I feel that the Southeast Division will be one of the most competitive divisions, if not the most competitive, out of all the divisions this year. They may not be the best division, but all the teams will be fighting each other this year and there will be no team that just dominates the division. I think all teams will be within a few games of each, and they will be battling each other all season long. Most of the teams have improved this off season, and look to do some damage in the playoffs this year.
The Orlando Magic, led by Dwight Howard, look to get into the playoffs again this year and make it even deeper into them this time. The Miami Heat have their star player, Dwyane Wade, back healthy again along with new teammate Shawn Marion and 2nd overall pick Michael Beasley. They look to get back into the playoffs after finishing with the worst record last season. The Wizards are again with out Gilbert "Agent Zero" Arenas until December, but their star players, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, look to keep them in the playoff race. Last year's surprise team, Atlanta Hawks, look to prove that taking the defending champion Celtics to 7 games wasn't a fluke. The Charlotte Bobcats, led by new coach Larry Brown, look to finally have a good season in their 5th year as an expansion team.
It should be a good race in the division this year, and here is how I see things turning out:
1. (4) Orlando Magic (50-32)
As long as Dwight Howard continues to anchor this team, they will be a higher seed in the playoffs. Howard is just a monster in the paint on both offense and defense. He is probably the most athletic big man (only rivaled by Amare Stoudemire and Kevin Garnett), and knows how to use it to his advantage. He will definitely be in the running for MVP this year, and should continue to improve his game and solidify himself as the league's best center.
They also have talented forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis to contribute as well as young point guard Jameer Nelson, who I believe will make a big improvement in his game this year and become a reliable and solid PG. Now these guys have to step up on defense for the Magic. They can all be great on offense, but their defense wasn't too great last year. Howard is a great defensive player, but he is only one player and can't stop everyone.
Adding guard/forward Mickael Pietrus this off season to be their possible new starting shooting guard was good for them. He can contribute on offense with his athleticism and quickness to finish in the lane, and is solid defense (good rebounder) as well.
The Magic make it into the playoffs as the 4th seed (behind Philly in record even though they win their division) by getting 50 wins again this season. Their run in the playoffs all depends on who they draw in the first round. If they matchup like I think they will (with the Heat) they could see them selves out early in a first round upset. However if they draw an easier opponent, and make it to the 2nd round again they could go deeper. They will most likely have to play the Pistons or Celtics, but if they can build momentum in the first round, they could pull of an upset themselves in the 2nd round and make it to the ECFs or even farther (NBA Finals).
2. (6) Miami Heat (46-36)
Dwyane Wade is back and healthy again. Yes, I do believe he will stay healthy all season long finally, and get the Heat back to the playoff instead of being at the bottom the whole conference. Wade will have a fantastic year, and must if they Heat want to make the playoffs. I believe he will have a great year, in fact the best year of his career which should win him the MVP this year.
Rookie forward Michael Beasley should be able to produce very well for the Heat as well. His athleticism should come in handy for Heat by using him at both forward spots and being able to have play down in low post or up in the high post as well. I think we will contribute to his team better than any rookie other than Greg Oden this year.
Now let's not forget about Shawn Marion. This guy has not gotten enough credit, which is why he left the Suns. He deserved just as much or even more credit than Steve Nash for making that team so good. He is one of the most athletic players in the league, if not they most athletic. He can cut through the lane in the half court or fast break looking for the alley oop dunk. He can slash the lane and finish at the basket as well. Not to mention, he is a great offensive rebounder getting lots of 2nd chance points for his team. Then comes the biggest part of his game: his defense. He can guard the shooting guard, small forward or even power forward and do a good job at it. He is so versatile of a defender; he can impact a defense so much (was the only thing that kept the Suns from giving up 120 points every game). He be huge for the Heat on defense, and in the fast break on offense.
They have 3 guys that will compete for time at the beginning of the year for point guard. They have Marcus Banks, Chris Quinn, and rookie Mario Chalmers. They also recently signed Shaun Livingston Now Livingston won't get a lot of time off the bat, but once he begins to get back into the flow of things, as long as he can stay healthy (that's the key), he can be great for the Heat. They also have good role players off the bench in Udonis Haslem (good rebound and defender), James Jones, and Dorell Wright.
Their biggest weakness is their center spot. Right now their best center is Mark Blount with Jamaal Magloire backing him up. Now Blount showed last year, after Shaq was traded, that he can contribute a little. He won't be able to compete with top centers like Dwight Howard though, and that's what will keep the Heat from winning their division.
Now they could win their first round matchup depending on who they draw. Wade has shown he is a great player in the clutch, and steps up his game during the playoffs. He could lead the Heat to a first round upset victory, but making it to conference finals don't look to good for them this year. They need to get a better center, and then they will be back to being a contending team in the East.
