The Eastern Conference’s division title races should be compelling across the board, but it’s the Southeast that is becoming the most unpredictable.
The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors have had a stranglehold on the Atlantic in recent years, though the “Process” in Philadelphia is undeniably gaining momentum. The Central division is ultimately a high-rise condominium tower, where the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are all paying rent to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the division’s “landlord” (but don’t sleep on the Milwaukee Bucks, as noted in Sam Amico’s recent power rankings).
Meanwhile, a lot has changed in the Southeast. The Atlanta Hawks, last year’s fifth seed in the junior varsity conference, are almost unrecognizable as they enter full rebuild mode. Following the exports of Jeff Teague (Minnesota) and Paul Millsap (Denver), the Hawks plan to roll with a starting lineup that includes the likes of Ersan Ilyasova, Dewane Dedmon and sophomore Taurean Prince. It should come with no surprise that sports betting site OddsShark is expecting a sub-30 win season in Atlanta.
The Orlando Magic are assuredly further along in the rebuild process than the Hawks, but still can expect a similar lottery-bound fate, with OddsShark forecasting just 33.5 wins. There probably won’t be many reasons to watch the Magic this year either, other than to witness Elfrid Payton balance that casserole on his head or see Aaron Gordon attempt video-game-worthy dunks. Six years removed from Dwight Howard’s unpleasant exit, Orlando is still searching far and wide for a franchise-altering superstar.
Speaking of Howard, the new Charlotte Hornet is sure to bring an added dimension to the team’s identity this year. The question, however, is whether that new look will produce new results. For those keeping track at home, Charlotte hasn’t won a playoff series in fifteen years. Will the acquisition of an aging Howard paired with the drafting of Kentucky star Malik Monk be enough to make noise in the postseason? The sportsbooks predict 42.5 wins, enough for a third place Southeast finish behind the…
Miami Heat. Yes the Dion Waiters-led Heat have a projected win total of 43.5, as they return their entire core that rattled off 13 straight victories and 16 of 18 to begin the 2017 calendar year. With the under-the-radar addition of Kelly Olynyk and draft selection of Summer League standout Bam Abedayo, expect Erik Spoelstra’s group to be in the thick of the Southeast division chase.
Despite this momentum in Charlotte and Miami, most believe the Southeast is still the Washington Wizards’ to lose. The reigning division champions will return a very similar lineup from last season, featuring the two-headed-backcourt-monster of Bradley Beal and John Wall. The forty-nine victories produced by this DC duo last year marks the highest franchise total since Elvin Hayes led the Bullets to the 1979 NBA Finals. Powered by one of the most explosive playmakers in the Association, the Wizards are aiming for a fifth consecutive 40-win season.
Questions remain in the District, however. Can Wall and Beal continue to carry a team with the second-worst bench scoring in the NBA? (A stat seemingly made worse by the recent departures of Brandon Jennings to China and Bojan Bogdanovic to Indiana.) While Charlotte and Miami have done some roster reshuffling, the Wizards have seemed to stand pat this summer. Will the reshuffling be enough to unseat the Wizards atop the Southeast? Only time will tell, but it’s shaping up to be a fun ride.
Christopher Kreider | @krydr1