Champs and Chumps: Southeast Division Preview for 2013-14 NBA Season

USA TODAY Sports

Don’t expect any big changes at the top or the bottom of the Southeast this season.

The Southeast Division is a great place for your team to belong – if you’re a Miami Heat fan. There is no other division where it’s clearer who the best team will be before a single regular season game is played. If you root for any of the other four teams, the best you can hope for is second place.

Two of those four have legitimate hopes for making the playoffs, and will probably battle the Pistons for a berth. And the other two teams can either aspire to getting further away from the NBA’s basement or to winning the lottery. So let’s look at what we can expect from the teams in the Southeast in 2013-14:

1. Miami Heat

Last season: 66-16 Won NBA Finals over San Antonio, 4-3

Key Players:

LeBron James, SF (37.9 min., 26.8 pts., 8.0 reb., 7.3 as., 1.7 st.)
Dwyane Wade, SG (34.7 min., 21.2 pts., 5.0 reb., 5.1 as., 1.9 st.)
Chris Bosh, C (33.2 min., 16.6 pts., 6.8 reb., 1.4 bl.)
Shane Battier, F (24.8 min., 6.6 pts., 2.3 reb., 43.0% 3s)
Mario Chalmers, PG (26.9 min., 3.5 as., 1.5 st., 40.9% 3s)
Ray Allen, SG (25.8 min., 10.9 pts., 41.9% 3s)
Udonis Haslem, PF (18.9 min., 3.9 pts., 5.4 reb.)
Chris Andersen, C/PF (14.9 min., 4.9 pts., 4.1 reb., 1.0 bl.)
Greg Oden, C (Portland: 23.9 min., 11.1 pts., 8.5 reb., 2.3 bl.)

Last season they won their second straight NBA championship. At this point, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Heat will win a fourth title. Since this would vault them ahead of the Pistons, I hope it doesn’t happen. But they return MVP LeBron James and fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Together they produced 65 points, 20 rebounds, and 14 assists last year. Wade will turn 32 in January and shows signs of wear-and-tear, but it’s probably too early to expect a dramatic decline in his play. And coming off career highs in shooting (56.5% FGs and 41% 3s), James seems to get better every year.

The only notable loss for the Heat was Mike Miller, but they still have plenty of 3-point shooters in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, James Jones, Rashard Lewis – and LeBron). They added two players who are mostly viewed as busts (for different reasons) in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, but both could reinforce their bench. While it’s probably too much to expect Oden to provide them starter’s minutes, at 7-0 and 273 he has the size to bang with the league’s biggest centers. If he can help them match up better inside against Indiana’s Roy Hibbert or Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez, the Heat are even more likely to make it back to the Big Dance. Even if Oden doesn’t help, it’s still a huge challenge for other teams to match up to their Big 3. If they remain healthy, I expect to see them playing for keeps next June.

Projection: 65 wins and a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals

2. Atlanta Hawks

Last season: 44-38 Lost in First Round to Indiana, 4-2

Key Players:

Al Horford, C (37.2 min., 17.4 pts., 10.2 reb., 3.2 as.)
Paul Millsap, PF (Utah: 30.4 min., 14.6 pts., 7.1 reb., 2.6 as.)
Jeff Teague, PG (32.9 min., 14.6 pts., 7.2 as., 1.5 st.)
Kyle Korver, SF/SG (30.5 min., 10.9 pts., 4.0 reb., 45.7% 3s)
Lou Williams, SG (28.7 min., 14.1 pts., 3.6 as.)
Elton Brand, PF (Dallas: 21.2 min., 7.2 pts., 6.0 reb., 1.3 bl.)
DeMarre Carroll, SF (Utah: 16.8 min., 6.0 pts., 2.8 reb.)
John Jenkins, SG (14.8 min., 6.1 pts., 38.4% 3s)

The Hawks made it to the playoffs for the sixth straight season in 2012-13, and were eliminated in the first round for the second straight year. While they may have hoped to bring back to Atlanta one hometown hero (Dwight Howard) to replace another (Josh Smith), that didn’t work out for them this summer. Nevertheless, they let Smith head north to Detroit, replacing him with a cheaper and more efficient (if less spectacular) Paul Millsap at PF.

They also let backup center Zaza Pachulia leave, though they bolstered their frontline with Gustavo Ayon and Elton Brand. Most importantly, they held on to PG Jeff Teague and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. They hope SG Lou Williams will fully recover from a torn ACL in January.

In Al Horford they have a gem, though he’s at a size disadvantage against the league’s larger centers. My biggest concerns for this team are their lack of depth and size (I think they should have kept Zaza). The Hawks also have a new head coach in former Spurs’ lead assistant Mike Budenholzer. In all likelihood, they’re still the second best team in this division. But they were hardly breathing down Miami’s neck last season with 44 wins, and that won’t change this time around.

