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Division preview: Southeast


Everyone seems to be looking forward to Oct. 26 with breathless anticipation. That's when the 2010-11 NBA season tips off, with the Miami Heat playing the Boston Celtics in the battle of the Big Threes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm looking forward to that, too. But not nearly as much as I'm looking forward to Oct. 29, when the Heat host another Eastern Conference power, the Orlando Magic. The Celtics? They're still contenders, but it's going to take a few months for those creaky knees to get loosened up. Boston won't be in midseason form until, oh, May. The Magic will be ready to go, with something to prove, from Day 1.

So Oct. 29 will be our first glimpse of how the team in the East most capable of toppling Miami actually measures up. It will be too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but that doesn't mean it won't be fun to watch.

The Heat can win 65, 70, or 73 regular-season games if they want; they have so much talent that anything's possible. But their biggest test will be defending the 3-point shot and stopping a highly motivated Dwight Howard in a best-of-7 playoff series against Orlando. And no matter how good the combination of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James is -- no matter how much single-coverage Chris Bosh faces as a result of their greatness -- and regardless of how close they are defensively to the Bulls team that went 72-10 in 1995-96, Howard ultimately is going to present the biggest challenge they face.

Does Orlando have enough to win more regular-season games than Miami and win its fourth consecutive Southeast Division title? Probably not, but it doesn't matter, anyway. Every time these two teams tangle in the regular season, the focus will be on how it will apply to the postseason. That's why neither Wade nor James is the most important player in the most dramatically transformed division in the NBA. That honor goes to the man who has the ability to singlehandedly stop them both: Howard.

Predicted order of finish (2009-10 record):

1. Heat (47-35)
2. Magic (59-23)
3. Hawks (53-29)
4. Wizards (26-56)
5. Bobcats (44-38)

Miami Heat

Mike Miller's 3-point shooting could space the floor in Miami. (Getty Images)  
Mike Miller's 3-point shooting could space the floor in Miami. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: The confluence of talent with Wade and LeBron will be the premier story line of the NBA season, without a doubt. Though Wade's hamstring injury (and LeBron's bout with cramps) has put a crimp in the Big Three's preseason tuneup plans, there's no doubting the threat these two present. Who do you double? Which one do you try to stop? Which poison do you pick? A lot can go right for Miami while opponents are trying to answer those questions. Aside from those mismatches, Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard need to provide enough size, depth and fouls to hold up under the basket against the few true centers left in the East. (Two of them happen to be on Miami's biggest nemeses, with Shaquille O'Neal in Boston and Howard in Orlando.) And while we're on the supporting cast, one or more of the role players -- Mike Miller, Eddie House, James Jones, Ilgauskas -- will be called upon to hit an important shot in a clutch moment of a playoff game. The Big Three can't do everything.

What could go wrong: Personally, I understand coach Erik Spoelstra's allegiance to a more traditional point-guard look with Carlos Arroyo starting in the backcourt with Wade. But I question how long he'll want to stick with that. For the Heat to max out their potential, they're better off going with a two-wing approach and letting Wade and LeBron share the initiating duties on offense. Each guy's biggest advantage comes when he has the ball in his hands, and putting a point guard on the floor with them takes the ball out of their hands and makes them move and cut without the ball. That's not the best use of their talents. So for starters, Wade and LeBron need to have the ball as much as possible for this to work at optimal efficiency. (That gives you a starting lineup of Wade, LeBron, Miller, Bosh and Anthony. Not too shabby.)

X-Factor: If Miller could shoot 48 percent from 3-point range with the 26-win Wizards, imagine what he could do with all the open looks Wade and LeBron will provide for him. But Miller needs to go back to being the willing 3-point shooter he was in Memphis, where he hoisted 498 3-pointers in '06-'07 compared to a career-low 171 last season in Washington.

Orlando Magic

Will Dwight Howard be motivated to dominate the paint? (Getty Images)  
Will Dwight Howard be motivated to dominate the paint? (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Howard has to back up his preseason promises and be more assertive and dominant. Basically, if Miami loading up in free agency doesn't put Howard on a mission of total destruction, then nothing ever will. But the Magic have issues other than the Heat. First, they have to prove that they've recovered from -- and have learned from -- the thorough beating inflicted on them by the Celtics in the playoffs last spring. They can't even begin to worry about Wade and LeBron until they put that disappointment behind them. If the Magic are going to take the next step and get back to the NBA Finals, they're going to need more toughness on the floor. That has to start with Howard. Other than that, the Magic aren't going to change who they are. They're a 3-point shooting team that plays better defense than most people give them credit for, and they have the most imposing physical specimen to come along in 20 years in Howard. Oh, and Stan Van Gundy is a great quote.

What could go wrong: If Howard's appetite for proving his doubters wrong fizzles by Election Day, the Magic will begin the slow, painful march to second fiddle in the division -- not to mention spectators when the Heat and Celtics are battling in the conference finals.