3. (7) Washington Wizards (44-38)
The Wizards always find their way into the playoffs. They have their star point guard, Gilbert Arenas, out until December again, but that proved not to be a problem for them last year. In fact, they even played a little better for awhile will Agent Zero was out. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison stepped big time and both had great season. I see them doing that again this, and they must if the Wizards want to make the playoffs. Both guys can contribute on offense. Jamison can help on defense with his rebounding, and Butler has turned into a great defender which is huge for the Wizards.
They guy that has to step up again for them is Antonio Daniels. He is the starting point guard with Arenas hurt. Last year he stepped up very well in Arenas's absence. He showed that he can run the team at the point and keep their team running smoothly. He needs to do this again to keep the Wizards in the playoff hunt.
The other starters, DeShawn Stevenson and Etan Thomas, have to do their jobs and Stevenson needs to learn to keep his temper and attitude under control (the opposite of how he acted in the playoffs against the Cavaliers). Stevenson needs to give them the scoring and outside shooting, and Thomas needs fill in for the injured Brendan Haywood by rebound and play some defense. They have their role players off the bench as well in Andray Blatche, Juan Dixon, and Darius Songaila.
I don't expect the Wizards to go anywhere in the playoffs this year. They will most likely draw a higher seed and face one of the tougher teams like the Celtics, Pistons, 76ers, or Magic. Agent Zero will be back then, and any team he is on doesn't have a very good chance with his selfish play. Even without him though, they just can't beat those top teams.
4. Atlanta Hawks (40-42)
The Hawks were a great surprise last year by making the playoffs at the 8th seed and taking the defending champion Celtics to 7 games. After trading for point guard Mike Bibby, the team seemed finally set for success. Even rookie Al Horford stepped up big for them last year.
Their key players this season will again be Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. Johnson is one of the league's best shooting guards and one of the best scorers. He is one of the team's veteran leaders and has done a very good job in that role. He needs to do just as good or better this season for the Hawks if they want any chance at making the playoffs again.
There best player however this year will be Josh Smith. He is an extremely athletic player and has talent on both offense and defense. However, his attitude has been the only thing holding him back from becoming a start player in the league. He drives too wildly in the lane and doesn't have a good shot (basically is only good for dunks and alley oops). However his great rebounding can get him some 2nd second chance points sometimes. His defensive however, I think we will be huge this year. He not only will be a terrific shot blocker and get steals with his quick hands, but he will learn to stay in front of his man and be a good on ball defender as well. He will be able to guard the opponents’ best scorer, and be a great on help defense. I believe he will be finally become a great defensive player this year and possibly win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
The real key to their success however will be Al Horford and Mike Bibby, or there point guard and center. Bibby can bring that veteran leadership and lead the team. He should be even better this year now that he has been with them longer and gotten some chemistry with his teammates. Horford needs to have an even better season than his rookie season. He can't have a sophomore slump, and needs to keep improving so he can anchor the Hawks' down low on offense and defense.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, I don't think they can make the playoffs. Even though they will technically have more wins than last year (I believe), they will miss the playoffs due to the other teams in the East improving a lot more than they have. However, they could surprise me and barely make it again at the 8th seed, but I just don't think it will happen.
5. Charlotte Bobcats (38-44)
The Bobcats should improve a lot this year with new coach Larry Brown. This team has had lots of talent, but couldn't figure out how to play as a team. Now, one of the NBA's best coaches will be able to get them to do that. Seeing as how this team has some young talented defenders, and that's Brown's specialty, it should work out well for them.
Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace, and Emeka Okafor are all great defenders and that's music to Brown's ears. If he can get all those good defenders to play good team defense, he can have success with the Bobcats. However, they key will be getting them to play together.
They also have their veteran leader in Jason Richardson. Richardson has proved to be a great scorer them, and their biggest contributor on offense. Wallace has also turned into a good offensively player as well, but he tends to be too reckless and gets himself injured. He needs to keep himself healthy if he wants to help the Bobcats be a competitive team in the division and conference.
Their biggest weaknesses are at center and point guard. Felton is a good defensive point guard, but hasn't done a good job of leading the team at the point and distributing the ball. He also needs to improve his shooting percentages as well (41.3% field goal shooting and 28.0% 3pt field goal shooting last year). Nazr Mohammed is a solid center, but shouldn't be a starter. He can be a good role player off the bench, but wouldn't be good enough to start on most other teams. This is the biggest problem for the Bobcats; their biggest weaknesses are two important positions for team's to have success. That will be what holds them back this year.
Brown will improve them this year, but not enough to make the playoffs yet. They still need a better point guard and center, and I don't think Brown will be able to get them to play as team as much as they need to right off the bat. Now as long as he stays there and works with them, they could be a playoff team in a year or two.