Prior to the start of the season, the Southeast Division looked as though it could have been one of the deepest divisions in the league. The Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks looked poised to return to the playoffs, while the Charlotte Hornets seemed destined to improve on last season’s playoff run with the addition of Lance Stephenson. The Miami HEAT responded to LeBron James leaving by adding veteran players in Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger and even the Orlando Magic looked like they could finally begin to win closer to 30 games with a young, promising roster.
With about 20 games in the books, some of those early season predictions have panned out while others haven’t. The Wizards and Hawks are leading the pack while the HEAT are in a distant third place with the Magic and Hornets rounding out the division. The Hornets have been the biggest disappointment and are struggling to put together wins. With that said, let’s take a closer look at each team’s situation after 20 games.
1. Atlanta Hawks (13-6)
Heading into Monday night, the Hawks have become one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference, winning their last six games in a row. The Hawks ultimately got the nod over the Wizards in our quarterly checkup due to their recent hot streak and their head-to-head win over the Wizards back on Nov. 25.
The Hawks are off to a good start this season due to contributions on both sides of the ball. The team’s offense is ranked sixth in the league and the defense is 10th in terms of efficiency. The offense is playing very well despite former All-Star Al Horford being just their fourth-best offensive weapon thus far. Heading into the season, Horford was projected to be one of the top weapons for the Hawks, but so far it has been Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap leading the way with solid contributions from Kyle Korver and reserve players Dennis Schroder, Mike Scott and Pero Antic. Schroder, in particular, has played well during the Hawks’ winning streak, averaging 12 points during those six games.
At this point, the only thing that will hold the Hawks back is whether they can remain consistent. It has been pleasant to see Horford start off the season healthy after missing most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
2. Washington Wizards (13-6)
The Wizards have achieved early success due to a top-five defense anchored by Marcin Gortat and John Wall. The Wizards are holding opponents to just 95.8 points per game and the fourth-lowest field goal percentage in the league at 42 percent. Gortat is blocking 1.32 shots per game and Wall is second in the league in steals with 2.16 per game. Wall’s presence on the floor at times can be huge because he can get the offense rolling in transition off of turnovers. The team has greatly benefited from the return of Bradley Beal. While Beal is still getting acclimated to game speed and trusting his wrist again, he is averaging 14.2 points, three assists and 2.5 rebounds per game.
While the defense is in the top five in efficiency, the offense isn’t quite there yet. The Wizards’ offense is 18th in offensive efficiency and are the same rank in points per game. Surely the addition of Beal will only strengthen the offense as he regains his shooting touch, but there will need to be others who step up to help them score more points. The team seems to be heading in the right direction. The Wizards are averaging 107.5 points per game since the start of December and put up 119 on the Denver Nuggets on Friday. Once the offense really starts clicking, the Wizards should be full steam ahead for the top seed in the conference.
3. Miami HEAT (9-11)
The HEAT are proving that replacing LeBron James is no easy task. Losing one of the best players in world has taken its toll on the HEAT as the team is ranked 17th in offense and 26th in defense. While the offense has proved to be average, the defense has been flat-out bad. The HEAT are allowing opponents to shoot 48 percent from the field, which is third-worst in the league and only better than the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
During Miami’s current four-game losing streak, teams have scored at least 103 points while all shooting at least 54 percent from the field. Probably the worst part of the team’s defensive woes is they know they’re bad, but they just can’t seem to get anything going. Odds are the team isn’t going to remain this bad on defense with veterans like Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts on the team, but they’ll remain in the bottom half of the division and in the Eastern Conference until they can put something together defensively.
4. Orlando Magic (9-14)
At the beginning of the season, the Magic were almost guaranteed a spot at the bottom of the division given how good the rest of the teams were, but an underwhelming start from the Charlotte Hornets has the Magic fourth at the quarter mark of the season. The Magic have been rather inconsistent so far as they’ve battled through several injuries. Victor Oladipo, Kyle O’Quinn, Aaron Gordon, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Channing Frye have all missed time due to various injuries leaving head coach Jacque Vaughn in a position to try to pick the best rotations on a nightly basis. The results have been questionable at times, but other times they seem to work.
One of the early season storylines is how well they’ve played on the road. The team won just four games on the road all of last season while they’ve gone 7-9 on the road already this season and finished 3-3 on a recent six-game road trip. The team seems to have gotten a little more consistent with the return of O’Quinn to the lineup, but it’s clear Oladipo is still getting back into a rhythm after missing the first nine games of the season with a facial fracture. Fourth-year players in Harris and Vucevic have become options the team can count on to score. Harris currently leads the Magic with 18.9 points while Vucevic is just behind him at 18.6. Missing Gordon with a broken bone in his foot has proved costly on the defensive side as Gordon has the quickness and speed to matchup with opposing forwards. The Magic are maintaining ground in the playoff hunt and look to stay alive with players continuing to get healthy and improve.
5. Charlotte Hornets (5-15)
One of the biggest surprises of the season thus far has been the Hornets’ start. This is a team that was expecting to compete for a playoff spot and possibly home-court advantage given their success last season and the addition of Lance Stephenson. This season has proven that nothing is a given in the NBA as the team has struggled to this point.
The offense is ranked 26th in the league in efficiency and 25th in the league in points scored per game at 94. The defense is giving up 101.2 points per game and is 25th in efficiency. Kemba Walker is averaging 14.3 points per game on a career-low 36 percent shooting from the field. Stephenson’s points per game are down from 13.8 last season to 10.4 this season while his field goal percentage has dropped from 49 percent to 39 percent. His three-point percentage has fallen from 35 percent to 16 percent.
It’s clear that head coach Steve Clifford will have his work cut out getting his players better looks from the floor. If the Hornets’ struggles continue, they could be a team to make a move around the trade deadline. Trade talks heat up after Dec. 15 when players signed over the offseason can be traded so the Hornets may look to move a couple of younger players if it means acquiring more proven players that can help them win now.
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