NBA Division Previews: Southeast

Paul Millsap-hawks-2015The Southeast division might hold the most non-contending tough teams in the East. While the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Miami Heat all may have no problem making the postseason, can any of them knock off Cleveland? Or Chicago? That is a tougher wager, even for the constituency bases of the respective clubs.

The Hawks may have been the most unlikely 60 game winner in recent history, but not all are confident the team can really build on last season’s momentum. The Wizards are a team on the rise, but it lost the veteran factor that it benefitted so heavily from in the always-clutch Paul Pierce. The Heat could bounce back quickly after a quick dip into the lottery, and its selection there Justise Winslow could have a lot to do with it, at that.

The Hornets and Magic are only outside threats at accomplishing much, and the Hornets are going to hope Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is healthy and ready to play to the level of his extension. The Hornets are a different team with the defensive standout on the court. Orlando is a team loaded with young talent, but it lacks any real closers. The Magic have been together as a core unit now for three seasons, though, so most are expecting notable improvement under first year coach Scott Skiles.


Atlanta Hawks (60-22)
Championship Odds: +5000
Predicted W/L: 55-27

The Atlanta Hawks may have lost DeMarre Carroll, but it returns Paul Millsap and Al Horford, not to mention the scoring point guard Jeff Teague. The Hawks are a team not overly impressive on paper, but coach Mike Budenholzer has a way of getting blood from an orange, or a Georgia peach maybe, if we are on the game of making silly jokes.

That Atlanta peach last year was able to send shockwaves through the league with a 60-win season, but it fizzled in the postseason as Carroll went down with an injury and the team lacked the power to hang with the Cleveland Cavs, who promptly swept the Hawks in the Conference Finals. After the build up of knocking off Brooklyn easily and disposing of the Wizards in six games, James scored 30 or more in all but a laughable game 4, and Atlanta’s vaunted defense had no answer with its best wing defender on the shelf.

Now Carroll is in Toronto, but Thabo Sefolosha comes off injury (from attack by cop, no less) to probably pick up right where DeMarre left off. The Hawks still have one of the best shooters in league history in Kyle Korver on the wing, and even added a potential star in former Spur Tiago Splitter.

The Hawks have the system to get the absolute most from a team that really is not lacking scoring options, nor is it short in depth. Journeyman Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott can both lead the charge of second unit attacks, and point guard Dennis Schroeder is a feisty little guard capable of nagging opposing points into goofy turnovers. The Hawks have a lot going for itself and are a 50-win team, but repeating last year’s 60 is something of a pipe dream, even if Budenholzer is one of the league’s best strategists.


Washington Wizards (46-36)
Championship Odds: +5000
Predicted W/L: 50-32

The Washington Wizards are a team that no one really wants to face, and the reason lies largely at the point guard position: John Wall is on an absolute quest for respectability and wins. The one year Kentucky Wildcat is one of the best distributors and ball hawks in the league, and with Bradley Beal alongside him the Wiz have one of the best three young backcourts in the league, possibly only bested by the Golden State Warriors.

But are they that good? It depends on how much faith you have in a frontcourt that contains former Georgetown Hoya Otto Porter, Jr., the workhorse Nene Hilario and former Magic center Marcin Gortat. All three are probably at their respective bests on the defensive end, but each also offers valuable qualities on offense too.

Porter is proving himself to be an adequate shooter of triples, while Gortat is one of the league’s best in the pick and roll. The Wizards also have borderline starters backing up all three positions with Jared Dudley, Drew Gooden and Kris Humphries.

Kansas Jayhawk Kelly Oubre Jr. may be a good scorer off the bench, even as a rookie. The 2-guard spot features a literal stable of shooters with Alan Anderson and Gary Neal backing up Beal. The Wizards should have few problems getting spot up shooting both in the first or second unit.

The real matter may be whether the team can weather the loss of the Ancient Paul Pierce. For all Pierce is or is not as a defender, he is a clutch performer who teams absolutely have to worry about at the end of games. The Wizards will assume Wall can take every bit of that role, but having Pierce’s savvy is an x-factor Washington will strive to compensate for. Beal may relish the role of taking more big shots, and the Wizards will have to have him do so because Wall cannot be a smokescreen for himself in the game’s waning moments.


Miami Heat (37-45)
Championship Odds: +3300
Predicted W/L: 43-39

The Miami Heat really got a raw deal when Chris Bosh found himself the victim of a blood clot in his lung. There is no thing as exercising enough caution with such an injury, and the Miami Heat proceeded to deteriorate and (luckily) strike out on the 2015 postseason.

