|The Southeast division is still Miami's to lose. (Getty Images)|
M-W-F for the next two weeks we'll be previewing the 2012-2013 season division by division. Today it's the Southeast Division. Enjoy.
Cream of the crop: Miami Heat. With the way this division is in a transition period and how the Heat reloaded a championship team, is there any way to justify not picking Miami as the cream of the Crop in the Southeast? I've been trying to envision scenarios in which the Heat get pushed by another squad and don't win the Southeast.
It would have to be a loophole in the CBA that allows Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to declare for free agency right now whilst the league implements a territorial rights law that mirrors what the NBA Ddraft had from 1949 (when it was the BAA) until 1966. However in this scenario, the Charlotte Bobcats would fumble their shot at bringing Paul back to North Carolina and instead he'd set up residency in Atlanta in order to give them the rights to his free agency.
Atlanta would then pair Paul with Howard and Josh Smith, trade Al Horford to OKC for James Harden, and challenge the Heat for supremacy in the Southeast. I haven't read through all of Larry Coon's updated CBA FAQ yet, so I'll let you know if this is a possibility. If not, Miami should be capturing another division title pretty easily.
Sitting pretty: Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks -- assuming they don't get this territorial free agency thing to happen in the next two weeks -- have gone away from being a treadmill team. The last few years, they've been set up for regular season success and postseason frustration. This wasn't a team built to win in the playoffs; they were simply built to make the playoffs.
And while I'm not against Joe Johnson as a player (he was actually really good last season), his contract was just too crippling for them to do anything substantial with their roster. Now that Danny Ferry has come in and gutted about one-third of their salary cap moving forward, Atlanta has a chance to find an identity other than frustrating isolation ball.
Horford should be able to establish himself as one of the top big men in the league this year, and we'll probably see a breakout performance from Jeff Teague, relative to what he's produced in the past. The key to their present and their future though is Josh Smith. Maybe playing more of a point guard-oriented offense will take Smith away from the long jumpers and get him moving toward the basket. He took a horrendous 6.3 shots per game from 16-23 feet. He made 37 percent of those shots.
If the Hawks can get him into the top 10 in attempts at the rim (he was 24th last season with 5.4 per game), then we might finally see a great offensive year from Smith.
On the cliff: Washington Wizards. It makes sense what the Wizards did over the last eight months. They were destroying any chance of John Wall being a star or being a game-changer because the dysfunction of their team was sucking the life out of the organization. So they gave JaVale McGee the change of scenery he needed, got Nick Young out of town, and amnestied Andray Blatche. They brought in Nene, Emeka Okafor, and drafted Bradley Beal.
The head cases are gone and quality veterans and young players are now flanking Wall's blazing speed. There are no more excuses for this team. Washington probably believes they should be a playoff team this season and maybe they should. They certainly can't keep spinning their wheels, stuck in the mud, and not going anywhere as a rebuilding franchise.
I think they'll do well this season, in relative terms to where they've been recently. But that's predicated on the idea that Wall is going to make a huge leap in his career. He's been a good player the last two years, but he hasn't been a great or transcendent player like many of us expected when he entered the league.
This season, he'll have more offensive options available to him. Beal will be his target off of curl screens and Nene will be his pick-and-roll partner. But they'll need two guys to step up offensively to make a real push for the playoffs. Take your pick from Jordan Crawford, Chris Singleton, Jan Vesely or Trevor Ariza. Two of those guys have to be efficient options in either spot-up shooting, cutting to the basket or coming off of screens.
Waiting in the tall grass: Charlotte Bobcats. OK, this isn't going to make sense when you look at my projected finishes for this division because I've got the Bobcats finishing lower than the Magic. However, that's mainly just because the Magic have veterans and we don't know what kind of coach Jacque Vaughn is going to be.
As for the Bobcats, I actually love what they're doing. They gutted the team, became horrible, have great cap flexibility moving forward, and are attempting to change their basketball culture.
They're going to press this year and probably get destroyed some nights because of it. They'll also be destroyed some nights simply because of their roster. However, they're going to be a pain to deal with on random nights in the NBA. They're going to ratchet up the possessions in a game, force a lot of turnovers and try to get the stench of malaise and hopelessness out of their uniforms.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should be a really good rookie, and I love the addition of second round pick Jeff Taylor. Bismack Biyombo seems to have learned how to catch a basketball and not feel like it's going to self-destruct in 10 seconds. And maybe Kemba Walker can be a decent weapon on both ends of the floor in a chaotic system like the one Mike Dunlap is using to shock the basketball culture in Charlotte.
This team will be bad, but not all-time bad.
Dead meat: Orlando Magic. What does this team have to look forward to this season? Andrew Nicholson moving without the ball to get open shots Jameer Nelson might never find him for? Gustavo Ayon's hustle? Big Baby on Twitter?
Orlando is in a weird position in which they've traded their star but they might have enough veterans to be decent. This is not how you want to rebuild. You need to have no hope of winning games, and get a very high lottery pick. You don't want Arron Afflalo mucking that up with his effort and pride.
We could end up seeing Orlando struggle to win 20 games this year or they could win around 30 games. We don't really know how they'll respond to the aftermath of the Dwightmare.
Division MVP: LeBron James didn't retire yet, right?
You could probably make the argument that Dwyane Wade could end up being the MVP of this division, but it's too contrarian to go against James at this point.
Division ROY: Kidd-Gilchrist. I almost went with Beal here, but MKG just seems like he's going to be too good on both ends of the floor. I don't think his shooting woes are as serious as people make them out to be, and I think he'll find a way to get to the free throw line a lot, which is hard for rookies to do.
1. Miami Heat 66-16
2. Atlanta Hawks 43-39
3. Washington Wizards 36-46
4. Orlando Magic 26-56
5. Charlotte Bobcats 23-59