With the regular season almost here, theScore basketball writers Joseph Casciaro, William Lou, Alex Wong, and Joe Wolfond sat down to chat about the major storylines impacting the Southeast Division:
Alex Wong: Dwight Howard's been on four of these teams. (laughs)
Moderator: And on that note ... welcome to the Southeast Division chat. First things first: Is this the year Washington finally wins 50 games?
Joseph Casciaro: No.
William Lou: No.
AW: Never. Never give the Wizards 50 wins.
JC: The Wizards are the masters of finding a way to be good-ish but nowhere good enough. And you think about this era, the John Wall-Bradley Beal years, but even if you got back to the Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison years, when injuries would derail them. They're either not good enough, or something derails them. But firmly believe we're never going to see this team reach that stratosphere. They legitimately haven't won 50 games since they won the championship 40-plus years ago.
WL: Literally 40 years ago.
Joe Wolfond: Wes Unseld, baby!
JC: And if you look at what they did last year, they squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed ...
AW: And they hated each other! And they they added Dwight Howard, who everyone hates!
WL: And Austin Rivers, who everyone also low-key hates.
AW: I think Austin Rivers is kinda cool. I kinda like him. More than Dwight.
JC: Top to bottom, they're such a joke.
JW: The Bullets team that won the championship was a 44-win team.
JC: So even when they win ... there's something in the water there. Ernie Grunfeld has been their GM through all this mediocrity, he's been their GM for, like, 14 years, and keeps getting extended. What incentive is there for this guy ... I'm not saying that he's purposely building a mediocre team, but at the same time, if you continually get rewarded for getting to the playoffs three out of five years, and one of those years getting to the second round, there's literally no incentive for this guy to build a consistent winner.
WL: Shameless plug: the Wizards can win 50 games if they do the following things ... they can't forget about Otto Porter. Otto Porter led the league in 3-point percentage after the All-Star break. They need to find somebody to close games; last season they weren't bad at staying in games, they were just really crappy at closing it out. Bradley Beal was kind of overextended because John Wall was hurt, but either one of Beal or Wall needs to become better at closing and managing games. We've seen them have clutch moments before, but they only happen in the playoffs. In the regular season, they're really not good. And if they can sell Dwight Howard on the role - and at that point, the argument's going to come apart, because Howard is going to want his post-ups, and John Wall is going to be mad at him. But on paper, Dwight Howard is much, much better than Marcin Gortat. At minimum, Dwight Howard can dunk a ball and rebound. And Gortat couldn't do that last year.
JW: First of all, Cash won't rest until Ernie Grunfeld is fired.
JC: Because it boggles my mind! In pro sports, where guys get fired ... you know how hard it is for a GM to last five, six, seven years? This guy's going on 15 years - and he hasn't done anything!
JW: This has become very personal for you, though. I feel like you internalize this, and you go home every night and pour over these documents on your corkboard trying to figure out why Ernie Grunfeld still had a job.
JC: He's gotta have something on Ted Leonsis, man. I'm telling you. He got extended at the beginning of last year!
JW: I feel like this is the first year in the last little while where there's actually Wizards fatigue, and people aren't expecting them to be good. I feel like the last few years, everyone's gone into the season saying, "Yo, this is the year! It's the Wizards' time!" this year, everyone's like, "No, it's not happening for the Wizards this year." And I feel like the Dwight Howard thing was a pretty desperate gambit. He's fine - I still think that he's better than Gortat. In theory, he should make their team better. I just don't think it's going to make much of a difference at the end of the day.
WL: They have better depth than they had last year, so on that basis, I'll say they have 49 wins. But they're not getting to 50; they never do.
JW: It depends on how healthy John Wall is. Two years ago, John Wall was a top-15 player.
JC: Two years ago was two years ago.
JW: But I'm just saying, he's one season removed from being one of the top 15 players in the league. And if he didn't get hurt last season, I feel like we would be telling a different story. And obviously he came back and wasn't quite the same guy. And when he was injured, it brought all this other stuff to the surface where the rest of the team was taking not-so-subtle pot shots at him, talking about how "everybody was eating" because he wasn't there dominating the ball. They got derailed in more ways then one when he got hurt. If he stays healthy and can return to his 2016-17 form, then they can win 50 games. They won 49 that year, and Beal is better now than he was then. And the rest of the roster is better.
Moderator: So Jimmy Butler loves South Beach, and South Beach loves him back. Would a Butler trade make Miami the No. 4 team in the East?
JC: I don't think it makes them the No. 4 team in the East, just because the rest of the roster otherwise is mediocre. I still think you have to do it if you're Miami; this is another team that doesn't have much cap space, and no real means to get better other than trying to sell South Beach again in three years. If they have a chance to get him, they have to. I do think that Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau have a shared connection of maniacal work - and I think Jimmy Butler and Pat Riley would take that connection to another level.
AW: Maybe Jimmy just doesn't get along with anyone. He didn't get along with people in Chicago, either. Once he was elevated to that leadership role, he was calling out (Fred) Hoiberg ...
JC: He has a prickly personality.
JW: He got along with (Dwyane) Wade. I think it's more like, there's a certain personality that he needs to jibe with. But Miami has that culture of buttoned-up professionalism, and they run everyone on their team through these insane workouts, and everyone has to have a body fat of nine percent or less.
