The NBA: where amazing happens. Don’t believe me? Well then you get watch the propaganda spewed out by David Stern with his commercials during the NBA Playoffs. Or, if you want more concrete evidence, watch the Orlando Magic’s meteoric rise to the NBA Finals last season. Given no credit during preseason predictions last season, the Magic went from being an “above average” team to now being the defending Eastern Conference Champion. But the Magic did not make it without problems. The credibility of their coach came into question at the first quotable reference from Shaquille O’Neal. The offensive game of Dwight Howard was critiqued at every level. Hedo Turkoglu was criticized, loved, and then all but disowned by the Magic fan base and organization. So even though the Magic are the defending division and conference champion, they enter this year with new players, a new mentality but with the same goal as everyone in this division: win the NBA Championship.
The southeast division isn’t the most star studded division to take the court but they’re a solid bunch all with hopes of duplicating Orlando’s success from last season. Miami went from winning 15 games, to riding Dwyane Wade back to the postseason last year. Washington, playing all of last year without Gilbert Arenas, will look to do the same thing this season. Meanwhile, a team like Atlanta hopes to take the big step forward that Orlando took last season while a team like Charlotte is full of talent, but still trying to find its identity in hopes of making the first postseason appearance in franchise history.
With new players, returning players and everything in between, this division has a whole new feel to it. However, as solid as it is, it’s not crowded at the top. Orlando enters this season as the team to beat in this division but you have four hungry and capable teams rounding out the division. From two to five, the division is really tight and could really fluctuate. There should be no doubt, however, that this is Orlando’s division to lose.
This is how I predict the Southeast Division will turn out for the 2009-2010 season.
1. Orlando Magic – Last season’s run for Orlando was a sight to behold. Dwight Howard captured hearts and accolades with his performance all year and is now established as the unquestioned best center in the league. Things looked bleak as far as a run in the playoffs was concerned when Jameer Nelson was lost for the season. But the Magic pulled off a terrific trade for Rafer Alston and made the NBA Finals. Stan Van Gundy was mentioned as one of the best coaches in the NBA, but when he got into a public exchange of words with Shaquille O’Neal, he was accused of being a “master of panic” and immediately Van Gundy was under intense scrutiny. Every mistake, every play was overly scrutinized in the postseason and every time that Van Gundy’s Magic lost a game, he was immediately blamed for it. Even Marcin Gortat, the backup center for the team, came out and criticized the coach in a newspaper published in his native country during the postseason. Somehow, Van Gundy was still able to rally his troops to upset victories in series against the defending champion Boston Celtics and the indestructible Cleveland Cavaliers before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers (another loss he was blamed for).
The Magic enter this season without Hedo Turkoglu, who has been the big floor manager for them for both seasons of the Van Gundy regime. Once he left for the money in Toronto, the Magic jettisoned the often criticized Rafer Alston, backup big man Tony Battie and promising rookie Courtney Lee to bring in Florida native Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson. This gives the Magic a new dimension that Turkoglu really couldn’t bring and that’s athleticism. Now, not only will the team be able to shoot the long distance shot, they can also run the floor better and really push it out in transition. A healthy Jameer Nelson and the NBA return of Jason Williams, signed to be a backup here in Orlando, will also help matters in terms of pushing the tempo. The Magic are blessed with solid depth at every position across the board and should use that to their advantage all season long. With the new addition of Matt Barnes, they can start he or Mickael Pietrus at the three and Vince Carter at the two. Barnes and Pietrus both give the Magic incredible defensive effort and three point shooting, so either can be used for different matchups. With big men like Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat on the bench, the Magic are one of the few teams that has premium big men at their disposal. This may help Rashard Lewis avoid having to play bigger men for extended minutes during the game.
All in all, the Magic enter this season with a swagger that was missing going into last season’s Eastern Conference Champion team. Time will tell if the addition of Vince Carter is an upgrade over Hedo Turkoglu or if the chemistry will be missing with Turkoglu gone. But there’s no denying that the talent is there, the experience is there and the mentality is there. Now they just need to take that last step to get the job done.
