By Ben Fisher
The Southeast Division is, quite simply, stacked.
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Stacked with superstar players, elite teams, a compelling rivalry and intriguing sub-plots. Four teams in the division reached the postseason last year, a feat that could be matched once again this season, and even the also-ran Washington Wizards have No. 1 over-all pick John Wall in tow.
Any talk about Southwest Division begins and ends with the Miami Heat. Consider some of the new faces around the club: Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Eddie House and Juwan Howard. Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard, LeBron James and Chris Bosh as well, to go along with a returning Dwyane Wade.
Once the superstar trio came together this off-season in about the gaudiest spectacle possible, critics were quick to emerge poking holes in the team. “Too many egos”, “two alpha dogs”, “no depth up front” and “no defense” are just some of the nits being picked among Heat critics. But here’s the bottom line: there is one heck of a lot of talent on this club and, at least as far as the regular season is concerned, they will find a way to co-exist and dominate.
While Miami added a mega-star, an elite power forward and a slew of capable role players, the Orlando Magic’s biggest addition might have been the chip on the shoulder gained from watching their cross-state rivals steal all the headlines. The Magic, after all, are the reigning division champs and reached the Conference finals last season. In fact, Dwight Howard and even head coach Stan Van Gundy (former coach of the Heat, mind you) have already started fanning the flames.
That isn’t to say that Orlando didn’t have a productive off-season in their own right. They return all key contributors from last season, including Howard, Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and J.J. Redick, whom the team had to match a Chicago Bulls’ offer sheet in order to retain. The club also had a productive draft (Daniel Orton and Stanley Robinson were both selected well past their projected slots) and signed veterans Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson. If anyone is going to slow down the Heat express, it’ll be the Magic.
Lost in this Miami-Orlando talk is the Atlanta Hawks, and with good reason. After barely inching past an Andrew Bogut-less Milwaukee Bucks squad in the first round of last year’s play-offs, the Hawks laid a complete egg in a second round sweep at the hands of the Magic. Even more perplexing, GM Rick Sund failed to make a single meaningful addition this summer (Joe Johnson was a re-signing and, let’s face it, Etan Thomas doesn’t count).
Now, any team with Johnson, Joe Smith, Mike Bibby and Al Horford will be in the postseason mix come April. Even as they find themselves mired in a hugely improved division, the Hawks ultimately return much of their 53-win team from last season and, therefore, will still win their share of games.
The only Southeast team whose play-off hopes are severely jeopardized by Miami’s free agent haul is the Michael Jordan-owned Charlotte Bobcats. It isn’t that Charlotte didn’t try to make off-season changes, but none of Eduardo Najera, Shaun Livingston, Dominic McGuire, Sherron Collins or Kwame Brown are likely to make a huge difference amongst the other Southeast titans. Head coach Larry Brown will keep the team competitive, but the loss of Raymond Felton and the inability to acquire Devin Harris in the failed Camelo Anthony trade makes for a perilous point guard situation that will be hard to recover from.
Finally, the Wizards are really just along for the ride, but should be encouraged by some considerable steps taken to move away from last year’s 26-56 debacle. Yes, Gilbert Arenas is still around, but the additions of Wall and Kirk Hinrich have revitalized the club and offered plenty of hope for the future.
Wall will be the Wizards’ focal point for years to come, anchoring a core that also includes Andray Blatche, Josh Howard, JaVale McGee and Nick Young. Wall’s fellow rookies – Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Hamady N’Diaye – will also have the opportunity to develop into contributors at the NBA level. This clearly isn’t a play-off team, but it is a squad with renewed optimism and hope for the future.