2021-22 NBA Season Preview: Southeast Division
With the regular season set to tip-off on Oct.19, let’s take a look at where each team in the Southeast Division stands. We’ll break down what’s to like and dislike, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings.
WHAT TO LIKE: TRAE YOUNG
It all starts with Ice Trae, one of the best offensive engines in the NBA. Young is a dynamic passer, a dangerous pull-up threat from 30+ feet and infuriating to defend on drives. He has all the annoying tricks in the book, all heightened by an ability to decelerate at a moment's notice.
He's fresh off a coming-out party in the postseason, one where he nearly averaged 29 points and 10 assists while leading the Hawks to within a game of the NBA Finals.
There's no real way to deal with him, which makes life that much easier for the players he's surrounded by. Oh, and it helps that he's also surrounded by good players.
- We didn't get to see much of him last season because injuries derailed him, but sign me up for the De'Andre Hunter who can defend both forward spots, knock down spot-ups at a high clip and can do this when given the opportunity.
- John Collins really made strides on the defensive end last year, and especially during the postseason. He's pretty good as a weak-side rim protector; if he can handle primary duties at the 5, that'll unlock some fun lineup configurations for Atlanta.
- I'm very much here for Year 2 of the Onyeka Okongwu Experience. For him to be a good defender already is a blessing; add in his intermediate touch and overall fluidity offensively... Man, he's going to be good. Get healthy, young man.
- Trae is good enough to carry the load, but I'm glad the roster is set up in a way that he doesn't have to anymore. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter and Lou Williams can all take pressure off of him in that regard.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: THE ROTATION
The Hawks are an incredibly deep squad. They're probably 11 deep in terms of NBA-ready guys, and that's before getting into your Jalen Johnsons and Sharife Coopers. The problem, and it's a good problem to have, is that they may be too deep.
It's one thing to have a firm rotation that's supplemented by older vets you can plug-and-play on a random Tuesday. It's another thing entirely when Delon Wright, a guy that could warrant 20-or-so minutes on a playoff team, is your 10th or 11th best player (depending on how you feel about Cam Reddish).
Again, it's a good problem. You don't want bad players on your team. My secondary point is that there's going to take some buy-in to avoid bickering on that front. My primary point is that head coach Nate McMillan talked about going with all-bench units during his Media Day session on Monday, and my mind immediately went back to the Knicks game they blew in the first round because of some questionable decisions with the rotation.
- Some of the rotation stuff may solve itself because of the injury bug. Huerter, Clint Capela and Okongwu are recovering from offseason surgeries. Hunter and Reddish had injury-plagued seasons; they'll be worth monitoring moving forward, especially Reddish. Danilo Gallinari hasn't had the cleanest bill of health during his career. We'll see how these guys actually hold up.
- I selfishly want to see Jalen Johnson crack the rotation somehow, but there isn't a clear path at all.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Young-Reddish-Hunter-Collins-Okongwu
This is similar to the lineup I wanted to see in last year's preview, with Okongwu taking Gallinari's spot in the frontcourt.
Young as the offensive hub; two very good wing defenders in Reddish and Hunter; Collins as a weak-side guy, while Okongwu flies all over the place. That's the kind of defensive infrastructure needed to protect Young (who quietly took strides last year), while still having enough shooting and interior "oomph" to make the offense flow.
Please, Nate, close out some games with this unit.
BEST CASE: No. 2 Seed
The more I think about the Hawks, the more optimistic I become about them. Young is a top-20 player right now, with obvious room for growth on both ends. Their roster 2-through-10 rivals just about anyone in the Eastern Conference outside of Brooklyn, and considering how much (a lack of) availability could swing those win totals, I could see a pretty high finish for Atlanta.
WORST CASE: No. 5 Seed
Barring an injury to Young himself, I'm not seeing a ton of slide potential here for the Hawks. Even if you see some shooting regression from their defensive shot profile, they have more than enough offensive firepower to make up for it. This team is good — period.
WHAT TO LIKE: LaMELO BALL
There's just a level of joy that exudes from LaMelo Ball. Talk to him, or listen to him talk for two minutes, and everything about his game will click for you.
That dude is carefree in the most positive sense. If he feels it, he'll say it, he'll do it. And that's how you get shots like this.
Or passes like this.
Ball won Rookie of the Year despite missing a chunk of games with a wrist injury. For all the talk about his upside, he somehow was better than expected. The playmaking was there. The jumper was there (35.2% from deep, 39.3% on spot-ups). He was more engaged defensively, creating turnovers as part of Charlotte's makeshift zone.
The Hornets have a budding star on their hands.
- I'm still a pretty big fan of PJ Washington. Versatile skill set for a frontcourt piece. The jury is still out on how much of the 5 he can play, but I'd love to see more of it.
