Who will come out on top of the Southeast Division?
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I realize that NBA divisions don’t matter, but they’re a good way to group teams into separate posts.

Here, I’ll be listing teams in order of my projected standings, as well as give one bold prediction for each squad beyond that.

(1) ATLANTA HAWKS

The Hawks miss Jeff Teague more than Al Horford.

Certainly, Horford’s a more valuable player than Teague in a vacuum, but I say that because I feel more confident in the Hawks’ replacement for Horford than Teague.

Dwight Howard may not be the all-around player that Al Horford is, but he has his own virtues and may exceed Horford in terms of the rim protection and rebounding that classic big men were based on. It’s strange that the league heaps praise on DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond for that limited skill set, but blasts Dwight for the same. He may lack the athleticism of his younger counterparts these days, but he’s still a valuable player.

Meanwhile, Dennis Schroder‘s going to be handed the keys to the kingdom without that same resume. He flashes brilliance and scoring spurts now and then, but he’s also inconsistent and inefficient. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a lot of Jarrett Jack in crunch time for this Hawks squad. After all, they’re a playoff contender, not a young team mired in a rebuild. They have a chance to win a first-round series again, but I’m not sure Schroder’s a steady enough hand to guide that.

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(2) WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Bradley Beal earns his extension — and then some.

Everyone loves Bradley Beal — when he’s healthy. His constant and nagging injuries have cast a lot of doubts about him, and about whether the Wizards should have handed him that massive extension or not.

I’m firmly in the pro-Beal camp. Sure, he’s been maddeningly injury-prone so far, but that could also describe Steph Curry’s first few years in the league when his troublesome ankles cast doubts about his long-term potential. The same could be said for Matt Stafford in the NFL, who was snakebitten early on and has been healthy ever since. Injuries are certainly a concern and may flare up again, but my point is that they’re not GUARANTEED to come up again.

And if Beal stays healthy — which we all hope he does — he’s going to explode, not just as one of the top shooting guards in the league, but as potentially one of the top 20 players in the league. We’re talking about a 20-4-4 year with good efficiency, and the shooting to pair perfectly with John Wall. I expect the Wizards to become the Blazers East, riding their guards into a 4/5 seed.

(3) CHARLOTTE HORNETS

The Hornets’ ascent stalls.

Credit Steve Clifford for squeezing the most of this roster last year, and leading them to 48 wins. Hopefully, Clifford doesn’t get blamed if the team backslides a little this year, perhaps into that .500 range.

My concern for the team — surprisingly — is the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. By all accounts, Kidd-Gilchrist is a great kid, but I suspect he’s been overrated in NBA circles based on his college success and draft status. He’s a good defender, but his limitations as a shooter cause spacing problems for the offenses he’s on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Hornets had a breakout year when MKG went out and more time funneled to a solid vet like Courtney Lee instead.

(4) ORLANDO MAGIC

GM Rob Hennigan gets canned.

Hennigan may look like a brilliant NBA GM if NBC was casting a show about one, but in real life, his track record’s far more mixed.

This off-season, Hennigan shook up his coaching staff and his roster, bringing in the likes of Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, and Jeff Green (the latter on a one-year deal, admittedly.) A Magic optimist may suggest that Hennigan thought his team could contend and wanted to “go for it!” A Magic pessimist (like myself), would suggest that Hennigan realized his job was on the line and made some wild and desperate moves as a last roll of the dice.

The team roster, as presently constructed, still lacks shooting, and has a clogged front court. As much as I like Frank Vogel, I’m not sure how he can cobble together a great squad from this bunch. His defense should be good, as always, but he lacks that go-to scorer that his Indiana Pacers teams had in Paul George.

The roster that Hennigan has assembled has some pieces, none of which fit all that well together, and none of which you could sincerely point to as a franchise cornerstone. Personally, I think he’s done a bad job as a GM for his entire tenure there, and it will finally catch up to him now.

(5) MIAMI HEAT

The Heat go against their instincts, and tank.

Even with Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside alone, the Miami Heat have enough talent to squeeze out 30-35 or so wins from their roster. The question is — do they want to?

I don’t see any scenario — aside from Justise Winslow blowing up a few years ahead of schedule — that would allow the team to be competitive in a first round series. Given that, they may be best served “resting” their stars down the stretch, in order to try and find their next Justise Winslow in the top 10.

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