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NBA preview: Breaking down the Southeast division, and why the Wizards will win

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Is any team in the Southeast definitively better than they were last season?

NBA: Washington Wizards at New York Knicks Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Southeast Division is interesting in that it could be argued that each of these five teams got a little worse or lacks any true potential to compete in a Eastern conference against teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Celtics. The teams of this southeast division were fairly active in the offseason - three new head coaches, the loss of some of the top scorers on each team (Teague, Hereford, Wade, Bosh, Victor Oladipo, Al Jefferson). The team with the most stasis, the Washington Wizards, failed to get Kevin Durant and failed to make the playoffs, and yet somehow I find it hard to not place them at the top of this group if only because they didn’t lose anyone and still have one of the best point guards in the East, but we’ll get to that. Here is how I’d rank the Southeast:

5. Miami Heat

Just two players remain from the 2013-14 Eastern Conference Champion Miami Heat, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, and only one has been cleared to play this season. In fact, the latest out of Miami suggests that if Bosh is to play basketball this season, it is unlikely to be in Miami. Last year, the Heat finished with 48 wins in a four-way tie that slotted the them in the third seed in the East. They lost to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Semi-Finals in Game 7. Since then, Riley watched Dwyane Wade sign with Chicago after giving Hassan Whiteside a four-year max deal. Luol Deng and Joe Johnson are gone and with Bosh on the outside looking in, it appears that the Heat may be looking to rebuild. GIF Grade?

The question the Heat have to answer with Spoelstra this season - how good is this Miami team absent of it’s big three? (Or any real veteran presence outside Haslem?) Tanking might be too strong a term for a team that won 48 games last season and has missed the playoffs just twice in the past decade, but Bosh and Wade were that good.

What’s left are some interesting parts. Goran Dragic will get to try out a more significant role at point in the absence of Wade. I’d expect a lot of picks and rolls with Whiteside who becomes the new attraction in Miami. Plus sophomores Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson proved to be worthwhile role players in the playoffs and can continue to develop in a wing position left lacking after the LeBrexit. Add in Dion Waiters following an impressive playoff run with the Thunder and this is a team that can likely get to 30 wins but could just as easily trade away its assets to try for a lottery pick.

Luckily for the Heat, Whiteside is a decent piece to start building around, so the lottery may not be necessary. He averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks last season at 20% usage (per basketball reference.com). The only other players to average over a double-double with 2+ blocks? Karl-Anthony Towns, DeAndre Jordan, and Pau Gasol. Whiteside is the only of the four to average over 3 blocks, but also seemed to search those out more than others. Regardless, he is a unique piece in the NBA and one the Heat have locked up longterm to try and build around - not a bad start for the post-Lebron, post-Wade, post-Bosh era.

4. Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic are a team that is difficult to predict if only because it is hard to tell what their roster might look like at the end of the 2016-17 season. At the start of last season, they appeared to have a promising young core of players between Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucefic, Elfrid Peyton, and Tobias Harris. Evan Fournier proved to be a pleasant surprise, and the hope was that under a new coach Scott Skiles, the team would develop from a lottery team into something closer to playoff contention. Unfortunately at the trade deadline, at 23-29, they looked as though they were not making as much progress as initially hoped. Elfrid Peyton, while a viable ball distributor, proved to be a below average shooter. Vucevic, while a dominant offensive player in the post, lacked rim protection. And Victor Oladipo, while many hoped he might be a breakout candidate in 2015-16, failed to live up to the hype - a minus defender, below average shooter, poor assist-to-turnover ratio. And so Orlando switched directions to try and rebuild with different pieces.

Since the trade deadline they moved Channing Frye and Tobias Harris for almost nothing while others like Markieff Moris were exchanged for first round picks. The summer saw the resignation of Skiles after only one season, and hiring of Frank Vogel. They traded Oladipo and Illysova to the Thunder on draft night in exchange for Serge Ibaka and signed Bismak Biyombo in July. Between Ibaka and Biyomobo, the Magic look to have fortified the front court with rebounding, shot blocking, and perimeter shooting. And Frank Vogel has a decent reputation developing a defensive front court during his time in Indiana. However, Orlando still has the ball running through a point guard that cannot shoot and has a questions regarding what to do with Nikola Vucevic - how will he fit with Biyombo and Ibaka? Will he move to a bench role?

And that’s the problem in Orlando. The offseason moves, while promising, feel like a half measure. Right now I could see this as a 30-some win team with a tough defensive presence, but it is hard to tell where they’d find scoring from guards and wings outside a stretch player like Ibaka or a wing like Jeff Green. GIF Grade?

In the end, Ibaka is 27 and gives the Magic an interesting player in his prime to work with. Beyond that, I think there are still some moves to be made before the team cements a true identity.

