The NBA's Southeast Division has superstar players spread throughout the five-team group, from Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat to the Washington Wizards' main man Gilbert Arenas to Joe Johnson who runs the show for the Atlanta Hawks. But when it comes to picking one elite team in the division, it all starts and ends with the Orlando Magic and their Superman of NBA superstars, Dwight Howard.
Orlando Magic (1/3)
Any conversation involving the Orlando Magic begins and ends with Dwight Howard. The NBA’s best true center is also the most dominant inside force in the league. Howard averaged nearly 21 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks per game last season. He shot 57% from the field and won the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Howard is a physical beast who has become one of the league’s most recognizable players. He’s every bit as important to the Magic as Kobe is to the Lakers or Lebron is to the Cavs. Howard is the man, or is it “Superman” in Orlando, and his team will once again be riding his cape. As Howard goes, so go the Magic.
Orlando was one of many NBA teams that made major changes during the offseason. Hedo Turkoglu bolted via free agency, and both Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee were traded away. The Magic obtained Vince Carter who brings his 23 ppg career average to town. Carter doesn’t present the matchup problems that Turkoglu did but he’ll be a more consistent scorer. Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes were also added to the mix. Barnes is a well traveled veteran and like Bass is a career backup. Barnes is also an above average three-point shooter.
Mikael Pietrus, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson are back and healthy. Add it all up and the Magic are confident they’ve got a team built to return to the finals.
Harvey’s Take: The Magic are by far the best team in a weak division. Their success this year will be measured by what they do in the playoffs, not the regular season.
Miami Heat (8/1)
It's a one-man show in South Beach. Dwayne Wade is the star but unfortunately for him he doesn't have much of a supporting cast.
With Wade healthy for a full season the Heat topped their 2007-08 win total by 28 games, finishing with a 43-29 mark and making the playoffs just one year after compiling the league's worst mark. Wade was the main man. He led the league in scoring at 30 points per game while averaging 7.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks a game. However he was a Starsky without Hutch, a Green Lantern without Kato.
The Heat have a good young nucleus of players led by Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley. Few deny the former K-State star has the talent to be an impact player in the NBA but personal problems are getting in the way. Questions about his attitude were magnified during his rookie season when he refused to cooperate in the investigation of a marijuana incident at the Rookie Transition Program. Beasley was eventually fined $50,000 by the NBA.
This summer he checked into a Houston rehab facility as part of the league’s substance abuse program to address concerns over his mental state and drug abuse. If his head was screwed on straight, Beasley who averaged 14 points and five rebounds per game, would give the Heat a second scoring threat to go along with Wade. The talent is there, the maturity level isn’t and the question persists “Can He Keep His Nose Clean?”
Chalmers is no stranger to big events and pressure situations since he helped Kansas win the national championship in 2007-08. Chalmers earned the starting point guard job as a rookie last season averaging 10.0 points, 4.9 assists and 2.0 steals will appearing in all 82 games.
Finally there’s veteran center Jermaine O'Neal whose promising career has been sidetracked by injuries. If he can stay healthy the Heat may have a shot to do some damage.
Harvey's Take: Once you get past Wade, there’s not much experience or proven talent. Beasley, O'Neal, Chalmers and Cook are nice players but young. O'Neal is injury prone and at his current pace Beasley is closer to "Felony Flats" than he is to Miami.
Atlanta Hawks (8/1)
The Hawks finished last season as the fourth seed in the conference and eliminated Miami in a hard-fought first round series before being knocked out by the Cavs in the conference semifinals. They’ve got five starters back and eight of the top nine players from last season's club. Will it be enough though for Atlanta to take that big step to the rarified air of the NBA and compete on the same level as say Orlando, Boston or Cleveland.
Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams are the core of this up and coming team. Mike Bibby resigned with the Hawks giving them that veteran leadership at the point and a premier three-point shooter who connected on 39% from downtown.
Josh Smith is on the verge of stardom. He’s arguably the team's most exciting and athletic player but his game is rough around the edges. He’s a below average free throw shooter and passer but the skills set is there.
Johnson is one of the NBA's best pure scorers and can give even the best defensive teams fits with a vast array of offensive skills. The All-Star is entering a contract year after leading the Hawks in scoring (21.4), assists (5.8) and minutes played.
The depth has clearly been improved. Golden State gave the Hawks Jamal Crawford for a pair of players (Acie Law and Speedy Claxton) that weren't really in the team's plans. Crawford could develop into a Vinnie Johnson like player if he’ll accept the role.
Harvey's Take: The Hawks starting five is loaded and they have added some serious depth. When motivated, Atlanta can play with anyone but inconsistency remains an issue.. The club should be in the mix for home court again this season but remains on the outside looking in at the East’s big three.
Washington Wizards (12-1)
There was nothing magical about Washington’s 2008-2009 campaign. They started 4-23 and finished with 19 wins. Gilbert Arenas was hurt for most of the year. Washington fired Eddie Jordan early in the season and didn’t play any better for interim coach Ed Tapscott.
Well Arenas is back and with him back in the lineup, the Wizards could very well make it back to the playoffs. New coach Flip Saunders might have failed in Detroit, but if he can get this team back into the playoffs, he’ll be hailed a hero in D.C. All told, the Wizards have the superstar and the coach needed to play into the month of May. Saunders just needs to make sure that Arenas doesn't sabotage the locker room. His ego is second to none in the NBA and his name is on the long list of players with game but no ring. For every Kobe Bryant, there’s a Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. They can all play but they can’t lead. If Flip keeps Secret Agent 0 under wraps things could turn around quickly for the Wiz.
Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, who carried Washington last season will both benefit with the return of Arenas. Butler averaged just 21 ppg while Jamison knocked down 22 ppg. If Gilbert plays nice AND shares the ball, the Wizards should be a playoff team again.
Harvey’s Take: A total players’ dream, especially if you like playing the OVER. With Arenas back in the lineup this team figures to become the East Coast version of the Phoenix Suns.
Charlotte Bobcats (100/1)
Charlotte is coming off its best season in franchise history but the team is still searching for its first ever spot in the playoffs. Head coach Larry Brown and staff made a few minor tweaks to the roster during the offseason in hopes of getting the Bobcats over the postseason hump.
Charlotte was knocking on the proverbial door last year. They won a franchise record 35 games but dropped seven of their final eight games and finished four games behind the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons.
Like most Larry Brown coached teams, the Bobcats were heavy on defense but light on the offensive end scoring a league low 93 PPG. However that number should improve for Brown and the 'Cats with the acquisition of a legitimate center in Tyson Chandler and having Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, and Vladimir Radmanovic in the mix from the start. Charlotte also snagged Duke’s Gerald Henderson in the draft and resigned point guard Raymond Felton.
To get Chandler, the Bobcats gave up Emeka Okafor in a deal with the Hornets that was more about money than talent. In Chandler they get a shot blocker and rebounder who isn’t much of a scorer and is a walking injury waiting to happen. Gerald Wallace is the most potent offensive weapon on the Charlotte roster. He averaged 16 points and seven rebounds per game last season.
While Brown gets mad props as one of the best defensive minds in the game, the NBA is about putting points on the scoreboard. Unless guys like Diaw, Felton, Chandler and Wallace have career years, Charlotte will struggle to stay out of the basement this season.
Harvey’s Take: The Southeast is the toughest division in the Eastern Conference with Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, and Washington all arguably better teams.