- I like the Hornets leaning into a "push it at all costs" ethos by adding some athleticism. Kelly Oubre Jr., in particular, should be a nice fit here.
- Just want to note that the Miles Bridges-Washington pairing had a plus-2.3 net rating in 762 minutes together without another center on the floor last season, per PBP Stats.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: PERIMETER DEFENSE
There may be some addition by subtraction with Devonte' Graham out of the mix, but this is an area that still concerns me. Terry Rozier has shown flashes of being a good point-of-attack defender throughout his career, but he hasn't consistently put it together since... the early Boston days, maybe?
LaMelo is still trying to figure out the screen navigation thing. I don't think Oubre should be your best perimeter defender if you have playoff hopes.
The Hornets led the NBA in zone usage by a wide margin last season, per Synergy. Head coach James Borrego told BasketballNews.com that zone will very much be "part of the package" for the Hornets this year. It may have to be.
- The interior defense may be a bit squishy. Mason Plumlee is a slight downgrade defensively from my eye; he isn't as sound positionally, nor does he have the vertical pop that Cody Zeller (now in Portland) does. As much as I like Kai Jones long-term, he's probably a couple of years away from helping with that issue.
- There's going to be quite a bit of pressure on rookie James Bouknight to fill the scoring void left by Graham. He shouldn't look as bad as he did during Summer League since 1) he won't have to be the offense, and 2) he'll be surrounded with other NBA players, unlike whatever the heck the Hornets did with their Summer League roster. We'll see how ready he'll be.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Ball-Hayward-Oubre-Bridges-Washington
Washington-at-the-5 lineups did well in terms of net rating last season. Adding more size and athleticism to those pairings should only help matters. There's plenty of scoring and shooting in this lineup, and they should be able to cut off windows by switching just about everything.
BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament
The Hornets were just there last season. There's enough youth on the roster worth betting on to get better. A healthier Gordon Hayward should put the Hornets in range to fight for a playoff spot.
WORST CASE: Bottom of the East
If Hayward (or Ball, for that matter) misses significant time, you can pretty much rule out a postseason run. Injury worries aside, there's enough cause for concern at the point of attack and the interior to be low on this group defensively. If they're forced into more zone looks and get bombed from three, you'd be asking for them to be historically good offensively to make up for it.
Also, all progression isn't linear. If Ball or Washington are largely the same guys they were last year, that'd be good in a vacuum, but not good enough in comparison to what the rest of the East has to offer.
WHAT TO LIKE: TOP-END SYNERGY
I won't rehash it all since I wrote about it here, but adding Kyle Lowry to the Jimmy Butler-Bam Adebayo duo is a darn good move.
Lowry plugs so many holes: ball screen initiator, transition attacker, pull-up shooter, point-of-attack defender. All of those things will take some burden off of Miami's other stars, and that should make life easier for everyone else in the rotation.
- Jimmy Butler pick-sixes forever. I don't think there are five better helpers -- from the weakside, or at the "nail" -- than Butler in the league. Regardless of position.
- Speaking of Adebayo, he took a pretty sizeable leap as a self-creator last season. He showcased more comfort with his middy, both stationary and after a dribble or two. Considering he has passing and finishing (as a lob threat, at least) chops already, it's pretty terrifying that he's growing in that area too.
- I'm curious to see the next step in Duncan Robinson's development. We know he can shoot the skin off the ball, but he started adding one and two-dribble counters when teams ran him off the line. His pick-and-roll usage (scoring and passing) more than quadrupled last season, per Synergy. Do we get another bump this year?
- The Heat have the ability to put five of Lowry, Marcus Garrett, Victor Oladipo (when healthy), Butler, P.J. Tucker, KZ Okpala, Adebayo or Dewayne Dedmon on the floor. You can scratch a couple of those names because of their offensive ineptitude (more on that shortly), but Erik Spoelstra has a ton of "we need one stop to ice this game" options at his disposal.
- To the defense point, the bump from Goran Dragic or Kendrick Nunn to Lowry at the point of attack is hard to overstate.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: WING DEPTH
It hurts to have this concern as president of the KZ Okpala Fan Club, but it does feel like the Heat are a wing defender or two short. It's Butler, then a pretty big drop-off.
Okpala has the tools to bring plus-value defensively, but he's so much of an offensive liability right now that it's hard to justify giving him more than spot minutes. Tucker was good last postseason, but a slip in lateral quickness was still noticeable. Another year of tread should lead to more decline.
This is more of a postseason concern than a regular-season one. But I mean, Boston has the Jays. Brooklyn has a little bit of everyone. Bam can defend a little bit of everyone, but he shouldn't have to if you can help it.
- I have some minor concerns about the late-game offense. As much as Lowry should make life easier for folks, a lot of this will come down to how many (pull-up) jumpers Butler and/or Bam can make late in games. I think it's fair to have a brow raised on that front.
