With the 2019-20 NBA season less than a month away, we’re exploring the most interesting players for each team in the Southeast Division.
We’re now less than a month away from the start of the 2019-20 NBA season. Coming off one of the most interesting offseasons in recent memory, it feels like an appropriate time to dig into the situations surrounding some of the most interesting players in the league.
With that in mind, over the next few days, we’re going division by division and spotlighting the most interesting player on each team. Note that some teams will have more than one player if the situations are similar enough, but they’ll all get their appropriate shine.
DeAndre’ Bembry, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish, Atlanta Hawks
For the most part, we know what the Hawks will look like on the floor.
They’re going to run up and down the floor, shoot a ton of threes, and generally try to look like Warriors-lite. Trae Young is going to have the ball in his hands almost all of the time. He might run somewhere in the neighborhood of a million pick and rolls. John Collins will be his primary dance partner. Kevin Huerter will space the floor, attack closeouts, get out on the break, and snipe from deep. Alex Len will be out there doing Alex Len things, which last season included stretching out to the three-point line. Evan Turner seems like he’s in line to play some of the same de facto backup point guard role he filled in Portland last season. Jabari Parker will try to score and will definitely be scored upon.
The question marks surround what they’re going to get from their three combo forwards, two of whom are rookies. Young, Collins, and Huerter form the foundation of what should at least be a solid offense. Once Young got going last season (he averaged 23 points and 9 assists per game on a 44-35-85 shooting line from Jan. 13 on), the Hawks scored at a rate that would have ranked seventh in the league if they’d maintained it over the course of the full season. So long as they get competent shooting surrounding that trio, the Hawks should field an above-average scoring unit.
What they really need from these three guys is defense.
Young, unsurprisingly, was one of the worst defenders in the league last season. He’s incredibly short and slight, and he provides almost no resistance to ball-handlers on the move. That’s fine. The Hawks knew exactly what they were getting when they drafted him, and so long as he develops into a smart positional defender who can take calculated risks for steals, his offensive exploits will make him an incredibly valuable player.
Huerter can do a fine-enough Klay Thompson impression on offense eventually, but despite having similar size (6-foot-7, 190 pounds), he is not nearly the same caliber of defender as Thompson. Not many players are, but his and Young’s deficiencies on that end make clear that the version of this type of team that former Warriors executive and current Hawks GM Travis Schlenk is building will need to get more defensive help from the wings than the Splash Brothers necessitated. (They got plenty of help, to be clear. They just didn’t *need* it as much as these guys will.)
Hunter was arguably the best defensive player in the draft, and Reddish did far more defensively at Duke than he did on the other end. They both have ideal size, length, and strength to defend multiple positions, which they’ll need to do on a team that features these guards. Bembry is a bit shorter and lighter than the rookies, but he has the advantage of having been in the league for a while, so he should have a better handle on defensive schemes and the particular strengths and weaknesses of players around the league.
Having to rely on rookies to be part of the backbone of your defense is not an ideal position to be in. Almost all rookies are bad defensively. But the Hawks may have acquired the rare players who are set up for success on that end, and it seems like they specifically targeted them for that reason.
Malik Monk, Charlotte Hornets
Can we please just let Malik Monk cook? Look, this dude has not been all that good in the NBA. In two seasons, he’s shooting 37.6 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from 3. And shooting is supposed to be, like, what he does. It’s bad.
But not only has Monk not been put in position to succeed, he has rarely even been given a chance to do so. Former Hornets coach Steve Clifford yanked Monk’s minutes around during his rookie season and even excised him from the rotation almost entirely for an extended stretch in the middle of the year. He went from Nov. 7 to Mar. 31 without playing 20-plus minutes in back-to-back games. His second season, under new coach James Borrego, featured more of the same.
But Kemba Walker is gone now. The Hornets don’t have to pretend they’re trying to make the playoffs anymore! They can try to dump their large contracts and just do this thing the right way. If that’s the route they’re going — and it should be — they have to give Monk a chance to show them exactly what he is. It would have been preferable for them to do that before they had to make a decision on his fourth-year option, but that ship has essentially sailed. They should at least give him the season to prove what he’s got.
Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Obviously, the big news in Miami this offseason was the acquisition of Jimmy Butler. But quietly, the Heat’s various moves emphasized that these two guys are incredibly important to whatever this team becomes in the future.
Winslow, in particular, has a fascinating role to play. His performance last season absolutely took off after he became the starting point guard in mid-December. From Dec. 22 on, Winslow played 30.7 minutes per game and averaged 13.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 37.8 percent on 4.6 3-point attempts per game. THAT is an awesome player, the kind of impact guy the Heat envisioned when they turned down any and all possible trade-ups for him on draft day.
