In one of surprises of the offseason, the Southeast division has become one of the league’s least predictable, with some serious potential to produce surprises come playoff time.
One must start the conversation with the Miami Heat, the squad that won this division the last four years. Obviously, with LeBron James gone to Cleveland, everything Miami does will have to be different.
The warning signs for heavy Miami regression are clearly present. When LeBron left Cleveland, nobody thought that the Cavs would fall apart as fully as they did, and contrary to some popular opinion, LeBron did as much for Miami as he did for Cleveland. Dwyane Wade, much maligned during the Finals, probably won’t be able to play a significant role for much of the season because of his chronic knee problems. Moreover, despite his often excellent play last year, Chris Bosh has never proven himself capable of being the focal point of an offense.
Yet, despite the warning signs, there are reasons for positivity. Miami has one of the four best coaches in the league in Erik Spoelstra, and also added Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Shabbazz Napier, and what remains of Danny Granger’s knees. Miami is probably a playoff team, if only because the East remains an inferior conference.
Perhaps more disturbingly, Miami will have to completely revamp its defense with LeBron gone. The fast and aggressive defense that Miami barely executed last year will be untenable, and expecting McRoberts/Bosh lineups to be even average in defensive efficiency is optimistic. Miami will find its way into the playoffs, but a first round exit seems like a fairly safe bet.
Charlotte got swept in the first round last year, but looks like a much more serious contender this year. Lance Stephenson is a controversial player, but he brings some much-needed offensive dynamism from the wing position to the Hornets. He and Kemba Walker may prove awkward backcourt mates, but Lance is an undeniable talent, and is in the right organization for his long term development. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist still has a broken shot, but he’s a very good defender. If shooting coach Mark Price could improve his jumper to a more respectable level, then Charlotte’s offense will see a significant upgrade.
Even though the ‘Cats lost Josh McRoberts, they brought in 10th overall pick Noah Vonleh, a pick acquired from the Ben Gordon trade from years ago. Vonleh is a vote of no confidence for 2013 first rounder Cody Zeller. In a small sample size, Vonleh shot the ball very well from the outside at Indiana, while also bringing excellent defensive and rim protection upside to the table. Charlotte has yet to arrive, but they have one of the most promising cores in the league.
After a tantalizing post-season that saw them almost make the Conference Finals, the Washington Wizards got unequivocally worse this summer. Everyone assumed Washington would sacrifice future flexibility and dramatically overpay Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza. Instead Washington paid Gortat, and let Ariza go, replacing him with a declining Paul Pierce. This made Washington less potent in the short term, but was also very smart. Pierce is not the same player as the now-wildly-overpaid Ariza, but his deal gives the team enough cap room to go after Kevin Durant when he hits free agency after the 2015-2016 season.
John Wall is Washington’s most important player, the closest the Wizards have to a superstar. Bradley Beal, whose reputation vastly exceeds his slightly below average production, has the potential to one day become the player many think he already is. Nene and Marcin Gortat are both decent bigs, even if they are due for some regression after an unusually healthy 2013-2014 campaign.
The team did make a major error this summer by retaining Head Coach Randy Wittman and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the worst coach-GM tandem in basketball. Grunfeld had a mistake-free summer, but should have been fired years ago. All of this aside, the future of this team rests squarely on Kevin Durant and whether he decides to return home to DC.
The Atlanta Hawks, who quietly pushed Indiana to seven games last year, are back, with a chance to be a scary out in the playoffs. With the exception of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, there is very little on this roster to get excited about, yet the Hawks work very well together. Coach Budenholzer is a shooting maniac and has managed to squeeze the best from his roster by imitating Gregg Popovich, his longtime mentor.
The Hawks have become an entertaining and lean bunch, in dramatic contrast to the teams of the Joe Johnson years. Before Al Horford got injured last year, Atlanta was one of the four best teams in the East, a feat they hope to repeat this year with a fully healthy Horford. That being said, Atlanta is not a serious contender. Horford and Millsap are dynamic together, but there is not enough talent in the cupboard to make serious noise. Maybe with one great free agent or draft pick, Atlanta will get to where it needs to be, but the same could also be said of ten other NBA teams.
Now that Cleveland is back in title contention, Orlando Magic fans are once again the longest-tenured miserable fanbase in the league. After trading Arron Afflalo for the potentially useless Evan Fournier and cutting Jameer Nelson, Orlando absolutely had to get its draft right, and its hard to believe that they did. Aaron Gordon is a fan favorite, but he has no position, and can neither shoot nor create his own shot. Elfrid Payton was a workout wonder who brings character and intensity to the point guard position, but like Gordon, he lacks a jump shot. Even an optimistic Magic fan should see that their team is headed for the basement of the Southeast.
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