1. Orlando Magic (54-28)
Dwight Howard really broke through last year and Rashard Lewis' first year in Orlando was pretty good too. I see Jameer Nelson becoming more of a leader this year, and with Miami not quite where they were two or three years ago, the Magic will win the division.
Step aside Shaq, Howard is now the premier big-man in the NBA, and it's going to be that way for the next five or six years. When Stan Van Gundy stepped in as the head coach, it was a little disappointing because they were originally expecting Billy Donovan. However, Van Gundy did a great job last year. I see Orlando possibly reaching the Conference Finals this year.
2. Miami Heat (47-35)
Well they're back. How this team only won 15 games last year kind of puzzled me. But that's in the past. The Heat have added Michael Beasley, and he'll be a fantastic addition to Shawn Marion and D-Wade. If these three play together for a few years, I don't hesitate to say their big three could bump and bruise with the Celtics "Big Three."
Marion has said that he wants to be traded, but why? This team has tons of potential, and although they won't be the best team in the NBA, or even the Southeast this year, I think Miami has ensured that they'll be a quality team for a long time.
3. Atlanta Hawks (37-45)
The Eastern Conference is getting stronger and The Hawks 37 wins last year won't get them into the playoffs this year. The only big loss they suffered was Josh Childress, but they re-signed Josh Smith. In my opinion, Smith is worth every stinkin' penny Atlanta paid for him. He has developed a lot, and the Hawks will get better, but their record should be about the same.
The Hawks made strides last year, and they're close to becoming a good team. Similar to the Rays in baseball, this is a built team. Almost all of the players were lottery picks, and now it's finally starting to pay off. If Mike Bibby and Smith both have big years, and guys likes Marvin Williams and Acie Law can continue to get better, the Hawks should get 37. A respectable number in a conference that will demand about 40 wins to get a playoff spot.
4. Washington Wizards (35-47)
With Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas both scheduled to miss time, the Wizards will miss the playoffs this season. They'll have to rely heavily on Caron Butler, who is often injured as well, with reserves like Etan Thomas and DeShawn Stevenson also getting a larger work load. Brendan Haywood will also miss a good chunk of the season too. A healthy Washington team could probably win 50 games, but when was the last time that Arenas, Jamison, and Butler played a full season together?
The Wizards inked Jamison and Arenas to lucrative new contracts, and hopefully they can return to where they were after they heal up. Arenas is all talk, and I don't think he's backed any of it up. First round exit after first round exit doesn't give you the right to talk smack. However, when he returns (I believe sometime in December?), he'll help his team, but they'll probably already be in the hole. Sorry Gil, but the Wizards will miss the playoffs.
5. Charlotte Bobcats (33-49)
Charlotte has been making baby-steps every year, and now that Larry Brown is the coach, the pieces are in place. Emeka Okafor just got signed for six more years, and hopefully he has a good year. Okafor has been up and down every year since his rookie season. Jason Richardson may be due for a big year, along with Gerald Wallace.
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