2. Atlanta Hawks – Pigs may not be able to fly. Dogs may not able to speak English and Tony Romo may not be able to win a playoff game. But another miracle is taking place right before our eyes, consistency is residing in the Atlanta Hawks franchise. Not that they hadn’t been consistent before; if you include consecutive last place finishes consistency. But with Mike Woodson entering his fifth year at the head coaching spot and with the Hawks fresh off not only their second straight postseason appearance but their first playoff series victory in ten years, the Hawks display promise, direction and, dare I say it, consistency. The acquisition of Joe Johnson has a lot to do with that, as he’s given the Hawks a solid first option for the last four seasons and has stepped up continuously when the team has needed it. The acquisition of Mike Bibby also has done a lot, as it’s given the Hawks leadership and experience when they had none of it outside of Johnson prior to Bibby arriving. But, when you show promise expectations arrive, and now it’s time for the Hawks to start showing that they can take a new step in the right direction. Al Horford really proved to be key for the Hawks last year, and there’s no doubt that his injury played a big factor in why the Hawks were so outmatched against Cleveland in the Semifinals. He needs to stay healthy and continue to improve his game as the Hawks are a much better team when he’s being assertive and looking for possessions. The Hawks also missed Marvin William in the postseason, as the guard and forward was beginning to play a huge role in the team’s development. But his injury also derailed the team’s momentum.
Josh Smith enters the season with no contract problems, no questions about his game, this is going to be his team sometime in the near future. He’s still prone to taking too many jump shots, but Smith has really evolved his game the last few seasons and stepped up his performance in the postseason. That was crucial to the Hawks winning that playoff series against Miami. Coming off the bench, the Hawks have two solid big men in Zaza Pachulia and free agent signee Joe Smith. Gone is Flip Murray from last season’s squad, but they upgraded the sixth man-combo guard role with the acquisition of Jamal Crawford. Crawford, if he openly accepts this diminished role, should flourish being the first option off the bench with no other assignment other than to score. He and Maurice Evans are a solid offensive duo on any squad and really give the Hawks options past the starting five.
It’s hard to tell if any further progression will be made in Atlanta this season, but the seeds are in place for this team to grow and evolve. Staying healthy and staying hungry are huge keys for the team and how they start the season will speak wonders about what should be on the horizon in Atlanta.
3. Washington Wizards – Last season was disastrous in our nation’s capital. Washington had injuries to everyone on the roster outside of Antawn Jamison, got their coach fired and watched an abysmal season get worse until it mercifully ended with 63 losses. But there’s a new feeling of refreshment in Washington and it has everything to do with players on the team getting healthy, and not the turnover from last season’s squad. Gilbert Arenas has played all of 15 games the last two seasons and his scoring and ability to give the team options in the clutch was sorely missed last season. He had another knee surgery after signing his big free agent contract last offseason, but the Wizards seem determined to give him, Caron Butler and Jamison one more run at a championship. The biggest setback to this is that the Wizards never showed any kind of elite potential when all three were on the court together in the first place, and Butler, himself, has missed an average of 19 games a year since arriving to Washington. But the Wizards are still optimistic and the arrival of Flip Saunders should help fuel that optimism.
Although his reputation has taken a beating, Flip Saunders really has shown an ability to exceed during the regular season, something the Wizards must first do before approaching any talks of winning a championship. He has a sound feel for the game on the offensive side of the ball and should be able to find a way to maximize the talent on the roster. Having options like Randy Foye and Mike Miller on the bench should only help matters in Washington, as their thin bench last year became almost laughable. Nick Young will either settle into the starting two guard role or will go back to the bench this year, something that will also help with the depth of this squad. Brendan Haywood also is returning from injury this year for Washington, and he and newly acquired Fabricio Oberto give the Wizards solid big man depth as well.