X-Factor: Quentin Richardson. OK, so the Heat signed LeBron and Bosh and the Magic countered with Richardson and Chris Duhon -- recent castoffs from abysmal Knicks teams. But each of those players fits a particular need within Orlando's scheme: Duhon is an adept pick-and-roll point guard who can be effective when asked to do no more than be a serviceable backup, and Richardson (when healthy) is a 3-point sniper and versatile defender. In a best-of-7 series, Q-Rich will be the key as an extra shooter on the offensive end and as one of the few players in the league who can defend either Wade or LeBron.

Atlanta Hawks

Josh Smith will need to be focused for the Hawks to make some noise. (AP)  
Josh Smith will need to be focused for the Hawks to make some noise. (AP)  
What has to go right: The Hawks' most significant offseason move was letting coach Mike Woodson go after he'd led Atlanta to five consecutive years of improving win totals. But the Hawks weren't the least bit competitive in getting swept by the Magic in the second round, so Woodson had to go. Enter Larry Drew, whose close relationship with Josh Smith presumably will keep the mercurial forward in check -- but that's asking a lot of a rookie coach. Other than Joe Johnson, the Hawks locker room is a psychological minefield. To keep it from imploding, Drew will have to connect with Smith early, set boundaries and let his talent shine through in ways Woodson was too stubborn to allow. Oh, and running a recognizable offensive system would be a good start.

What could go wrong: If the players view Drew as a weaker, more vulnerable version of Woodson, they're in trouble. Not lottery-bound trouble, mind you; they have too much talent to miss the playoffs. But at some point, the fickle fan base in Atlanta is going to realize that this is the same team they've been watching for five years, only with less of a shot at getting to the conference finals because everyone else got better. If the players tune out Drew, the fans will tune out the team, and the Hawks will find themselves regretting Johnson's massive contract before he even completes one year of it.

X-Factor: At this stage of his career, Mike Bibby simply isn't a point guard who can lead a team deep into the playoffs. But he's still a capable offensive threat, with skills that can be showcased in other ways if Drew can find a reliable point guard to take some of the playmaking responsibilities. Enter Jeff Teague, whose quickness better complements athletes like Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams. The Hawks need Teague to thrive as a change-of-pace initiator off the bench, which will either get Bibby off the floor for stretches or move him off the ball.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards' future is bright with John Wall running the point. (Getty Images)  
The Wizards' future is bright with John Wall running the point. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Given what happened to them last season, forgive the Wizards if they've been conditioned to wonder what will go wrong next. But there's a lot of potential here, starting with No. 1 pick John Wall. Washington lucked out in the lottery as a cosmic reward for the devastation wrought by Gilbert Arenas' decision to fool around with guns in the locker room. Nobody in the organization would want to go through that again, but if getting Wall was the result, some day it may appear to have been worth it. The Wizards have young, athletic big men in Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee, and Kirk Hinrich will help them defensively and with his leadership. But the biggest upside is the backcourt tandem of Wall and Arenas. If Agent No. 9 can get his head right and get his old explosiveness back, it could be a highly potent duo. That's what the Wizards are hoping, anyway.

What could go wrong: As is often the case for teams trying to crawl back into contention, the biggest upside can also be the biggest liability. Arenas isn't saying so overtly, but he wants a trade that will give him a fresh start somewhere else. The wounds are too fresh from everything that went down a year ago. The Wizards can't trade him and his $80 million contract unless he consistently displays his previous All-Star form. He's off to a rough start, faking an injury to give Nick Young a start, then asking out of the very next game with a groin injury.

X-Factor: Josh Howard is expected to miss the first month of the season as he recovers from knee surgery. Once he returns, he could be just what the Wizards need to fortify their backcourt rotation. There's a lot at stake for Howard to prove he can still play at an All-Star level. With Wall and Arenas getting all the attention, this is the perfect opportunity for Howard to make his comeback quietly.

Charlotte Bobcats

The Bobcats will lean heavily on Gerald Wallace this season. (Getty Images)  
The Bobcats will lean heavily on Gerald Wallace this season. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Larry Brown either has to find a point guard or hope that D.J. Augustin becomes the kind of point guard he can live with. That's really the only missing ingredient. The Bobcats have athletes up front with Tyrus Thomas and Gerald Wallace, a revitalized scorer in Stephen Jackson and a coach who knows how to make seemingly disparate pieces fit together.

What could go wrong: If Brown doesn't get a point guard, he'll turn on the entire roster and ask Michael Jordan and Rod Higgins to trade every player in the locker room twice. Don't laugh; it could happen.

X-Factor: Gerald Henderson. After a quiet rookie season, Henderson could change the complexion of Brown's rotation if he proves he's ready for more than eight minutes per game. He faces an uphill battle since Brown favors veterans at almost all costs. But the only way a low-revenue, small-market team like the Bobcats can make strides is through the draft. If Henderson gets a shot with a significant backup role, he could be ready to make a significant contribution as a defensive specialist.

Before joining, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on

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