2013-14 NBA Southeast Division Preview
1) Miami Heat
Last year: 66-16, 1st in Southeast, Won NBA Title
The reigning champions retain everyone from their rotation in last season's playoffs except three-point specialist Mike Miller. The Big 3 and Ray Allen are all back in healthy, all in the last year of their contract and motivated to win the title and complete the three-peat. This year they will have more competition in the East than in years past - the Pacers will have Danny Granger back and the Bulls return Derrick Rose.
So what have the Heat been up to in the offseason? GM Pat Riley has been up to his usual task of trying to surround his core by using the loose change that remains after paying the big contracts. This offseason, he used the money freed up from using the amnesty clause on Mike Miller to go deep into basement of the NBA talent library to find Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. He signed Oden for the veteran's minimum. Oden has the knees of a man twice his age and is already injured, but if somewhat healthy he can match up against Eastern bigs like Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert. Meanwhile, Riley signed Beasley for zero money guaranteed and re-signed Chris "Birdman" Andersen, an integral part of their championship run last season, for the veteran's minimum. It is really a testament to the greatness of LebBron that Riley is able to lure these players to play for fractions of what they could garner elsewhere.
Dwyane Wade has apparently lost 15 pounds after being challenged to do so by Riley. This could be huge for the durability of his knees late in the season and in the playoffs if it is true. Chris Bosh made an awesome appearance on Parks and Recreation. And LeBron James has been doing stuff like this. It's scary to think how good he will be this year.
On the court, look for the Heat to be all business this season. They are definitely the favorites to with the title, again.
Last year: 44-38, 2nd in Southeast, lost in 1st round to Indiana
Atlanta has been the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference in terms of consecutive playoff berths (tied with Boston at 6). This season, they have a new-look roster and coach, former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer. They lost their highest scorer for the second offseason in a row, this time in Josh Smith, and also lost Devin Harris and Zaza Pachulia to free agency.
The loss of three core players would seem to be a big hit, but GM Danny Ferry did well to replace them by signing Paul Millsap, a more efficient and cheaper version of Smith, and veteran Elton Brand to a 1-year, $4 million contract. He also re-signed starting point guard Jeff Teague and sharpshooting guard Kyle Korver, as well as kept flexibility under the salary cap to remain competitive in next summer's free agency.
This season, the Hawks will be led by Al Horford, who had career bests in point and rebounds last year. Backup shooting guard Louis Williams is coming off an ACL injury in January and will be back before the All-Star break. Williams was a key player to the Hawks' success last season - they were just games behind the Heat and Knicks for the best record in the East with him, and his absence was one of the main reasons they fell to the 6th seed. Also look out for Dennis Schroeder, the rookie out of Germany. He was their first-round pick in June and played very well in the preseason.
All in all, the Hawks look like they are headed for yet another playoff berth. Look for them to make some noise at the trade deadline and pick up a center.
3) Washington Wizards
Last year: 29-53, 3rd in Southeast
Washington will be looking to make the playoffs this season for the first time in six seasons. They probably have their best chance in a while of doing so too, as owner Ted Leonsis and GM Ernie Grunfield have made a commitment to spending to win now by trading future draft picks for players who can help them win in the present.
Most recently, they traded the expiring contract of the injured Emeka Okafor and a protected first-round pick in next year's draft to the Suns for center Marcin Gortat. Gortat will take over at center, allowing Nenê to move to his more natural position of power forward. The rest of the starting lineup will be filled out by overpaid small forward Trevor Ariza ($7.7 million this year despite a subpar PER), a young scorer primed for a breakout year in Bradley Beal (20.7 PPG on 52% shooting in 7 preseason games) and "designated player" John Wall.
Wall's surge at the end of last season had everything to do with his outside jumper. For the first time in his career he was consistent from outside, making defenders respect his shot and allowed him freedom to drive to the hoop and get to the line. He averaged 4.6 free throw attempts in the first 23 games and 7.7 attempts in the last 26.
Another important factor in the Wizards' playoff chances is health. Health is obviously a factor for any team, but for the Wizards it is especially the case. Last season, injuries to Nenê Wall, and Bradley Beal made it impossible for them to contend for a spot in the playoffs. This season, those three are healthy but backup wing Chris Singleton is out for the first two months and No. 3 overall draft pick Otto Porter Jr. is iffy with a hip flexor injury.
Expect the Wizards to be in the hunt for the 8th seed in the East at the end of the season. If Wall hits a few jumpers and they stay healthy, they will have a better shot at their first playoff berth since the Gilbert Arenas era.
4) Charlotte Bobcats
Last year: 21-61, 4th in Southeast
The Bobcats are stuck in no man's land. Like when a tennis player reluctantly approaches the net, the Bobcats' failure to commit to either tanking for next year's draft or trying to win now has them destined for prolonged bottom-feeder status. After seeming like they were committing to freeing up cash for next summer's free-agency and tanking for a better pick in the draft, they signed the aging Al Jefferson to a 3-year, $41 million deal this offseason.
If you are looking for something positive to say about the Bobcats, they have some young talented guards (Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and a highly touted new coach in Steve Clifford. Perhaps Clifford will be able to harness some of that talent, and perhaps with the increased post production from Jefferson, they will win more than 21 games this season. But again, for what? It seems hard to believe that they have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot.
5) Orlando Magic
Last year: 20-62, 5th in Southeast
The Magic are in full tanking mode, although GM Rob Henigan would probably prefer to call it rebuilding mode. Henigan, who was a part of the rebuilding efforts in San Antonio and Oklahoma City, is staying patient and keeping his books open for next summer's huge free agency and stacking picks for the promising 2014 draft class.
In his first season as GM last year, Henigan traded the franchise-hijacker Dwight Howard to the Lakers in a three-team deal and netted in return four draft picks, Arron Afflalo (who had a career season last season), the surprisingly productive USC-product Nikola Vucevic and the young Maurice Harkless.
Given the fact that the Magic's goals for this season and winning do not overlap, it is no surprise that they are letting Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, start at point guard despite his natural position at shooting guard. This is a great situation for Oladipo, because he will basically be given the reigns of the team with savvy veteran point guard Jameer Nelson being there to guide him along the way. Oladipo's ceiling is sky-high: He has amazing athleticism and an apparently ridiculous work ethic. Witnessing his development will probably be the best part of watching the Magic this season.
Reach Staff Writer Adam Levin here.