3. Charlotte Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets finished last easy with 48 wins the most wins since 1990. They took the Miami Heat to Game 7 but failed to make it out of the opening round. They have had poor luck with injuries - Nicolas Batum missed time in the playoffs with an ankle injury and Michael Kidd Gilchrist missed a large part of the regular season. In the offseason they lost AL Jefferson, replacing him with Roy Hibbert, and also failed to resign Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee. Still - they remain a promising group of players primarily based on a breakout season for Kemba Walker and resurgent Nicolas Batum. Not to mention the re-signing of Marvin Williams, a solid stretch four and defensive player. If they could keep MKG healthy this team might still be as good as it’s 2015-16 self. GIF Grade?

Shrugs, indeed. This team had a difficult cap situation this summer in having to max out Nicolas Batum while also trying to retain some expensive role players like Williams, Jefferson, and Lin. It is arguable that they stayed the same and could even be better with a healthy MKG and no playoff ankle injuries, but this is a team that lost Big Al Jefferson and will look to fill that hole with Roy Hibbert (a player that has shown little in the past two seasons) and Cody Zeller (a player that needs to take that next step). Add on Ramon Sessions for Lin and a possible buy low in Marco Belinelli and you can start to make the argument that for now they aren’t really better, but their range of outcomes could be. This is a a team that is clearly better than the bottom two in the Southeast - Miami and Orlando, but not quite at the same level of proven performance as these next two.

2. Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks ran back a 60 win, four All-Star roster back in the 2015-16 season (without the talents of DeMarre Carroll) and found a similar outcome - 48 wins, a fourth place finish in the East, and a four-game sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. GIF Grade?

Unsatisfied by another playoff exit, the Hawks lost two of their top three scorers in the offseason, sending Jeff Teague to Indiana in exchange for draft prospects, and letting Al Horford sign with the Celtics. The moves allowed them to bring in Dwight Howard and re-sign Kent Bazemore. It also clears a starting position for to test Dennis Schroder. It’s a new look for the Hawks. The Horford-Milsap tandem that challenged (for the most part) the idea of “small” ball is out and in it’s place is a former All-Star hoping to re-invent his career for the third time, at age 30. It’s a gamble, but against a Eastern Conference that has been dominated by LeBron James for seven straight seasons, it’s not a bad bet. If Howard could make a comeback and Schroder adds the perimeter defense that Teague lacked, there is a outcome where this team is in the top half of the East.

The problem is Howard has shown nothing (outside a 20 minute TNT interview) to indicate he has any of the gravitational pull and rim protection he had three-some teams ago. And Schroder, while an upgrade defensively, can’t shoot, which was once a key element of the Hawk’s Spurs-esque offensive scheme. I’m curious, but not enough to put the Hawks at the top of the Southeast. I’m not even certain the Hawks are really “better.”

The upside? The team has a decent amount of cap flexibility in 2017 ($70.3 million on the books), Kent Bazemore looks just like Chance the Rapper, the Falcons look real for the first time in years, and Atlanta is a really great TV show. The non-basketball indicators all point to positive days ahead in Atlanta.

1. Washington Wizards

After being projected as a top five team in the East last season, and two consecutive second round playoff appearances, the Wizards finished with 41 wins, three games out of the playoffs and tenth in the East. And they traded their lottery pick at the deadline for Markieff Morris. Since then, they’ve hired Scott Brooks as the head coach, signed Ian Mahinmi, and maxed out Bradley Beal despite playing in just 55 games, the lowest games total of his career. Plus, this ignores the Wizards attempts to keep cap space for Kevin Durant for two seasons, much like Durant ignored the Wizards in July. GIF Grade?

The good news for the Wizards is the number of questions left open by their roster. Without #KD2DC Brooks will look for either Kelly Oubre or Otto Porter Jr. to fill in at the wing with the hopes of providing spot up shooting to work with Wall’s drive and kick style. And with a $64 million dollar, 4-year contract to Mahinmi and Gortat at 32-years of age, the question of which center can help the Wizards compete now will be up for debate. I’d guess part of the debate will depend on their ability to play alongside Markieff Morris, a stretch four.

The hope is a healthy Bradley Beal can learn to work with Wall under the guidance of Scott Brooks, much like Brooks managed to turn the Thunder into a contender. The problem with that thinking is Beal hasn’t been able to stay healthy and John Wall is the only All-Star caliber player on the team and keeps getting snubbed on that. Kevin Durant isn’t walking through that door. And yet in a Southeast Division where it’s hard to find a team that got better in the offseason. And in the end a team is only as good as it’s best player and at age 26, I think the case can be made that Wall is ready to prove his place in the top players in this league. He’s primed to be be best point guard in East and with a team that kept its status quo and hopefully some health, I’d project the Wizards back at the top (five) of the East, or at least the Southeast.