Winslow seems unlikely to be a full-time point guard so long as Goran Dragic is still in Miami; but this is the final year of Dragic’s contract. It’s entirely possible he could be used as a trade chip. (The Heat seem like the most likely team in the NBA to make a league-rocking trade at some point, given the kinds of contracts they have.) Or that he could miss time due to injury again. He’s 33 years old now, after all.
And if either of those things happens, the Heat should just lean into the whole Winslow-at-point-guard thing full-time. Even if Dragic stays both healthy and on the team, Winslow should get ample time as his backup. Erik Spoelstra has been open to unconventional ideas in the past, and he should remain open to this one.
Adebayo has been wildly productive on a per-minute basis as the backup to Hassan Whiteside, but Whiteside is gone now. Meyers Leonard, who was acquired in the deal, is not going to be this team’s starting center. Spoelstra values defense too much to have it be Kelly Olynyk. This is Bam’s job. That doesn’t mean he’s suddenly going to start playing 38 minutes a night, but he should at least get into the high-20s and maybe even low-30s.
He’s a ridiculous athlete, with a bSPARQ rating in the 97th percentile among all bigs who have participated in the NBA combine since 2000. He’s got good timing both on defense and as a roll man. He’s a really underrated passer, and Spoelstra is unafraid to use him in all different kinds of actions. He brings more to the table than Whiteside did, and that should shine through this season.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon wants to play like Paul George or LeBron James. He should be playing like Shawn Marion or Draymond Green. Whether he’s willing to accept and lean into that latter style could mean the difference between the Magic being a nice team and them being something more than that. There’s an opening in the East for someone to emerge as the third or fourth team behind the Bucks and 76ers; if Gordon levels up, the Magic are in that mix. If he doesn’t, they’re a bottom-half playoff team and likely first-round out once again.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Beal is the most impactful potential trade chip in the league right now. New Wizards GM Tommy Shepard has said he doesn’t want to trade Beal, but Beal has also given no indication that he’s going to accept the extension the Wizards have offered him. (The extension would pay Beal $111 million over three years.) There are still two seasons left on his current deal, but with John Wall expected to miss most of this year, we can reasonably expect the Wizards to be largely non-competitive. That means there will be pressure to trade Beal either at the deadline or the draft, just so Washington can ensure it gets something for him if he decides to leave.
Beal is a star and should be widely coveted around the league. Any team in their right mind would rightly conclude that Beal would make them better, and fit nicely alongside whatever players with whom they want him to share the floor. That’s the benefit of having an elite shooter who can also do plenty of damage with the ball in his hands. The tricky thing is figuring out who might be motivated to trade for him, and what they might be able (or willing) to offer.
A few candidates:
- The Celtics. Obviously. They have Gordon Hayward for salary-matching purposes. They have Jaylen Brown and plenty of other non-Jayson Tatum prospects who could be added to a potential deal. And if they decide they don’t want to extend Brown or sign him long-term at the price his agents are reportedly asking for, it would make sense to use him to acquire a long-term partner for Kemba Walker in the backcourt. Beal would make for a fantastic fit, and Danny Ainge has long been unafraid to shoot his shot for stars when they become available, so long as he considers them worthy of splurging for.
- The Nets. Things are made more difficult here because Caris LeVert’s extension doesn’t kick in until next year, but something built around Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and Taurean Prince, plus whatever picks the Wizards can extract, wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Wiz decide they want to trade to compete when Wall gets healthy again. Brooklyn’s got to go all-in during the short time they have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant locked in, and Beal would make a terrific partner for that duo.
- The Heat. As mentioned previously, they are ripe for a league-rocking trade and they have the contracts, the motivation, and the history of pulling off things like this in the past.
- The Nuggets. This is not typically the kind of thing Denver does, and they have come up empty the last few times they have chased meetings with star free agents; but Beal is not a free agent, and they’d have the better part of two years to convince him to stick around and play with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. They have plenty of ammo to make a deal, too.
- The Spurs. A deal built around DeMar DeRozan’s contract and one of the Spurs’ many young guards makes a good amount of sense here. Beal seems like a very Spurs-y player, and the kind of guy who could fit with either of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White over the next several seasons.
- The Mavericks. It’s difficult for them to make an offer that would actually entice the Wizards given that they don’t have a lot of good salaries to with which to match; they don’t have enticing young prospects who are not part of their long-term plans; and they have already sent two future first-round picks to the Knicks; but man, imagine Beal playing with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. He would have a field day.
- The Lakers. Stop. They don’t have the salaries to match or really anything else the Wizards would want.