The pieces are in place in Washington for another postseason run by the Wizards. Healthier players, new players and a new coach have helped ease the memory of last season’s disaster. The optimism is legit, as the prospects of a playoff appearance are good for the Wizards. But talks of a championship, or a run at the Finals, seem a bit premature. Especially with all the growing they’ll have to do this year.
4. Miami Heat – It’s amazing, but it seems so long ago that Shaquille O’Neal was manning down the center position in Miami and the Heat were winning championships. Amazingly, it’s only been three seasons. But the Heat hit bottom hard when the injury bug bit start guard Dwyane Wade and they seemed to be a franchise heading nowhere in a hurry. Wade stayed healthy last season, though, and followed up his spectacular play in the Summer Olympics with an MVP-Caliber season and leading the Heat to a postseason appearance. The biggest problem in Miami, though, was that Wade seemed to be doing it all by himself. Michael Beasley took a long time to develop and then crumbled this offseason. Mario Chalmers was solid all season as a starting point guard, even as a second round rookie, but still heard rumors about being replaced all offseason. Even a flirting session with free agent Allen Iverson didn’t seem to do much to give Wade hope that help was on the horizon, so it’s hard to imagine the Heat believing they can be any better than they were last season.
One reason for optimism is that Wade is in the prime of his career and all the young players (and head coaches) on the team are a year older. Last season’s run at the playoffs did a lot for the franchise but they did nothing to truly expand on it. Jermaine O’Neal is still going to be the team’s starting center and will have his first full year with Miami while doing it. But his inconsistent play and continued battle with injuries don’t do much to ensure he’ll be there for the entire ride. And instead of improving the backup big men on the team, the Heat opted to resign both Joel Anthony and Jamaal Magloire. Daequan Cook and Chris Quinn give the team three point shooters off the bench and Udonis Haslem continues to man down the power forward position for this squad, but there wasn’t much excitement last year even during the team’s postseason push. All of the attention and praise went to Dwyane Wade and his MVP Chase.
If the Heat are to take any steps forward, the maturation process with Chalmers and Michael Beasley will really have to take fruition. Or else they’ll be stuck in the middle of the pack just as they were last year. Having to do everything by himself could cause Wade to burn out and that could only spell doom for Miami.
5. Charlotte Bobcats – The Charlotte Bobcats are a hard team to figure out. They have one of the greatest coaches in NBA history on the bench. They have the best player to play the game as an executive and talent scout, and they have a solid bunch of role players, veterans and young players on the squad to really make up a solid team. However, there just seems to be no reason for excitement in Charlotte. The environment there didn’t change much this offseason when the Bobcats traded Emeka Okafor to the Hornets for Tyson Chandler. Chandler has a long history of injuries and inconsistent play, although he’s just as good as Okafor at the center position. If he can stay healthy, it will really do wonders for this squad and it’s ability to run the floor. But chances are he won’t be able to do that. In order to make a run at the postseason, the Bobcats acquired veteran role players Raja Bells, Boris Diaw, Vladimir Radmonovic, and DeSagana Diop. But it didn’t pay off as the team narrowly missed the postseason and is now stuck with bloated contracts from all four players.
They recently brought back Raymond Felton, who watched his job go to rookie guard D.J. Augustin. Augustin did a lot off the bench for the Bobcats before fading down the stretch last season. With some proper conditioning, he can really give the Bobcats hope to be that point guard of the future. Gerald Wallace looks to have a bounce back season after struggling with injuries all of last season. With Okafor gone, Wallace is now the only original Bobcat on the squad and is the unquestioned leader of the team. If he can stay healthy it’d do wonders for the team on the court and in the locker room. The addition of Ronald Murray will do a lot of the Bobcats as he can be the team’s sixth man and help alleviate some of the pressure off of Augustin coming off of the bench. Nazr Mohammed teams up with Diop to combine a solid big man trio in Charlotte giving them pretty good depth at basically every position.
It’s hard to explain the problems in Charlotte. Looking at the roster, there may not be any. But the organization still has a long way to go in terms of creating a positive environment that players will want to compete in, and believe they can win in. That’s on the horizon but not quite there in Charlotte.