With plenty of turnover in the off-season, the NBA Southeast division is up for grabs.
There has been tons of change in the Southeast. Dwight Howard has returned home to Atlanta. Can he be the difference-maker he was in the past and propel the Hawks to another level? Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are out of Miami (still feels weird) and the Heat are moving on with a younger core. The Magic have opened up the checkbook in free agency, but will it pay off? Meanwhile, the maturation process continues in Charlotte and Washington, D.C.
How will this all pan out? Let’s preview the 2016-17 NBA season, starting with the Southeast division.
Projected Order of Finish
1. Atlanta Hawks
Even though this will be a new-look Hawks team, I trust head coach Mike Budenholzer to coach the hell out of this group and I think enough core pieces are returning for them win a ton of regular season games. I’m curious to see how Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard can co-exist in the frontcourt. I don’t expect Howard to completely return to form in his hometown, but I do expect him to be more engaged and impactful after the change of scenery. He was clearly upset in Houston and it’s best for all involved that the marriage with the Rockets ended. We’ll see if Howard can avoid clashing with any of his new teammates or coaches. I love Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder among others on this roster, which is why I have the Hawks winning the Southeast Division (with the Charlotte Hornets coming in second). However, there are too many question marks surrounding this squad (particularly Howard) to view Atlanta as a legitimate contender. The Cleveland Cavaliers are obviously the best team in the conference, with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors one notch below the Cavs (in my opinion). After that is where I have the Hawks projected, which honestly isn’t bad after losing Al Horford in free agency and trading away Jeff Teague this summer.
2. Washington Wizards
Not everybody is a believer in the Wizards, but the Southeast is wide open this season and it’s hard to bet against the best individual player in that division in John Wall. A lot of Washington’s success this year will depend not just on how well Wall plays, but on how healthy Brad Beal can be and how much progress Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Trey Burke can make. The frontcourt is a little hard to believe in with Ian Mahinmi, Markieff Morris, Andrew Nicholson and Marcin Gortat likely to hold down the biggest minutes, but Wall and Beal are enough in a weak Southeast to give the Wizards a tremendous opportunity to finish near the top of the standings. While not elite, the Wizards could be one of the East’s top five or six teams, though as always with this group health is everything.
3. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets reached the playoffs in 2014, but then crashed back down to earth and missed out on the festivities in 2015. Then, Charlotte managed to return to the postseason in 2016. Do you see a pattern here? The Hornets lost three productive veterans in free agency this summer with Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee headed to new destinations. Charlotte managed to address their backcourt by bringing in veterans such as Marco Belinelli and Ramon Sessions, while also introducing former All-Star center Roy Hibbert into their frontcourt. The East has improved, but there’s enough uncertainty going on in the conference that Charlotte should be able to break free from their recent trend and reach the playoffs for consecutive seasons.
4. Miami Heat
Back in 2010 when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to join forces, who would’ve thought that Bosh would end up being the final piece remaining from the trio? Yes, things appear to have fallen apart quite quickly in Miami. And even if Bosh is able to play, he will likely make the difference between the HEAT battling for a late playoff spot or tanking their spring away. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Each season, there are surprises and if Dion Waiters and Justise Winslow can find some sort of synergy with Goran Dragic, Miami might be in business. While I like Hassan Whiteside’s story, I am not sure that he is ready to lead a team the way that the HEAT would likely require in the wake of Wade’s departure. The conference is getting tougher around them, so I’m not too keen on the HEAT. It could be a long season in South Beach.
5. Orlando Magic
The Magic spent years after Dwight Howard’s exit sticking to a patient approach to rebuilding their roster. The team was seemingly content building through the draft, letting the youngsters develop and avoiding big free agency expenditures, but the team abruptly changed course this summer. Orlando opened up the piggybank and was active during free agency to bring in veterans Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin while also trading for defensive-minded forward Serge Ibaka. There’s no question the team has gotten better defensively, which has sort of become new head coach Frank Vogel’s calling card. Offensively, the Magic lack a true go-to scorer when things get tight late in games and this will be the primary source of the team’s struggles to get over the hump.