Can they maintain success when Trae Young is off the court?
Trae Young is one of the most valuable pieces in the NBA right now. Atlanta is a deep team, but he led the charge and willed that team into the Eastern Conference Finals. Offensively, he does not have a lot of holes in his game. He facilitates their offense, can shoot from anywhere on the court and can slither to the rim with ease. His passing is what makes this team so dangerous in my opinion. They love to run screen and rolls with their bigs and if they set a good screen, it frees Young up for an easy floater opportunity or a lob at the rim.
The Hawks can compete with any team in the league with him on the floor but without him, they take a dramatic dip. Their conference finals series with the Bucks was knotted at two apiece until Young tripped over a referee's foot, and the Bucks never looked back since.
It’s obvious when your main star is not on the floor, your team will be worse off but they have to find a way to maintain some level of production until Young gets back in the game. It’s tough to gain a lead when that star is on the court and then lose it by the time he gets back on. When that happens, the starters have to exert more energy to regain the lead and you would like that energy to be spent extending the lead.
The Hawks mirror the Denver Nuggets in many ways. They have a very talented point guard and center combo along with depth at other positions, but do they have enough to overtake the best teams in the conference? On any given night the Hawks can beat the best of teams, but in a seven games series, the concern turns to the consistent production of others on the floor. Not many teams can stop Young from facilitating offense and also getting his own buckets, but if the surrounding cast can strike fear in opponents as well, this is a dark horse team to return to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Can they capitalize on their win-now approach?
The Miami Heat went all in this off-season. They signed champion Kyle Lowry to a 3 year, $85 million deal, gave Jimmy Butler a hefty new extension, signed PJ Tucker, and also retained Victor Oladipo. These are great moves on paper, and I have no doubt Erik Spoelstra will make it work, but all of the listed players are in their 30’s with the exception of Oladipo (29).
With a glass half full approach, you recognize this team has veteran, championship-proven pieces to win now. Their new additions in Lowry and Tucker are championship certified but also bring a certain energy and grittiness to the game that Spoelstra will love to implement into his team. This is not a team you question about being nervous in the postseason, but with their age, you wonder how healthy this team can be throughout the season.
If all goes well, I like this team to compete with the Bucks as 2nd in the East because they do have a proven track record of handling the Bucks in the postseason. With that being said, they do have depth concerns. They do not have a true backup point guard to trust right now. Tyler Herro will most likely fill that spot, and he is a good young player, but he is not your traditional point guard.
They also do not have any center depth. Dewayne Dedmon is their backup right now, and Markieff Morris will give them some thump inside at power forward, but they are going to run with the modern, small-ball approach for most of their minutes. Last year they were not a great rebounding team and were last in the league in blocks, but their defense is much more than that.
What they lack in size, they make up for in scheme. Despite their small-ball approach, they were first in the league in points in the paint, and also did not allow teams to get out and run, being the best team in fast-break points allowed. Their team defense is some of the best in the game and that is why they are always tops in the league defensively under Spoelstra.
If you look at this team on paper they look better than the bubble Heat team that made it to the Finals. So they have the pieces to contend for a championship, they just have to make sure all their pieces are on the floor instead of sitting on the bench wearing a suit and tie.
Where will the shooting come from?
I really don't think this is too far from the truth, but the Charlotte Hornets might be the most exciting team to watch in the NBA. The pairing of LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges gifted us highlight-reel plays unseen since Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. To enhance that excitement, they have an announcer that screams like he dropped an 80-pound dumbbell on his foot, every time they get a dunk.
Those dunks get people out of their seats but usually, Hornets fans can’t stand up for very long. They weren't a great scoring team in terms of points per game and they were bottom half of the league in shooting percentage. They did add some nice depth pieces in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee, but as NBA fans know, those two additions will not increase that shooting percentage to put it nicely.
Their shooting consistency remains a mystery. Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier are effective on the offensive end but unfortunately, you can’t count on Hayward playing a full season, and you can’t count on a consistent 20 a game from Rozier. It’s either 35 points or 10, there doesn't appear to be a lot of consistency with him yet.
The Hornets will definitely try to compete for a playoff spot because they might have the pieces to get them in, but they will emphasize the development of their young guys. Their newest draftees in James Bouknight, Kai Jones, and JT Thor have the potential to bolster this lineup into the postseason but that will come with time and the Hornets are willing to be patient.
How do they improve their scoring output?
As we finish discussing one of the more exciting teams in the league, we move to the complete opposite. Everybody understands the Magic are in rebuilding mode and it was evident last year as they finished second-worst in scoring last year at 104 points per game. They are not a team that strikes fear in your heart when it comes to shooting. In fact, you could probably bank on them having a below-average night last year, as they held the league’s worst field goal percentage.
They were bottom in the league in most offensive categories, but there were some strong aspects of their game last year. They were a very consistent rebounding team last year as they were 10th in defensive rebounding and 11th in offensive rebounding. A lot of that was due to their mid-season acquisition Wendell Carter Jr. He is a very underrated power forward in this league and loves to do the dirty work inside and clean the offensive glass.
They do have some exciting young pieces to pay attention to. Nuggets fans know RJ Hampton is an energetic, trampoline-like presence on the floor and Cole Anthony displayed his bright talents last season as well. Their rookies are going to have a larger role than most rookies in the league. Jalen Suggs was considered one of the best players in this year’s draft, and Franz Wagner is a bright young forward who has a lot of balance to his offensive game. They drafted 5th and 8th overall this year, so with two top-ten picks that could give Orlando fans something to look forward to.
Ideally, you would like to pair your young guys with veteran, championship-level experienced players, but the Magic do not have that. Gary Harris is probably their best veteran piece, and I do not mean that as a slight at all because Gary has been an invaluable influence to all of his teams, but you would like a little more depth in the proven veteran department.
Patience is a virtue Magic fans. It’s always undesirable to hear those words as a fan but at least there is some hope for this team down the line. Suggs profiles as an All-Star talent, whether that happens or not we will see, and you don't take two guys in the top 10 unless you believe they have massive potential. They might not be the most exciting team right now, but I think they are an intriguing one to watch and see how their young players progress.
What happens with Bradley Beal?
This has been a mystery for a long time and it continues to be. With the departure of Russell Westbrook, Washington is in clear rebuild mode and Beal is right in the middle of it. You would think they want to trade him and get all the future assets they can but they have not found the right suiters yet. Beal is one of the more lethal scorers in the NBA and could easily be the missing piece for a championship team.
I say this is a mystery because I am still unsure why he is still on the team. His frustration was evident on the sidelines last year when his team was struggling, yet there are reports he would like to stay and has clearly tolerated it enough to remain on the team. He has been a staple in that organization for a long time now, and I would like to think the Wizard's front office would accommodate some of his requests, but his requests are unclear besides the fact he wants to win.
I give him a ton of credit. I can’t tell what that organization is like internally, but externally they are a frustrating team to watch at times. When they had John Wall it looked like they could make a decent playoff push but that never happened. They signed Russel Westbrook to compete but didn't sign enough pieces to truly give them a chance in the playoffs. Now, they appear to give up all postseason hope and focus on the future.
As much as I respect Damian Lillard and what he does for Portland, I share similar sentiments for Bradley Beal. No matter how tough it has gotten in that organization, he keeps putting his head down and fighting through adversity. We have seen so many stars easily retreat to more talented teams when their situation is bleak. Beal is not the same. He displays the fortitude and competitiveness of a champion, but just as a fan of the NBA, it would be nice to watch him present those talents and intangibles on the NBA’s highest stage.