WL: Going back to the original question of how good this team could be with Butler, I think they're definitely a guaranteed playoff team if they take Jimmy Butler in, but it's just a question of how good a team with Butler as the lead man is going to be. Even last season, I think that's probably the most talent he has played with, complimentary-wise; (Karl-Anthony Towns) is phenomenal. And they were good, but they weren't that good. And even with the Bulls teams, Butler didn't play with any really good players, but they weren't 50-win teams, they were teams that just kind of scratched and played really good defense. And I don't think it'll be any different on this team. Jimmy Butler's going to be Jimmy Butler, and if everyone gets along, they probably come out with 48 wins and be last year's Pacers.
JC: As much as I like guys like Bam (Adebayo), and Josh Richardson, and (Justise) Winslow, I don't think there's a single person on this Heat roster they should make untradeable when making a move. They just have a bunch of ... even their young, so-called blue-chip guys aren't blue-chip guys.
AW: And Pat Riley is trying to win one more time.
JC: Right. I think whether it's Jimmy Butler or another superstar, if they become available in trade, I think the Heat should go all-in on trying to get this done. They're not building anything for the future with what they've got now - so take a swing for the present.
Moderator: Of the other three teams in this division, which one interests you the most, and why?
WL: But Trae Young's not bad, guys, come on.
AW: But he's going to be compared to that trade forever.
WL: Trae Young's a good a passer. A really nice passer.
AW: Is there anything interesting in Orlando?
JC: Mo Bamba. Honestly, I was going to say Orlando just because of Mo Bamba. Really.
JW: I'm legitimately interested in Orlando. I might be the only one.
JC: You've got a weird thing for the Magic, though. I think that's a weird roster, but Aaron Gordon's interesting. I just want to see Mo Bamba play NBA basketball.
JW: They've got the most imbalanced roster in the league, and I'm super-fascinated to see how it works. It won't, is probably the answer there. But ...
JC: I think Bamba is the most tantalizing defensive prospect in a few years, and I don't know if he's going to end up being a good NBA player, but I'm fascinated to see him on the court. And even the whole culture thing ... I was a little concerned when they drafted him because I think for a guy like that, whose basketball skills are still very raw, you want him in the right environment. And I don't know how many of us would say that Orlando is the right environment. But I also don't think that's fair to the new regime. Jeff Weltman's in there now. It's not the prior regime. I'll say Orlando, strictly because of Bamba.
WL: I'm gonna say Charlotte. I think Charlotte is a sneaky contender to get back into the playoffs; they just have a lot of solid players. Miles Bridges is going to be one of those players that, for a rookie, will be really impressive. He's already very physically developed. Malik Monk is a guy who should get a lot more opportunities in an offense that allows for more creativity. And I think Kemba Walker is the best player of these three teams that we're talking about. I don't think anyone in Orlando or Atlanta even comes close to what Kemba does. And you look at the rest of the roster, Dwight's gone, Cody Zeller is there, he's always a plus-minus god ... they could win 40 games and get the eighth seed over Detroit.
JC: I love how, with the Eastern Conference, we can wax poetic about a team for five minutes, and then the end line is: "They can win 40 games."
JW: The reason Charlotte's not interesting is because I feel like probably they're the most static team in the East. That team hasn't really changed in three or four years. Their roster construction has been basically the exact same. Dwight was there, and now he's not there, but that's really the only significant difference.
Moderator: Which one guy will be this year's Southeast Division breakout player?
JW: I really like Bam. He profiles like a distinctly modern big. He doesn't really shoot, but he does everything else. He can switch, he's physical, he can rebound, he can pass. I like the way that he moves for a guy his size. And he's an intelligent player who I feel like, playing in an Eric Spoelstra system, could really turn into a two-way impact player.
JC: I have to agree, just because this division is so ... I don't want to say miserable, but yeah, it's miserable. Washington's good-ish, Miami should be decent, but outside of that, it's not very good. You asked for fascinating players and I gave you Mo Bamba. So a guy like Bam Adebayo ...
AW: Jeremy Lin. (laughs)
WL: I feel like you guys are sleeping on Trae Young a little bit, man. He's worth watching. He really is.
JW: Can you call a rookie a breakout player? What is he breaking out of?
WL: You want a breakout player? It's Jeremy Lamb. Jeremy Lamb was low-key good last year.
JC: Can I give you a re-breakout year? I think Nic Batum re-breaks out.
WL: The only thing he's going to re-break is his body.
AW: Dwight Howard. Defensive player of the year.
WL: Yo, come on. Get out of here.
JW: What was it that his agent said? He's going to evolve into Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis?
AW: In China, maybe.
Moderator: Let's get to your Southeast Division predictions.
JC: What I want to say is that Ernie Grunfeld will finally ... (laughs) You know what? If we're gonna get bold, let's get bold: the Wizards find a way to not win this division. Everyone's just assuming that they'll cruise, but the Wizards will not win the division.
AW: Vince Carter has the dunk of the year on Dwight Howard.
WL: Yo, remember when KG dunked on Blake Griffin? It's gonna be like that.
AW: When was that?
WL: In his second tour with the Timberwolves, when he was trying to buy the team, but he was actually playing on the roster. And he dunked all over ...
AW: Oh yeah! And he was talking so much smack.
WL: It's gonna be like that. Old man dunk.
JW: I'm going to predict this is the lamest division in all of basketball. No, I will say that the Heat do not acquire Jimmy Butler, and as a result, they get leapfrogged in the standings by the Pistons.
WL: The hot take is going to be that nobody in this division wins 40 games, but I'll say that the Hornets will make the playoffs.
JW: What do you get if you win a division now?
JC: Literally nothing.
JW: Okay, so here's my prediction: Nobody in the Southeast make the playoffs, and the Wizards win the division with 38 wins and hang a division-winning banner ...
JC: And it gets Ernie Grunfeld extended!
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