I must confess: I hate this division.
League-wide, I can typically find a team that I can get behind wherever I go. The Southeast is the exception. For one reason or another, I’ve just never able been able to get there with any of these organizations. There might have been a time, approximately two decades ago, where I might have felt a little something for a Hawks or a Bullets squad, but those days are long gone. Instead, here I stand… looking at a collection that has more than its fair share of superstars and shine, and not feeling like maybe I should. The heart isn’t there, I swear.
Irrational personal thoughts aside, what is there is the biggest (literally!) pseudo-free agent on the market and a team that has as good of a chance to win it all as anybody. Also, Charlotte. TO THE PREVIEW…
THE MIAMI HEAT
After one of the more captivating, highly-scrutinized seasons in a team’s history, the Heat ultimately fell short of their lofty goal of winning a championship with a “team” that largely went as two players did. Coming off of what seemed like the quietest of offseasons (in comparison to last year’s whirlwind of buzz, hype, and decisions), Miami really isn’t that much different than they were before. In fact, it’s nearly identical on the surface, with the only real difference being the addition of Shane Battier and the loss of Mike Bibby (not a direct transaction, but the definition of an “improvement” if there ever was one).
What remains to be seen is if this group will be any closer to a team that has defined roles and cohesiveness, or if it’s still leaning towards the “lets pick the two most talented motherfuckers on the playground and hope they can take it” approach. Unless you revel in the Heat’s misery, you’re hoping for the former. I don’t like Miami, and even I want them to figure it out because once you get past the sizzle and the flash of the main players, you quickly realize that they can be amongst the most boring teams in the league. I’m serious. If I have to watch them on a nearly nightly basis, I’d at least like to see some dynamic play, an actual offensive strategy (other than “OUT-ATHLETE THOSE GUYS!”), and a supporting cast that doesn’t look like they’re just treading water. I think they might be closer to success this time around. Maybe.
The Best Case: These dudes actually figure out who the hell is supposed to do what and when, so to speak. Can you imagine if this group actually came out of the gate both focused and improved? What if Lebron has worked on his weaknesses and plays the game with the light-hearted nature that I believe suits him best? What if Wade’s body is as healed as can be and he assumes the unquestioned role as the team’s crunch-time guy? What if they just let Bosh be Bosh, got serviceable contributions from the bigs and from the point guard position, and played within the loose but valuable guidelines of Spoelstra’s ideas? And what if they just cut out all the bullshit and truly went after winning and winning alone?
In a perfect world, you’d never see anything like the mocking of Dirk Nowitzki’s cold, the full-of-shit press conferences, the “woe-is-me, everyone hates the Heat” pouting, and so forth. If this team and their two major players, in particular, had the Jordan/Kobe, “fuck everything other than winning” mentality, stopped reading their own press and worrying about what soccer jersey and/or thick-framed black glasses to wear, and just lived to dominate anyone or any team they faced, then they would kill everyone and it probably wouldn’t be close. Of course, that’s a lot to ask, considering the personalities involved.
The Worst Case: They still haven’t figured it out, and their less-than-stellar supporting cast continues to barely function as a somewhat-talented yet dysfunctional group of spare parts. It’s really hard to envision an outright-fail scenario, considering they struggled with roles and had all the pressure in the world on them last year, and they STILL almost won the whole damn thing. I’m not even convinced that injury to James or Wade would derail them, because both have carried completely lackluster squads by themselves in the past. I suppose the realistic, worst case would be the absence of any maturation and/or the failure to learn from the correctable mistakes of the previous year’s experience. That, or they could both get simultaneously injured/arrested/kidnapped. That would probably damn them.
The Bottom Line: There isn’t another team in the division that can compete with Miami on a consistent basis. Virtually unchanged, the Heat stand to roll into the postseason as, at the worst, the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The structure of the season is such that it favors this team, as their immense, top-heavy firepower will overwhelm most other squads early on. As mentioned, the only real change (as of this writing) is the addition of Battier, which is exactly the type of player they need (a stable player on both sides of the ball and, more importantly, the type of guy who will do nothing but help the team’s interpersonal dynamic, on and off the court). Make no mistake about it: provided you’re not Marc Anthony, a bandwagon rider, or one of their loyal fans (who may or may not know what time the game actually starts), you’re probably still rooting against the Heat. Good luck with that.
THE ORLANDO MAGIC
Where to start? This Dwight Howard situation doesn’t look like it’s going to end well. Management seems to be hell-bent on keeping him around, which goes against his apparent wishes. The guy already lacks the type of attitude and mental resolve that you’d hope for, and now you’re going to keep him in a situation he doesn’t want to be in. Tell me he won’t start quitting on plays or loafing around when some on-court friction goes down. In addition to that, they got worse by trading away the tough-minded Brandon Bass for another head case in the form of Glen Davis, resigned Jason Richardson (but had to pay a lot), still have Hedo wasting space, and amnestied Gilbert Arenas. Those are Magic’s major transactions – why the hell would anyone be excited?
The Best Case: Obviously, it would be in the team’s best interest to trade Howard (the earlier, the better) and get some pieces in return. Don’t be stubborn. Letting a guy walk rarely works out well. The only possible way that this scenario might be different is solely based around the fact that these sons of bitches love playing in Florida, and you might be able to lure a free agent to place where he has less of a chance to win but a better opportunity to get some cash and some women (see: J-Rich). Why risk it, though?
From a basketball standpoint, if they go forward with Howard, the only chance they have is to get on his good side and ride his talents to another mid-seed, postseason appearance. They added nothing, so they’d have to hope something clicks in the way it did a few years back.
The Worst Case: The Howard soap-opera becomes the focal point and dominates/destroys the season. Additionally, a tested fanbase grows even more agitated. Van Gundy loses all control. It could happen.
