NBA Southeast Division Preview
Since the NBA moved from a 4 division structure to a 6 division structure with the inception of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004, the infant Southeast Division has been the domain of the Miami Heat. That does not figure to change this season, with Miami returning all of the key components from last season’s team that won the NBA Finals in June.
1. Miami Heat
The biggest challenge for the Miami Heat in the Southeast Division is themselves. This is a team that is constructed for the playoffs, and not for regular season domination. It will be interesting to see how the Heat attempt to stay motivated during the course of the 82 game season.
The epitome of the Heat’s lack of dedication to the 82 game season is Shaquille O’Neal. It has been a number of years since Shaq played a full regular season in peak physical condition and with dedication. For him it's all about getting to the playoffs. At this stage of his career that may be a wise move.
An apt historical precedent for what is taking place with Shaq is what happened with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the second half of the 1980’s with the Lakers. Kareem became more of a complimentary player at the end of his career, as Magic Johnson and James Worthy carried the load. Game 6 was the perfect manifestation of this, as Shaq only had 9 points and 12 rebounds in the clinching game. Five years ago, it is unlikely that the Lakers would have won a game with that sort of performance from Shaq.
Dwyane Wade, now an NBA Finals MVP, is now filling the role of the primary force of the Heat. The most notable aspect of Wade’s efforts during the postseason was his dramatic three-point percentage improvement. During the regular season Wade only shot 17% from three point range. Now he can light it up from outside.
As for the rest of the supporting cast, veterans Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Jason Williams, Antoine Walker and James Posey are known quantities. Can they all stay healthy and motivated now that they have a championship ring?
Miami will be a force to contend with in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but at the expense of sacrificing some wins during the regular season.
2. Washington Wizards
The Wizards made the playoffs for the second consecutive season, but had the misfortune of running into the unstoppable force of LeBron James in the first round, making their playoff stay in 2006 shorter than their stay in 2005.
Gilbert Arenas is the centerpiece of this team, and although he should drive a bit more to get to the line and take advantage of his free throw shooting ability, the scoring point guard has improved almost every season and should continue to do so.
Antawn Jamison is another fundamentally flawed player. As a power forward, Jamison should be focused on playing close to the basket. However, he is more of a perimeter player, which is not something that the Wizards need. His focus on the perimeter is the reason why his field goal percentage has decreased in each of his two years in Washington. With that said, he's extremely talented and a star on the offensive end.
Neither Antonio Daniels nor DeShawn Stevenson is an ideal candidate to be a starting two guard. Both are below average shooters and neither is able to fully compensate for that shortcoming on the defensive end.
In the frontcourt, the Wizards limits are exposed. Caron Butler is a quality small forward at both ends of the court, and he should continue to blossom in his fifth NBA season. Beyond that, both Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas are limited at the center position. As noted earlier, Antawn Jamison does not provide a great deal of low post scoring. His backup, Darius Songalia can provide some of an interior presence, but he should not be a primary interior scoring presence. And Darius is out for at least a month or two.
With the way that the roster is constructed, a first round playoff exit seems to be inevitable.
3. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic finished last season strongly, winning 12 of their final 15 games. There's every reason to believe they can continue playing well this season, and at least compete for a spot in the playoffs.
The Magic are developing a strong frontcourt with Dwight Howard and Darko Milicic. Howard has progressed nicely in each of his two seasons with in Orlando, and continued progression would be a reasonable expectation. He averaged nearly 16 points and 13 rebounds per game last season, and a reasonable performance expectation this season would be 20 points and 13 rebounds per game. Now that Milicic has been given an opportunity to play, his numbers will develop. He should play about 25-30 minutes per game this season, average 10-12 points and 6-8 rebounds per game. In addition, Tony Battie will serve as a competent backup to him, alleviating some of the pressure from Milicic.
The Magic have quality outside shooters to complement an interior strength with Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick. Opponents will have to choose whether to let Howard beat them on the inside or double team Howard and take their chances with Turkoglu and Redick.
The major liability for Orlando is their defense, particularly in the backcourt with Redick and the undersized Jameer Nelson. Nelson is a competent offensive player and possessing good leadership intangibles, but it is going to be difficult for him to compensate for being shorter than the average point guard.
The Magic should be competing with the Pacers and Bucks for a low seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
4. Charlotte Bobcats
In only their third year of existence, the Bobcats are developing a quality core. Emeka Okafor, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Adam Morrison are all quality pieces that can be built around.
The Bobcats have excelled in the NBA Draft during their time in the league, and last June they selected Adam Morrison who fills a glaring weakness from last year, outside shooting. Many teams can learn from the Bobcats’ drafting philosophy, which has been to select the best possible players that help to correct a major roster weakness. The Bobcats have most succumbed to drafting strictly on upside and potential greatness, which is why I believe they have a bright future.
Raymond Felton, who benefitted from Brevin Knight's help last year, appears to have a bright future in Charlotte. Felton must continue to work on his outside shot. He only shot 39% from the field last season and under 36% from 3 point-range. Once he corrects this weakness, his other attributes such as speed, passing and solid decision making should enable him to be a future All Star.
Emeka Okafor and Sean May form a competent combination at the power forward position. Okafor is intelligent and does possess good size, but his ability to stay healthy is a concern. Sean May has the potential to be a good low post scorer, but he was hampered by injuries last year as well. It is truly difficult at this point to project the future for May based on last season’s performance.
The Bobcats also do have decent supporting pieces for their young core with Gerald Wallace, who has increased his point production since coming over with Sacramento, and Primoz Brezec, a big man who can spell Okafor and May some relief up front.
5. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks, a team in dispair from the top on down, have made terrible draft picks in recent years and have mismatched and overmatched personnel.
Marvin Williams, the Hawks’ first round pick in 2005, was not the right choice for them at the time, and after one season looks to be a tweener that is unable to find a niche in the league. At the time Williams was drafted, the Hawks already had Al Harrington, Josh Childress and Josh Smith at the forward position and did not possess a point guard. Last season, the Hawks used Joe Johnson at point guard, preventing them from fully utilizing his talents and Marvin Williams was stuck in a logjam at the forward position.
To their credit, the Hawks did move Harrington this off season and acquired a true point guard in Speedy Claxton. Though, Claxton is considered a backup more than a starter.
The old adage about the tree falling in the forest and but no one hearing it applies to Joe Johnson. As hugely versatile and talented as Johnson is, he was unable to lift the young Hawks on his shoulders. Moving to shooting guard will help.
The Hawks used their first round pick this year on Shelden Williams, an undersized center who will see minutes as a power forward, joins Lorenzen Wright to man the middle.
At the small forward position, Josh Childress and Josh Smith form an imperfect combination, and neither appears to be a player that one can build around as a franchise player. Of the two, Smith is far more talented and versatile.
The Hawks will be lottery bound after this season, and they need to get one of the top three picks. If they get the 4th pick or later in the lottery, that pick will go to Phoenix Suns as a result of the Joe Johnson deal.
The ever-lasting rebuild in Atlanta continues.