Miami Heat: I’ll start by saying I’m not as married to their winning of this division as everyone else. Orlando will obviously play better defense, and is no slouch on offense. Not only that, Miami just got assembled and hasn’t been able to play more than 3 minutes with their anticipated Big Three due to injuries. But they have LeBron James, which is at least 90% of the reason Cleveland won over 60 games each of the past two years and are now being predicted to win 30. Tops.
Throw in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and you’re about to see some seriously one-sided free throw statistics. The Heat have some interior defensive issues that I presume C Joel Anthony is now responsible for. He’s a good defender, but the load has never been dropped so squarely onto his shoulders. Unless you’ve been watching them in the preseason, you probably already forgot most of the rest of the roster, and the big bench guy was supposed to be outside shooter Mike Miller, who now has a serious thumb injury on his shooting hand and will be out for an extended period of time.
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I’m just not sure this is the year they get it all together. Will anyone outside of the Big Three feel comfortable taking more than 3 shots a game without feeling like they’re upsetting the fans? Will James or Wade be able to spot up on the perimeter when the other is driving? How will Bosh react to quickly being relegated as the “distant third” on the team? James is still the league’s best regular season player, so I gotta think he’ll push them to the division’s best record.
Could Make the Playoffs (In Order of Likelihood)
Orlando Magic: This may be the year people start to recognize Dwight Howard’s greatness. Fans are aware of his really goodness, but I think the buzz around the Heat is getting to the league’s best big man, and he may be on a mission. He’ll probably still lead the league in rebounds and blocks. He’ll probably also increase his super efficient scoring numbers (18 ppg, 61% FG). Around him you have all types of offensive weapons (tall outside bomber Rashard Lewis, 3-point specialist JJ Redick, underrated distributor Jameer Nelson, athletic 3-point shooter Mickael Pietrus, always-looking-to-score-30-however-he-can Vince Carter), plus their defense is again going to be right there near the top of the league.
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They already know how to play together, they already look to shoot 30 bombs a night while Howard forces strained coverages inside, they already know they can pressure opponents on the perimeter because no one wants to drive into the paint while Howard’s in the game. The Magic really could be headed back to their second Finals appearance in three years.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks are still hanging out in the East’s second-tier, hoping to earn a first-round playoff series at home instead of Chicago or Milwaukee. They’re essentially the same team as last year, and the year before. Al Horford continues to improve and be the unheralded star inside. Josh Smith continues to be one of the most exciting dunkers/blockers in the league. Joe Johnson continues to do a little of everything with some decent statistical results, even if he is far too passive for the crazy money he just got this summer. Jamal Crawford is still going to score a lot of points off the bench. Mike Bibby is still going to be a smart PG who doesn’t turn the ball over or take bad shots. Nothing has changed that will make the Hawks serious contenders, but they have enough talent to make any game or series interesting.
Charlotte Bobcats: Soak it up Bobcat fans – this will be the last season in a while that Charlotte will play near-.500 ball and contend for a playoff spot. Once coach Larry Brown leaves at the end of this year and Michael Jordan has more unchecked say in what’s happening to your franchise, things will be ugly, and they’re not too pretty right now. Brown has the Bobcats playing solid help defense, which is the only thing making them look respectable right now. Gerald Wallace can do it all, including protect the paint like a center even though he’s only a 6-feet-7 small forward. Stephen Jackson still has plenty left in the tank at 32. On the flipside, the PG position is so in flux (D.J. Augustin is officially the starter right now), there’s been talk of PF Boris Diaw running some point. The center position is also a mess, and the team’s best reserve is slacker Tim Thomas. Like I said, Brown is getting a lot out of this bunch, so enjoy it while you can.
Washington Wizards: They got a lot of crap to work through before they’re thinking about the playoffs, not the least of which is that they have way too many starters with attitude/nutcase problems in the recent past: PG John Wall, SG Gilbert Arenas, and PF Andray Blatche. In fact, try to name one Washington starter who’s ever won something meaningful. You can’t because they didn’t, and it’s not a mystery why. Wall just played on the only team in NCAA history with 5 first-round draft picks, and they couldn’t make it past the Elite 8, and he’s supposed to be the savior. The only guy on the team who’s really got it together is Kirk Hinrich, and he’ll be coming off the bench. Here’s an idea: play him next to Wall so their skills can compliment each other – it only worked wonderfully last year in Chicago next to Derrick Rose. This team has far more highlight potential than win actuality, and unfortunately some fans will think this means they’re a young team on the rise. They’re still a solved giant jumbled mess away from playoff contention, especially with the conference they’re in.
Top 5 Players
C: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
F: Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
F: Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats
F: LeBron James, Miami Heat
G: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Could Be Top 5 Players In Other Divisions
C: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
F: Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
G/F: Stephen Jackson, Charlotte Bobcats
G: Joe Johnson, Atlanta Hawks
G: Jameer Nelson, Orlando Magic
Possible Award Candidates
Of course LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will get plenty of MVP votes, with James winning a three-peat a real possibility. Dwight Howard should have been a top-3 MVP candidate each of the past few years and again this year, but he doesn’t score enough, and sadly pretty much all of these awards come down to points. Howard has to be considered the favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, which would be a three-peat of his own if he does it. Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace finished second and third, respectively, to Howard last year, so they have to be considered in the running. John Wall will be a very strong candidate for Rookie of the Year because of his highlights and the fact that voters can’t wait to give awards to players who score a lot of points regardless of how inefficiently; Blake Griffin is clearly the better player and will probably produce better numbers, but Wall will be right there because of SportsCenter. If Charlotte can reach the playoffs again with the group they have (go check out their 8-man rotation some time – it does not look like a playoff team in the least), Larry Brown should get at least a little love in the Coach of the Year race.