the Atlanta Hawks have been fighting unpredictable results. 2022/2023 has been no different. Sitting at 29-30, Atlanta have had a mixed bag only going on one five-game winning streak. The major news came with Coach Nate McMillan's departure after three seasons in charge with assistant Joe Prunty taking over for the final 23 games. This won't be Prunty's first caretaker role having led the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018 after Jason Kidd's firing.
Despite the stellar play of Trae Young (26.7 PPG, 10.3 AST) and his new backcourt partner Dejounte Murray (20.7 PPG, 6.1 AST) there has been more questions than answers about Atlanta's position amongst the East.
The Trae Young-Cint Capela lob play is always going to be there, Young and Murray feeding off each other, but what about John Collins? The dynamic power forward has progressively seen his offensive production gradually tailor away each season. It's a compounding situation, that the Hawks can very well use by operating him near the basket or from mid-range rather than having to play on the perimeter. He and Young have had success in pick and rolls.
Bogdan Bogdanovic's production has been steady since going into a sixth-man role last season, Onyeka Okongwu provides an energy spark when Capela rests, and rookie AJ Griffin is showing promising signs, especially in 24-point outings against Milwaukee and Denver earlier this season. De'Andre Hunter is an underrated piece to the team both offensively and defensively. We saw what we can bring especially during last season's first-round playoffs against Miami averaging 21.2 points on 55.7% shooting and 46.2% from three.
Prunty is going to bring a cool head. You won't see him yelling and screaming too often. Atlanta has the potential to make a run being only 3.5 games back of sixth, but it has to rectify its inconsistencies.
Like many teams in the lower echelon East, the Washington Wizards have been battling unpredictable results. However recently the wheel is starting to turn in D.C. After falling to 18-26 on January 16 after a loss to Golden State, Washington has won 10 of 14 to climb into the play-in picture. For the best part of six seasons, long-time Wizard Bradley Beal has been the cornerstone as closer in tight games. It all began midway through the 2017/2018 season when John Wall missed two months with a knee injury.
This season Beal has been restricted by injuries, missing 22 games mainly due to hamstring strains. But when healthy he is a handful to deal with. From his smooth patterned midrange stepback to his dribble penetration and hanging in midair for a layup, Beal's offensive arsenal is up there as the best in the League. He is currently on a tear in February averaging 28.3 points on 54.8% shooting and 41.5% from deep.
Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma have given Washington additional firepower relieving the offensive pressure from Beal. Porzingis currently putting together an excellent campaign (22.8 PPG, 8.5 REB) since his final season in New York (2017/2018) before sustaining an ACL tear. The utilisation of the Lativan down low, but also playing of pick and pop plays on the perimeter customises to his strengths. Areas he couldn't frequently use in Dallas because of the centralising offence around superstar Luka Doncic.
Inserting Daniel Gafford as another rim protector takes the pressure off Porzingis and allows him to play his traditional power-forward slot. Washington has the commodity of implementing bigger lineups with Kuzma at the three, Porzingis at the four and Gafford at five. As seen in its matchups against Milwaukee.
As for the remaining 24 games on the schedule, the question will be whether they can defend for longer in games having not held an opponent under 100 points since January 11 against Chicago.
For the best part of a decade, the Orlando Magic have frustrated their fans with results leaving them competing for lottery picks. Since franchise cornerstone Dwight Howard's move in the Summer of 2012, the Magic have only made the postseason twice. The first quarter of this season, another laborious campaign was on the cards after a 5-20 start. Since then, Orlando has reversed the tide going 19-15, now only two games back of a play-in spot. Quite the turnaround for a young upcoming group.
There is plenty of optimism with Rookie of the Year favourite Paolo Banchero showing no jitters. Already possessing a vast skill set despite only being the age of 20, his play is giving long-starving Magic fans optimism as the cornerstone to build around.
Franz Wagner is putting together an excellent sophomore campaign giving Orlando another reliable ball-handler and an option to lean on in pivotal stages. Wendell Carter Jr despite only 39 games due to a plantar fascia in his foot is the rock Orlando dearly missed. A reinvigorated Bol Bol is making his opportunity count having been behind Denver's frontcourt rotation led by superstar Nikola Jokic.
Markelle Fultz though is the standout comeback for the Magic after battling injuries in the last two seasons and having to refine his jumper. The former number-one pick's confidence is skyrocketing especially in the month of February averaging 16.5 points on 53.4% from the field. In a post-game interview with Sports Illustrated, Magic Coach Jamal Mosley called him "The ultimate team guy." Quite the appraisal for Fultz who has come back from numerous adversities.
Sneakily Orlando is a chance for a play-in spot which couldn't be said in early December.
When Steve Clifford came back for a second stint as coach of the franchise he didn't envision a downward season. It's exactly how the Hornets' campaign is panning out. Sitting with a 17-43 record, injuries have decimated its starting unit with star point guard LaMelo Ball missing time with an ankle injury, Gordon Hayward with shoulder and hamstring injuries, Kelly Oubre tearing a ligament in his left hand, and Dennis Smith Jr with an ankle.
Their losses have only compounded the fact Charlotte ranks 28th for points allowed, 23rd for opponent's three-point field goal (36.8%), and 26th for opposition-made threes (13 per game). In the last two seasons, the franchise has been in the play-in tournament only to be blown away by Indiana and Atlanta.
Through the struggles, Charlotte has unearthed a potential big-man cornerstone in Mark Williams. The former Duke product taken 15th overall in last year's draft has been a bright spot. As his playing increased from late December, he is proving to be a central piece with his shot-blocking and rebounding.
Through the challenges of missing the playoffs for a seventh straight season, Charlotte will aim to quash the hopes of play-in aspirants.