2014/15 Predictions: Southeast Division

1:  Charlotte Hornets (nee Bobcats)

 

Lance Stephenson is set to have a break out season.

Lance Stephenson is set to have a break out season.

With LeBron James leaving Miami, the Southeast Division is wide open, and despite being a joke around the league only two years ago, the Hornets have put themselves in position to win the division title.  Last year the Hornets made one of the most underrated free-agent signing by picking up Al Jefferson at a reasonable rate. The result was Jefferson having one of his best seasons, and though he was snubbed for an All-Star nod, he did end up earning some MVP votes and managed to make an All-NBA team for the first time (he and Goran Dragic were the only All-NBA team members who didn’t make the All-Star game last year).  This year, the Hornets got another steal, signing Lance Stephenson away from the Indiana Pacers, adding an emerging All-Star to their roster.  They also have two first-round draft picks to add to the roster, notably Noah Vonleh who proved a solid rebounder and shot blocker during his time in college, all while shooting over .500 from the floor.  With promising young players like Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilcrest continuing to improve, a shot-blocker like Bismack Biyombo coming bench with veteran Jason Maxiell, and sharp shooters Gary Neal and Jannero Pargo spreading the floor, it seems like the Hornets have everything they need to win.  The biggest concerns might be the shooting percentage Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson.  Both players are young enough and talented enough to be enticing for teams looking to add depth, so packing up both players for a more consistent point guard might be an option, but even if the roster stays as is, the Hornets are looking like a realistic option to win the division.

 

2:  The Miami Heat

 

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade hope to step up in the absence of LeBron James.

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade hope to step up in the absence of LeBron James.

The Miami Heat are most certainly going to feel the pinch with the absence of LeBron James, but by bringing in Luol Deng, and Josh McRoberts, the Heat made some solid moves that should offset the loss of James at least a little.  McRoberts has proved himself to be an exceptional passer, though his rebounding has actually decreased over his first few seasons.  Deng’s offensive and passing game is nowhere near what James could do, but his defense can certainly be considered elite, and with Dwyane Wade picking up extra ball handling duties, and Chris Bosh getting more looks on offensive, the team should be able to compensate for most of James’s scoring.  The signing of Danny Granger could prove helpful as well, if he returns to form, but given his play last season, that doesn’t seem likely.  The Heat will struggle at point guard and center.  Despite having cap-space, they were unable to bring in a center capable of double-digit rebounding and defending the rim, and with James gone, they lose a little bit on the glass.  Mario Chambers has proved good enough to reach the NBA finals for four straight seasons, but that was with James and Wade handling the ball.  Now Chambers will be expected to pick up some of those duties, which will be a change for the team, and as good as Chambers might be, he is not LeBron James.  Last season the Heat only managed 54 wins in a weak Eastern conference, and that was with James.  As other teams get better, notably the Hornets and the Cavaliers, the Heat may find that even having two All-Stars like Wade and Bosh is not enough to win the division, and if either Wade or Bosh miss a significant amount of time due to injury, the Heat will struggle to stay at .500.

 

3:  The Atlanta Hawks

 

Al Horford is back from injury and hopes to take the Hawks back to the playoffs.

Al Horford is back from injury and hopes to take the Hawks back to the playoffs.

Last season the Hawks had a major setback with the injury of Al Horford, but when he was playing, it seemed that the Hawks were more than capable of competing.  Now that he is healthy, he and Paul Millsap will make one of the most effective center/power forward combos in the Eastern Conference, and with veteran Elton Bran coming off the bench and rookie Adrien Payne adding additional muscle, the Hawks look like they will be able to bang with the best front courts in the league.  As far as their wing-play goes, the Hawks added some defense with Thabo Sefolosha, and the sharp-shooters Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll returning and Kent Bazemore being added, the Hawks have enough shooters to spread the floor.  Jeff Teague is certainly not in the top ten at his position, but he is a competent point guard, and while the loss of Lou Williams hurts their depth, young point guard Shelvin Mack looks to have the potential to fill in for Williams.  If the Hawks remain healthy, they should have no problem finishing third in the division and securing a playoff spot, and if the Heat struggle with injuries or the Hornets struggle with chemistry, the Hawks could very well place even higher.

 

4:  Washington Wizards

 

All-Star John Wall hope to build on the Wizards' success from last year.

All-Star John Wall hope to build on the Wizards’ success from last year.

Last year the Wizards got off to a slow start and many anticipated coach Randy Wittman to be the first coaching casualty of the season, but the Wizards turned things around, finished second in the division, and managed to get to the second round of the playoffs.  The stars seemed to align for the Wizards in the post season, as the Bulls struggled through injury, but when the second round came along, it became clear how far from contending the Wizards were.  This year they hope to build on their success, but with starting shooting guard Bradley Beal missing 8 weeks with a fracture, it seems likely another slow start is in the works.  John Wall will hopefully improve and continue to make plays, and so long as Nene and Marcin Gortat stay healthy, the starting front court should get its share of rebounds, while Kris Humphries, Drew Gooden and DeJuan Blair will make for a solid front court rotation coming off the bench.  The team’s success will likely rely on how efficiently the offence is run and how well their primary scorers shoot the ball.  I’m not sure that Paul Pierce was an upgrade on Trevor Ariza, and the Wizards will likely miss not only Ariza’s range, but his defence as well.  Bradley Beal proved an excellent shooter from beyond the arc, but inside the arc he is far less consistent, and the Wizards will need some more consistency from him when he returns to the line-up.  If Martell Webster, Paul Pierce and Bradely Beal can function well, the Wizards could place higher, but I believe the departure of Trevor Ariza will hurt the team more than people expect.  Still, fans have cause to be optimistic and the Wizards will likely be in the playoffs again.

 

5: The Orlando Magic

 

Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon will like be getting a lot of minutes with the Magic, but the playoffs seem to be a couple years off for the young squad.

Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon will like be getting a lot of minutes with the Magic, but the playoffs seem to be a couple years off for the young squad.

Even the most optimistic appraisals of the Orlando Magic don’t have them finishing higher than last in the Southwest.  The Magic have some nice pieces in Nikola Vucevic, who sometimes plays well enough to make Magic fans forget about Dwight Howard, and Victor Oladipo, who had some bright spots last season on his way to making the All-Rookie team, not to mention Tobias Harris, who looks like he could turn into a rebounding stud.  Though these guys post some good numbers, this might be the big-fish-little-pond effect.  In terms of adding talent, the Magic have a couple of first-round picks joining their roster this year: guard Elfrid Payton and forward Aaron Gordon.  Both seem like solid rebounders, and Payton’s college numbers suggest he may develop into a solid playmaker as well, but this year will be more about developing young talent than trying to win games.  Payton and Gordon should get their fair share of looks, but with Jameer Nelson and Aaron Afflalo gone, the team doesn’t have any player makers or primary scorers with significant experience.  There will be growing pains and a trip to the lottery, but hopefully some bright young talent will make the losses worth watching.

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