- This is not a very athletic squad. They've struggled with "pacey" teams for a few seasons now — you can pencil in at least one loss to the Sacramento Kings, for example — due to their grind-it-out nature. Adding Lowry will juice the transition attack, but this isn't 2016 Lowry.
- There is a roster spot being used that shouldn't be.
- With Victor Oladipo set to miss the beginning of the season, the bench creation seems a bit lacking. There's a lot of pressure on Tyler Herro to fill that void. He could, but it'd be nice if he had some help on the perimeter. He's better equipped to beat bent defenses, not necessarily do the bending. Staggering the three All-Stars can help mitigate this concern.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Lowry-Oladipo-Robinson-Butler-Adebayo
If healthy, this could wind up being Miami's best five. The wildcard in this group would be Oladipo. He'd have to be able to knock down enough shots to force defensive attention. He has hit a healthy percentage of his spot-up looks over the past four seasons, so there's some room for optimism.
If he does, you're looking at a pretty spread floor for Butler or Adebayo to work with. Defensively, Robinson would be the only player you could pick on. I'm not sure you could do that comfortably considering how good Butler and Adebayo are at providing help.
BEST CASE: No. 3 Seed
The Heat have a talented trio at the top of the roster that fits seamlessly on paper, one of the best shooters on the planet, plug-and-play pieces in the 4-through-9 spots in the rotation and one of the best coaches in NBA history to put it all together. With a relatively clean bill of health, it wouldn't shock me to see the Heat, behind an elite defense, churn out regular-season wins. Add in the uncertainty in Philadelphia, and the path to a three-seed push becomes a little clearer.
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
By play-in tournament, I mean they get into the postseason as the seventh or eighth seed. This team cares more about the playoffs than the regular season, but not securing a top-six seed would still be a disappointment.
The case: Injuries/load management with Lowry and Butler could hurt the win total, as well as non-Robinson shooters not living up to their billing. If Adebayo only gets slightly better instead of taking a full-blown leap, the half-court offense could still underwhelm.
WHAT TO LIKE: FORWARD ROOM
I'm not sure when we'll see him — due to his ACL rehab or, uh, other reasons — but Jonathan Isaac is gooooood. When healthy, he's one of the best defenders on the planet. An isolation stalwart. An eraser on the backline. There aren't many matchups he can't take on.
The real intrigue kicked in when he started doing stuff with the ball. A shaky jumper becomes less of an impediment when you can get downhill and finish with this level of craft.
There's also Chuma Okeke, one of my favorite rookies from last year (he actually missed his first NBA season in 2019-20 due to injury). The numbers may not "wow" you — 7.8 points (47/35/75 shooting split), 4.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals in 25.2 minutes — but he's a gap-filler I enjoy watching.
Add rookie Franz Wagner — a strong shooter with some of the best defensive off-ball chops in this year's class — to the fold, and you have a fun trio of forwards that could theoretically play together in some funky lineups.
- I still believe in Wendell Carter Jr. This team isn't going to be good, so I hope he has rein (within reason) to explore the limits of his game. In other words: Please shoot the basketball, brother.
- It was surprising to see Jalen Suggs slide to Orlando, but he immediately steps in as their best guard prospect. If the pull-up shooting is less of an issue than we originally thought — and his Summer League showing lends credence to that line of thinking — the Magic have a good one here.
- The Robin Lopez signing was a good one. He'll bring some stability with his sweeping hooks and positional defense. I'm not sure how safe the folks at Disney are, though.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: HALF-COURT CREATION, AGAIN, AGAIN
There's no Nikola Vucevic to operate as a security blanket anymore. Evan Fournier isn't there to soak up handoff and off-screen usage.
This is Ground Zero for Orlando from an offensive perspective. Suggs and Cole Anthony are going to get plenty of shots. Terrence Ross will always get plenty of shots. Isaac. Carter will likely be used as a high-post hub.
It's important for all of those guys, save for Ross, to get creation reps to see what they can do. That doesn't mean things will be pretty. In fact, you can pretty much guarantee the opposite.
- I don't think his career is over, but it's been time for Orlando to pull the plug on the Mo Bamba experiment. Trading for Carter, then adding Lopez, doesn't bode well for him. Add in the forwards on the roster that could slide down a position and, well, we shall see if Bamba makes it to the trade deadline.
- Suggs, Anthony, R.J. Hampton, Markelle Fultz when he's back. I can make the case for wanting to see the ball in all of their hands. That's also the problem: When healthy, how are all of these guys getting developmental reps?
- The career arc of Gary Harris just makes me sad, man.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Suggs-Fultz-Wagner-Okeke-Carter
I was tempted to go with a jumbo lineup; honestly, I want to see what a Ross-Wagner-Isaac-Okeke-Carter group looks like. But I land here with two bulky guards, a pair of skilled and versatile forwards and Carter as a bridge of sorts in the frontcourt. It's light on shooting, but the defensive upside here is kinda wild.