Missing the playoffs proved to be an inestimable boon as the Heat landed Duke swingman Justise Winslow in the NBA Draft, at pick No. 10 no less. Winslow is a top-notch defender, but his athleticism alone should make him a far better offensive player than he got to show in his lone NCAA season. He is capable of performing under pressure as well as handling the ball to set the table for his teammates. Whether he is a shooting guard or small forward, Winslow will have a strength advantage nearly nightly and he can exploit that on the offensive glass.

The Heat also snagged Goran Dragic in a Suns’ foresail at the deadline. Dragic re-signed to team up with Bosh and perennial All-Star Dwyane Wade to virtually give the Heat a Big Three once again. Factoring in that Hassan Whiteside is one of the league’s absolute best young frontcourt talents, and the picture in Miami begins to become pretty clear: This is a team that can contend with Chicago and Miami. Luol Deng still has some left in the tank and will serve as a mentor to Winslow for this season.

Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier are both out of the picture, but Mario Chalmers is as good as any backup point in the league and the Heat will try to revitalize Amar’e Stoudemire, who brings good scoring ability even if he is a shadow of a his former shadow. Chris Birdman Andersen is a bargain defender who stayed loyal to the Heat after they rescued his career from a desecration and path to destruction. The Heat have kept together a nice unit that at least strikes fear into Eastern Conference foes.


Orlando Magic 25-57

Championship Odds: +25000
Predicted W/L: 33-49

The Orlando Magic have too much talent to win 25 games. That much is clear, and it is also why the team quickly ran through two coaches in Jacque Vaughn and his intern replacement James Borrego. Now, with a capable head coach in Scott Skiles, the Magic hope the added stability will transform its young roster. The chips in place seem to paint the picture of a far better club, but perhaps the numbers are inflated? Are Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris really capable of leading the Magic out of the cellar and towards the postseason?

Or is it Nikola Vucevic? That seems to be one of the main problems for this Magic team, deciding exactly who should do what. It became an even uglier problem on the defensive end for the Magic, who often looked confused as to what team defense really even is. The result was a lot of fouling from the backups like Kyle O’Quinn and Dewayne Dedmon and less inspired play from a guy who was supposed to be a veteran stronghold in Channing Frye.

The Magic still really do not have any real options at power forward, unless Aaron Gordon makes a quantum leap from his rookie season and becomes a viable starter this quickly. That seems somewhat unlikely, even if he did have a standout summer league session.

Second-year point guard Elfrid Payton is the most exciting player on Orlando’s roster, even if he is not the dunker Oladipo is nor the lights out shooter that rookie Mario Hezonja is. The point is that the Magic have so many weapons that to expect less than 30 wins seems like NBA heresy. Yet that is exactly what ESPN gave Orlando in its preseason predictions.

Hezonja may or may not add a lot, but this is a team still with Evan Fournier to provide its second unit lift. While Orlando is certainly far from striking fear into the East’s contenders, it could be a low seed that those teams fear drawing if only because this team has the potential to be a defensive nightmare. It seems almost as though that may have factored in when selecting a defensive-minded coach in Scott Skiles.

Charlotte Hornets (33-49)

Championship Odds: +25000
Predicted W/L: 31-51

The Charlotte Hornets quickly walked away from the failed Lance Stephenson experiment and added one of the best defending swingmen in the league in Nicolas Batum. It also lost Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with a torn labrum in his shoulder that will keep him out at least six months, meaning until the final weeks of the 2016 season. Whether or not he is brought back at that point will only be determined on the basis of whether or not this Hornets team is contenders at that point. Odds are, it will not be.

That is not to say this team lacks options. It has a proven scrub in Marvin Williams replacing MKG, and Cody Zeller is as good as any stiff backed by another pair of stiffs (Frank Kaminksy and Tyler Hansbrough).

But in all seriousness, teams have no choice but to double Al Jefferson and the Hornets also have a few gunners coming off the bench like Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb and Aaron Harrison. Harrison could even outperform the much more vaunted Kaminksy in their rookie seasons. Lamb showed himself to be starter worthy while in Oklahoma City and could be a sneak hoist this offseason for the Hornets.

The guy who has not been mentioned here is the talent that makes it all go: Kemba Walker. He is finally starting to get some help from his teammates, though the Hornets still only won 33 games a year ago.

Walker is capable of exploding for big nights, but he also is a capable playmaker and far from a shoot-first gunner. While he did post the No. 2 most points his senior season at UConn, he has evolved into a very wise point guard. With Batum helping him control backcourts, Walker may be able to breathe easier and have still more for his offensive barrages. An interesting development will be to see if the Hornets decide to start Lamb and shift Batum to small forward. It makes as much sense as any other potential lineup in a season without arguably the best Hornet in Kidd-Gilchrist.

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