Unlike years past, this year the Southeast Division looks wide open. Not only that, it’s the most powerful it’s been in years. The defending division champion Miami Heat may have lost LeBron James, but they still have one of the five best coaches in the NBA, and two to three all star level talents. The Wizards are coming off a year where they advanced to the second round, and some think they should have gone as far as the Eastern Conference Finals. There’s some swagger going on in DC with John Wall claiming to have the best backcourt in the NBA. To help their quest for the conference finals and beyond, the Wizards went out and signed Paul Pierce; another year older, but he’s still as crafty as ever.
Then there’s the Charlotte
Bobcats Hornets. To go with their rebrand, they’ve upgraded the roster, signing Lance Stephenson. Charlotte surprised many last year, grabbing the 7th seed in the East and finishing with 43 wins. They will be looking to have a repeat of last year. Not far behind Charlotte is Atlanta. The Hawks are fully healthy this year, and with Al Horford’s return, they’re looking to make a playoff run of their own. Then there’s…well the Orlando Magic are a team and they play basketball. With a wide open division, it’s anybody’s for the taking. Except the Magic, they are awful.
The Heat are coming off the roughest offseason in the division. They lost LeBron James, and no matter how you spin it, they’ve downgraded. Miami has gone from surefire contender, to being predicted as low as 7th in the East. They have a lot to prove this year if they’re going to earn back some of the respect they’ve lost.
Despite losing LeBron, the Heat still did what they can to replace him. It’s impossible to fully replace LeBron, but I think they got an okay replacement in Luol Deng. While Deng certainly has a lot of mileage on him, he’s unlikely to be one of the top options in Miami. With less of a load on his shoulders, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him play at the all star level he was at in Chicago. Miami also went out and signed Charlotte power forward, Josh McRoberts. After spending last year’s playoffs being a thorn in their side, McRoberts went south to Miami where he can use his incredible passing ability to help find open lanes for the Heat’s slashers. There aren’t many better passing big man than McRoberts, and expect Spoelstra to use that skill well.
The Wizards got some major confidence going into this season. They’re coming off an appearance in the 2nd round of the playoffs, and have been claiming to have the best backcourt in the NBA. Last year, the Wizards finished second in the division, and finished with the 5th seed in the conference. Thanks to the addition of Paul Pierce, and the expected growth of John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards look poised to take the division crown this year, or do they?
While the Wizards definitely appear to be the favorites to win it this year, a lot of it feels like unproven expectations. The Wizards big signing in Pierce is another year older, and there’s an expectation that Beal and Wall will improve. But expecting a team to improved based off of young player improvement is a dangerous road to go down. Yes, players naturally get better as their careers go on. But every once in awhile, there’s a dud year. Not a year where the player is bad, but one where they don’t improve in a major way. This isn’t to say that the Wizards young players won’t improve, just that it’s not a guarantee. There’s also Bradley Beal’s injury that is going to have him missing time early in the year. With the division expected to be as close as it will be, a bad start for the Wizards could cost them.
The Hornets are the dark horse pick to win the division this year. Last year, Charlotte had a top 10 NBA defense and managed to grab the 7th seed in the East. They finished the year strong, and Al Jefferson earned 3rd team All NBA honors. While Charlotte lost to the Heat in a four game sweep, Al Jefferson was injured and they were facing the best team in the East. Had they gotten a different seed, things might have been different for the former NBA punchline.
While the Hornets lost pass happy Josh McRoberts, they gained Lance Stephenson. So they replaced McRoberts creation by passing, with Lance Stephenson’s creation by dribbling. While Stephenson is surely going to fire up more shots, he got all star consideration last year and was the Pacers third best player. However, despite the talent increase, there are a lot of questions with the Hornets. For instance, it’s possible they played a bit over their heads last year and could regress, and there are some questions about forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Everybody knows about the fabled MKG jumpshot, and it looks a lot better this year. In preseason, MKG has looked like a different player on the offensive end, but that’s just preseason. How it will carry over into the regular season, is unknown. There’s also Al Jefferson’s foot, it’s never fully healthy and if he goes down at all this season, that could spell doom for the Hornets winning the division.
For many, the Hawks should be the clear favorites to win the division. They were 3rd in the East and starting to figure things out with Mike Budenholzer last year, until Al Horford went down. The Horford injury changed everything, sending the Hawks into a free fall for the bottom of the playoff race. It seemed like everybody else followed suit, with injury after injury. At one point DeMarre Carroll played center; it was bad. After two horrible west coast road trips, it looked like the Hawks were going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006. But then, just like before, the team started to figure things out. The roster got a little healthier, and the team learned how to play without Horford. Paul Millsap was a beast, taking on the Horford role, but with a newly discovered three point shot. Atlanta managed to claw their way to the 8th seed, and play the Pacers to seven games before bowing out.
This year, the Hawks are fully healthy. While many question Horford’s ability to be healthy, considering both of his long term injuries were freak pectoral tears, it’s unlikely he’s going to suffer another. The rest of the Hawks didn’t have a history of injuries so it would be weird for another season to be filled with them. Taking this into account, and considering the Hawks spent their offseason addressing their biggest weakness last year, perimeter defense, and the Hawks look primed and ready to take the division crown.
But there are questions with the Hawks. They are currently dealing with some big offcourt issues. Their general manager is on indefinite leave, and one of the owners is currently trying to sell the team. No matter what NBA teams will tell you, problems off the court can affect the product on the court. If these off court issues go on too long, or start to take over headlines, then things could damper the Hawks’ high expectations.
The Magic have no chance at winning the division. Not enough talent, too young, and it’s possible the roster actually got worse. Over the offseason, Orlando waived Jameer Nelson and traded away Arron Afflalo for Evan Fournier. Afflalo was getting all star considerations last year, as he put up some pretty solid numbers on a bad team. Meanwhile, Jameer Nelson isn’t anything amazing, but he has experience none of the Magic guards have right now. Veterans win games, rookies and sophomores do not.
To continue the Magic’s busy offseason, they signed Channing Frye, as another addition to their very crowded front court. They also signed shooting guard Ben Gordon, a player that is notorious for butting heads with his coaches, and firing up shots wildly when disinterested. This is a bad team, and there’s no reason to believe Gordon will not have the same problems he’s had in the past.
Orlando added even more players through the draft with two lottery picks. They added forward Aaron Gordon, yet another front court player, and point guard Elfrid Payton. The Payton pick has been getting a lot of buzz, thanks to an impressive showing in summer league and preseason games. The main problem with this team? Nobody can shoot. Sure they have Ben Gordon and Channing Frye, but the majority of the team has to attack the basket, so expect teams to clog the lane against them. The Magic won’t be beating anybody with shooting, meaning they’ll have to do it in transition and on defense. That area, the Magic appear to be stacked. This team is young, athletic, and ready to run. They’ll be looking to create turnovers for scoring opportunities, and they’re gonna have to.