BEST CASE: Bottom of the East (with upward trajectory)
I don't see play-in potential for this group, but a successful season would be one of the young guys — preferably Suggs — establishing themselves as the "Alpha" of the core. The true blue-chipper. I think you'll take a bottom-three record if you can end the season sayin,g "I know that Suggs and/or Isaac have top-30 potential down the line."
WORST CASE: Bottom of the East (and a jumbled
The thing about having a bunch of young talent is that there has to be a pathway for that talent to grow if you're expecting a leap. It's possible that the crowded guard and forward rooms lead to a bunch of overlap, thus stunting the developmental progress for a lot of these guys.
WHAT TO LIKE: RIM PRESSURE
I've been thinking a lot about this tweet.
Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie is instantly the best driving + rim pressure backcourt in the league— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) August 4, 2021
The common rebuttal was some variation of "What about Kyrie Irving and James Harden???" So of course, the tweet was accompanied by this one.
2019-20 Dinwiddie: 36% rim frequency, 60% shooting, 17.1 drives per game (9th in NBA)— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) August 4, 2021
2020-21 Beal: 25% rim freq., 65% shooting, 15.7 drives (11th)
2020-21 Kyrie: 23% rim freq., 60% shooting, 12.2 drives (30th)
2020-21 Harden: 28% rim freq., 63% shooting, 17.4 drives (8th)
This claim will likely depend on the health of Dinwiddie. I probably lean Irving and Harden, but the fact that there's a legit case to be made for Washington's backcourt is a testament to how talented they are in this regard.
Beal is slithery in multiple contexts: in isolation, when operating ball screens, and when attacking off a pindown or some other off-ball screen. Dinwiddie is more calculated in pick-and-roll, but uses his combination of size and craft to get to his spots.
This is a backcourt that should live at the free-throw line.
- Wing defense was a pretty big issue for the Wizards last year. I like that they made a conscious effort to address it by bringing in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma.
- I'm a pretty big fan of Daniel Gafford. He's one of the more violent watches in the league. He spikes shots defensively and tries to rip down the rim on every dunk or lob attempt. Fun dude, good dude.
- Rui Hachimura probably doesn't have multi-MVP upside, but he's got some "oomph" to him. Him, Deni Avdjia and newbie Corey Kispert make up an intriguing trio of young forwards. I'm curious to see how new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. distributes the minutes here.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: BALL MOVEMENT
If there's a singular thing the Wizards will miss with Westbrook not being there, it'll be his ability to find open teammates. That ability stems from his rim-attacking prowess, but there is a level of manipulation present that is no longer on the roster.
The drop-off from Westbrook to Beal and Dinwiddie in that regard is a pretty stark one. Avdija is a solid passer, but he'll need a bent defense to capitalize. The same applies to Raul Neto, however large his role will be this season. A few nights where the offense looks a bit stagnant, particularly late in games, won't be a shock to me.
- The defensive personnel improved with the Westbrook deal, but I'm not sure if the defense will be good. I'm mostly worried about the interior; as much as I like Gafford, there are some nuances in ball screen defense he'll need to hammer home before he reaches "Anchor" status. Thomas Bryant isn't very good on that end, nor is Montrezl Harrell. They'll miss Robin Lopez (ORL) on the backline.
- It's also important to note that the defensive improvements have mostly come on the wing. I have no idea who Washington's best point-of-attack defender will be. For all of Westbrook's warts on that end, he can hound point guards when he's locked in. That, uh, is not Dinwiddie's forte. I'd hate for Caldwell-Pope to be miscast in that role — he's better at tracking shooters than navigating ball screens — but he may be their best option among starting options.
- I wish I could trust someone other than Beal to make pull-up jumpers on a consistent basis, but I just... don't.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Beal-Caldwell-Pope-Kuzma-Hachimura-Gafford
This may be the best way to get a solid defense around Beal. Caldwell-Pope operating as an ace screen navigator off-ball; Kuzma and Hachimura with some solid on-ball chops at the forward spots; Gafford is a violent shot-blocker, though there's room for growth as an actual interior defender. This group is short on playmaking, but the hope is that Beal's scoring gravity will open up pockets for everyone else to attack.
BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament
If they're able to put together enough stops, it's easy to envision Washington being a team nobody wants to face in a "single-elimination" setting. Beal is one of the best scorers on earth; Dinwiddie, if healthy, can get downhill and bust up your defense. A step from Hachimura, a bounce-back year from Bertans... the makings of a good offense are still there.
WORST CASE: Just Outside of the Play-In Tournament
Even with the balancing that took place with the Westbrook trade, there are still some pretty real defensive limitations with this group. Beyond that, an(other) injury to Beal or Dinwiddie could derail things pretty quickly.