With a number of pretenders and hopeful mediocrities, the Southeast Division is the worst in the game, with the Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic head and shoulders above everyone else.
1) Orlando Magic
The Magic potentially have enough tricks up their sleeve to make a run at the East. Dwight Howard rebounds and dive cuts better than anyone else in the league, Hedo Turkoglu does everything and does everything well, and Rashard Lewis’ madcap bombing frees up the paint for Howard to cut, seal, and turn his way into layups or dunks.
What else is there to like? How about Mickael Pietrus providing more shooting, more slashing, and more defense, or Keith Bogans’ toughness and outside shooting.
Still, for a truly magical season to be in order, the Magic need Howard to improve his defensive recognition, invent post moves more refined then simple turning hooks over either shoulder, and create some kind of offense from six feet out and farther.
Getting more consistency out of Rashard Lewis, and hoping Hedo Turkoglu continues to play at an elite level are also musts, as is finding a true power forward, and a point man who can create and defend so Jameer Nelson can become the third guard that suits him the best.
If that grocery list isn’t checked off, the Magic will only be second-tier contenders.
2) Miami Heat
With Dwyane Wade back in glorious form, the Heat have a franchise-carrying superstar on their roster for the first time in almost two years.
Shawn Marion and Michael Beasley will score by the bushel, while Udonis Haslem’s screen-setting, rebounding, and mid range jump shooting will be better utilized as a role player, rather than one of the main options he was last season.
However, besides that quartet, there isn’t a lot of NBA talent on the roster. Jamaal Magloire and James Jones are already out with significant injuries, and represent Miami’s best bench players.
Yakhouba Diawara can defend some and run the floor, but he can’t do anything else. Daequan Cook is a mistake player, while Dorell Wright doesn’t have the chops for the NBA.
And who’s the starting point guard? The marginally talented Chris Quinn? The combustive and temperamental Marcus Banks? The 6-1 rookie shooting guard, Mario Chalmers?
Wade, Beasley, Marion, and Haslem may be able to get the Heat close, will the supporting cast be able to push the team over the hump and back into the playoffs?
3) Atlanta Hawks
For the Hawks to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke and that the team is indeed ready to soar, a number of things must take place. Josh Smith has to continue the strides he’s made as an on-ball defender, and prove he’s not strictly a weak-side shot blocker. Coming to play every game is another requirement.
Al Horford must develop any kind of post up game or else the Hawks won’t have any way of pressuring defenses from the inside out. His growing three inches, or the Hawks acquiring a legit center are necessities to Atlanta’s immediate success.
Mike Bibby must find a way to slow down Father Time. His diminishing athleticism and degrading defense prevent him from being the veteran playmaker Atlanta needs to take the next step.
Can Marvin Williams be anything more than a mid-range jump shooter? Will Acie Law be more consistent? Can anybody step up so Joe Johnson isn’t the only dynamic half-court scorer?
Despite last year’s improbable series against the Celtics, it will be difficult to obtain a return ticket to the postseason.
4) Washington Wizards
The Wizards are a team with dual personalities—each as damning as the other.
Gilbert Arenas is too impatient, too narcissistic, and too egotistical to keep himself from breaking off Washington’s offense, playing disciplined basketball, and avoiding taking awful shot attempts simply because he can make a few of them. With him in the lineup, his teammates are bystanders, voyeurs to Arenas’ self-aggrandizing show.
Without him, the Wizards have better ball movement, better shot opportunities, and better continuity, but they lack that key superstar to will his way into close victories.
Either way, Caron Butler is a magnificent two-way player, who’s best suited to being a team’s third option on offense, and Antawn Jamison can score against the too-soft, too-slow defenders of the league, but isn’t strong enough to attack good defenses.
With Brendon Haywood out for the duration, the Wizards have a donut hole at the center position. And with Arenas out until January or thereabouts, the Wizards must continue their basketball-rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Expect the schizophrenic Wiz to drop off.
5) Charlotte Bobcats
Larry Brown’s last go around with a young, impatient ball club with a mistake-prone point guard was a disaster, what makes anyone think this situation will be any different?
Jason Richardson can score, but can’t do anything else. Gerald Wallace is fantastic at both ends of the court, but his talents would be better served on a winning ball club. Emeka Okafor can’t score with a pencil and isn’t the talented defender or rebounder he’s reputed to be.
Adam Morrison’s soft, unathletic game will translate nicely to Larry Brown’s doghouse, while Brown will no doubt also feud with incumbent point man Raymond Felton, and rookie D.J. Augustine.
It’s alarming to think how much damage has been done to the Bobcats in a season-plus since Bernie Bickerstaff stepped down as coach. The question isn’t how good the Bobcats will be, but when will the flames from the Sam Vincent-Michael Jordan era be extinguished?