Projection: 45+ wins and another First Round playoff elimination

3. Washington Wizards

Last season: 29-53

Key Players:

John Wall, PG (32.7 min., 18.5 pts., 7.6 as., 4.0 reb., 1.3 st.)
Bradley Beal, SG (31.2 min., 13.9 pts., 3.8 reb.)
Nene Hilario, PF (27.2 min., 12.6 pts., 6.7 reb., 2.9 as.)
Emeka Okafor, C (26.0, 9.7 pts., 8.8 reb.)
Martell Webster, SF (28.9 min., 11.4 pts., 3.9 reb., 42.2% 3s)
Eric Maynor, PG (Portland: 21.2 min., 6.9 pts., 4.0 as.)
Otto Porter, SF (Georgetown: 35.4 min., 16.2 pts., 7.5 reb., 1.8 st.)

Last season started off disastrously for the Wizards. With best player John Wall out until almost mid-January, they stumbled badly out of the gate, losing their first 12 games. They went 5-28 without Wall; 24-25 with him. Assuming he and fellow backcourt mate Bradley Beal continue to improve, a .500 season and playoff berth seems like a reasonable expectation for 2013-14.

The Wizards showed how much confidence they have in Wall by signing him to a max extension this summer. They also added Eric Maynor to spell him at PG, and hope top pick Otto Porter is the future at SF (though Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza are adequate for now). Unfortunately, the injury bug has hit them hard once again as C Emeka Okafor is out for an undetermined period with a herniated disc in his neck.

Now Washington must rely on Nenê Hilario to man the post, and hope that the rest of their bigs will be serviceable until Okafor can return. If PF Al Harrington can perform like he did for Denver in 2011-12 (14 points in 28 minutes) that will certainly help. While Wall and Beal could form one of the better guard tandems in the league, I doubt that this will be enough to get them into the postseason.

Projection: 35-40 wins and possibly a playoff berth

4. Charlotte Bobcats

Last season: 21-61

Key Players:

Kemba Walker, PG (34.9 min., 17.7 pts., 5.7 as., 2.0 st.)
Gerald Henderson, SG (31.4 min., 15.5 pts., 3.7 reb., 2.6 as.)
Al Jefferson, C (Utah: 33.1 min., 17.8 pts., 9.2 reb.)
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, SF (26.0 min., 9.0 pts., 5.8 reb.)
Bismack Biyombo, PF (27.3 min., 4.8 pts., 7.3 reb., 1.8 bl.)
Ramon Sessions, PG (27.1 min., 14.4 pts., 3.8 as.)
Cody Zeller, PF (Indiana: 29.5 min., 16.5 pts., 8.1 reb., 1.3 bl.)

The Bobcats barely escaped being the worst team in the Southeast (and the NBA) last season. But they made some noise this summer by signing a legitimate post scorer and rebounder in Al Jefferson. They picked up Cody Zeller in the draft, and the athletic big man from Indiana is projected to be in their starting lineup. They retained SG Gerald Henderson and saw a huge improvement in play from PG Kemba Walker in his second year. They hope SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can make a similar great leap forward. PF/C Josh McRoberts came over from Orlando last season and gave them quality production upfront.

A big question is whether PF Bismack Biyombo can become a consistent contributor in his third year. Ramon Sessions capably backs up Walker at the point; former Piston Ben Gordon is probably the highest priced fourth guard in the NBA. New coach Steve Clifford appears to be well-regarded around the league. Perhaps they’ll finally get lucky and win the draft lottery.

Projection: 25-30 wins

5. Orlando Magic

Last season: 20-62

Key Players:

Nikola Vucevic, C (33.2 min., 13.1 pts., 11.9 reb.)
Arron Afflalo, SG (36.0 min., 16.5 pts., 3.7 reb., 3.2 as.)
Jameer Nelson, PG (35.3 min., 14.7 pts, 7.4 as., 3.7 reb.)
Tobias Harris, PF (Orlando: 36.1 min., 17.3 pts., 8.5 reb.)
Moe Harkless, SF (26.0 min., 8.2 pts., 4.4 reb.)
Glen Davis, PF (31.3 min., 15.1 pts., 7.2 reb.)
Victor Oladipo, G (Indiana: 28.4 min., 13.6 pts., 6.3 reb., 2.2 st.)

Sans Dwight Howard in the middle for the first time in eight years, there was nothing magical about this team in 2012-13. The surprise was not that they were awful, but how they enjoyed some surprising bright spots in such a dismal season. The center they picked up from Philadelphia, 7-0 Nicola Vucevic, was very productive. His backup, rookie Kyle O’Quinn, provided similar Per36 numbers.

Then they picked up Victor Oladipo in the NBA draft. The announced plan is to use him at PG (an odd role for a guy whose handle as a SG in college was considered suspect). Fortunately, they have a steady vet PG in Jameer Nelson. Arron Afflalo returns at SG, hoping to improve upon a campaign where he scored the most points of his career, but saw his 3-point shooting drop from over 40% to just 30%.

Will the Magic win more games this season? Almost certainly. Will they get out of the Southeast cellar? Probably not. But we have to give them credit for making the best of a bad situation with Howard’s foolishness. They have several promising young players, and can hope to pick up another one in next summer’s NBA Draft.

Projection: 25 wins

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