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  • Alec Liebsch

Burning Questions: Southeast Division

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

It’s crazy to think the 2020-21 season is right around the corner. Rosters are mostly set as the dust settles in free agency, and the league just released its schedule for the first half of the season.

With the new season comes a flurry of new stories to be written. Star power didn’t change hands as drastically this offseason as it did last, but plenty of teams reshaped themselves in preparation for the new year. They all have questions that need to be answered, either early in the season or at some point in their playoff pursuits.

You can find the "Burning Questions" for the Atlantic and Central divisions here. Now it's time to preview the Southeast.

Atlanta Hawks: Can you commit to Trae Young?

Hawks’ governorship made its intentions clear: Atlanta must make the playoffs this season, or changes will come. The front office obliged, acquiring Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo in a flurry of free agent signings. Drafting Onyeka Okongwu was also a positive move, as he is one of the few lottery prospects who expects to contribute right away.

Their supposed franchise player, Trae Young, now has a competitive and balanced support cast. Bogdanovic and Gallinari can share the scoring load with Young; Kris Dunn is a defensive dog who can cover for his undersized backcourt buddy; Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter have less of a burden now and can play to their strengths; Clint Capela and John Collins are great finishers, and Okongwu projects to join that group soon.

There are no excuses for Young now. If he doesn’t at least make the play-in tournament with this core, it’ll be clear what his ceiling is.

Charlotte Hornets: Who’s winning the guard battle?

The Hornets have three profiled ball handlers: Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball. All three deserve significant minutes, especially on Charlotte’s roster, but deploying them all simultaneously should be more of a gimmick than a regularity. Someone is going to have to come off the bench, and someone is likely not going to close games either, especially with the addition of Gordon Hayward.

My money’s on Graham to be the sixth man. He kept Charlotte’s offense afloat last season, and that deserves merit, but he’s also 6’1” with the game of a spark plug scorer. Ball almost has to start because of his draft status (No. 3 overall), and Rozier is a better fit on the perimeter with high-usage players like Ball and Hayward.

Having a surplus of guards is rarely a bad thing. Ball could very easily get time at the 3 to make room for Graham and Rozier, which could shift P.J. Washington to the 5 and really open up the floor. The possibilities are secretly pretty fun in Buzz City.

Miami Heat: How much of last year was a fluke?

Just for clarity, I am not disparaging Miami’s Finals run in The Bubble. No team gets there on pure luck, and at the same time every great team gets lucky along the way. It’s all relative. But Miami had an especially unique run, getting unexpected contributions from guys like Tyler Herro and Jae Crowder and outsmarting everyone thanks to Erik Spoelstra’s work as a taskmaster.

The Heat are legit contenders. They’re roughly the same team as last season, save for Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. being replaced by Moe Harkless and Avery Bradley. But with improvements from the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, and the Boston Celtics treading water, it’ll be quite a bit tougher this year.

Orlando Magic: How near is a rebuild?

Orlando has given no public indication that it wants to sell, but a look at the cap sheet says otherwise. Aaron Gordon, Terrance Ross and Nikola Vucevic are all signed to contracts that decline in value after this season. Evan Fournier only has this season left on his deal, while Gordon has just two.

The rest of the roster is lanky forwards who are valuable individually, but combine for a pretty mediocre group. There aren’t many teams that would lose D.J. Augustin and get significantly worse, but Orlando is one of them; Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony are the only real ball handlers on the roster, and one of them can’t shoot. It’s hard to win without competent lead guards.

Orlando could feasibly approach .500 in this shortened season, but the point seems moot without much of a young foundation. Jonathan Isaac is about to miss the entire 2020-21 season, and then he's a restricted free agent next summer. Fultz hits restricted free agency at the same time. Mohamed Bamba has yet to recover from COVID-19. Anthony and Chuma Okeke are really all the Magic have in terms of cost-controlled talent. They extended their veterans to buy time; now that time is running out.

Washington Wizards: Was the Russell Westbrook trade worth it?

From the Wizards’ perspective, trading John Wall and a protected first round pick in 2023 makes sense. They’re still trying to compete with Bradley Beal, and Westbrook increases their chances to do that simply by being on the court more than Wall. No one knows what Wall will look like after all these injuries; we just saw what Westbrook can do, even if what we saw wasn’t the MVP candidate of the past.

Oddly enough, the Wizards can support him almost as well as the Houston Rockets did. Beal and Davis Bertans are elite shooters, and Thomas Bryant is a legitimate stretch 5. Though in the grand scheme of things, it’s unclear what the Wizards are accomplishing. I guess keeping the team competitive for a little longer is sensible to keep Beal happy, but the East is too deep for them to accomplish more than a first round upset.

A rebuild is probably coming the minute Westbrook’s contract expires (which would be the same time as Beal's, should he opt in for $37.3 million in two years). If nothing else, these next two to three years should be more fun.

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