The Bottom Line: It appears that this season is going to be a tough one, relatively-speaking. If Howard stays, it’ll be disjointed and fractured. He can get you to the playoffs, but not much further than the first round, especially when you consider how broken the team sort of was last year. Unless the shooters recapture the collective stroke that seemingly abandoned them all, it’s difficult to imagine things going much better. If Howard does get traded, they’ll find themselves in some sort of a rebuilding mode, and that could make even making the playoffs a challenge in a conference where a few younger teams are threatening to break through.
THE ATLANTA HAWKS
– Lost: Jamal Crawford
– Gained: Vladimir Radmanovic, Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse
The Best Case: Atlanta still has its nucleus of overpaid talent that is good enough to hang with most, but can’t be counted on to do it enough to beat anybody of note. When they looked to threaten Chicago last year, you knew it wouldn’t last because they can’t consistently play at that clip, and because, for every game where Joe Johnson looks A-level or (the departed) Crawford would catch fire, there would be a game where Josh Smith would shoot them out of a winning chance and/or everybody would lose composure and discipline. I suppose there could be a chance that Johnson had some breakthrough and somehow justify that huge contract (most guys, however, don’t start making other-worldly progress at age 30). Also, if Horford continues to improve and the team shipped Smith out for a little more consistency and depth, then they might do something, somehow.
The Worst Case: The team seems sort of stagnant right now, and they have some problems with egos and attitudes. There is no way, under any circumstances, that you could say that was helped by adding guys like T-Mac and Stack. You could easily see Larry Drew losing control of it all and winding up with a bunch of disgruntled players and some big money being wasted in the process.
The Bottom Line: This basically has to be the last year of this team remaining in their current form without really shaking anything up. As such, I think they’ll essentially tread water. Smith is destined to leave, and it might be wise to part ways with him soon. Horford is a great anchor, and they have a nice thing little thing going with Teague and Hinrich at the point, but their depth is suspect and there’s no reason to make anybody think they’re anything different than they’ve been in the past few years. A team in need of a shakeup.
THE WASHINGTON WIZARDS
I’ll tell you this much: Washington made the best pre-labor dispute moves of any team in the league. Slick new/retro uniforms and an intriguing set of draft picks (on paper) leads to me believe that at least a couple of people in the organization know the score. Additionally, while it seemed that a good candidate for the first amnesty move in the league was Rashard Lewis and his insulting deal, the Wizards showed restraint, thought it through, and just left it alone for now. That’s something, right? Anyhow, youth is the word and they’re full of it. Let the rebuilding commence!
The Best Case: While they still stand to be pretty poor, a little goes a long way when it comes to having a season that could be defined as a success. Ideally, John Wall’s actual game will progress towards catching up with his athleticism, and the plethora of young bucks will simply learn to play the game as a team. Being willing to be coached would be huge. If everything went really well, you might see the Wizards equal their win total of 23 games this year (which, in this shortened season, would be very encouraging).
The Worst Case: Blatche. McGee. Young (maybe). Lewis. Crawford. These aren’t exactly a bunch of Grant Hills out there. Skill-wise, there are times when you’re not exactly sure if some of these guys actually know what the overall game of basketball is. Attitude-wise, it’s a wonder than Flip Saunders doesn’t walk out on the team every other day. With this group, it’s never difficult to imagine a complete personnel breakdown, which would send them from “likely a lottery team” to “Sullinger or Barnes?” territory.
The Bottom Line: There will be nights where this team looks like the lost group that fans had gotten used to seeing over the past few years. There will also be nights where their scorers will get hot and they’ll surprise one of the league’s premier teams. As it stands, I have a somewhat tempered enthusiasm when it comes to the Wiz. If you’re gonna rebuild, then you might as well go all the way, which gets you picks like Wall/Vesely/another lottery guy this year. They’re not the worst team in the league, and with the threat of a bunch dunks, 50-point individual scoring nights, and Wall dances, you can actually sit down and watch this team without feeling like it’s going to be a guaranteed waste of time!
THE CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
“These guys are horrible and their owner is a tool.”
Realistically, I couldn’t have said it better myself. During the last draft, I desperately hoped that Kemba Walker wouldn’t be available by the time Charlotte picked because I knew Jordan would draft his ass, and I would have rather watched him play literally anywhere else. Of course, it happened, and it was followed up by the Bismack Biyombo selection. That’s all you need to know – fuck off, Charlotte.
The Best Case: The harsh reality referenced above means that the very best that this team can hope for is to suck badly and get themselves a top 5 pick next year. I love Paul Silas, but this is the hand of death. Outside of Kemba, what’s one to be sold on? Diop, Diaw, and Maggette? It ain’t about a win total or whatever – the best that the Bobcats can hope for is to stay healthy and lay the foundation for a winning tradition (to be realized by approximately 2017).
The Worst Case: Could be the worst team in the league. Additionally, if Kemba goes down to injury, you lose the only legitimate draw on your team. Guys are already getting hurt. Biyombo might be stuck overseas, whether it matters or not. Things could get ugly, and quickly.
The Bottom Line: Just two years ago, Charlotte won 44 games. Last year, it was 34 wins. This year, I’ll skip the twenties and just predict 14 victories. As said, that’s not the worst thing in the world if it means they get to pick high in what figures to be a deep draft. Still, 2012 stands to be a year of growing pains and suffering.
THE FINAL WORD:
Heat aside, you might be able to argue that the team that has the most upside in the division is Washington. I felt ridiculous typing that, but I believe it. Sure, Orlando and Atlanta will probably find the postseason, but if one doesn’t advance by knocking the other out, then they’ll both probably exit in the 1st. If the Southeast were a “she,” you’d barely even stalk her Facebook photos, much less strike up a convo. Forget it.
– Wes Lilliman