Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking an early-season look at each division. Jonathon Gryniewicz has already looked at the Central Divison and, today, we’ll take a look at the Southeast Divison.
It’s been up and down for the Southeast thus far, but which team has looked the worst? The best? Let’s take a look.
5. Washington Wizards, 0-3
If nothing else, the Wizards have been enjoyable to start the season despite their 0-3 record. Russell Westbrook moved to ninth all-time on the Wizards’ triple-double rankings in just two games with the franchise while the team played the contending Philadelphia 76ers closely in their first game of the season.
And, despite the poor record, there’s plenty of reason for optimism through the team’s first three games. Deni Avdija has already taken on a starting role, Washington has been competitive without Rui Hachimura. Meanwhile, Raul Neto has exploded into a seemingly decent role player, matching his career-high in the team’s most recent matchup with the Orlando Magic.
This next stretch of games should give a better indication of where the Wizards stand in the Eastern Conference pecking order, as they face the Chicago Bulls in back-to-back games before taking on the Minnesota Timberwolves and Brooklyn Nets.
4. Charlotte Hornets, 1-2
Charlotte is arguably the most fun team in the division even though they boast a 1-2 record. The Hornets looked dead in the water in its first two games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder before battling back and scrapping its way back into each game. Then on Sunday night, the Hornets knocked off the then-seemingly unbeatable Nets.
Gordon Hayward, a signing that was heavily ridiculed, has looked like his former self through three games, while Terry Rozier has played the best ball of his career after scoring a career-high 42 points in the season opener against Cleveland.
Devonte’ Graham has been a playmaking beast and P.J. Washington has already evolved into one of the most intriguing young big men in the NBA. Washington had a poor first outing in Cleveland but put up 18 points and eight rebounds against Oklahoma City and 14 points, 12 rebounds and five assists against Brooklyn.
Once Miles Bridges and LaMelo Ball get going, and they absolutely should, this team can be extremely dangerous and has the capability to win a few more upset games in a similar fashion to the Brooklyn game.
3. Orlando Magic, 3-0
The biggest storyline of this season for Orlando is going to be how Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke can contribute to an Orlando team that is bringing back most of its core from last season. With Jonathan Isaac out for the year and Al-Farouq Aminu out for the foreseeable future, Orlando is going to have to rely on its young blood to inject new life into the team.
So far, the return has been favorable. Fultz has scored at least 15 points in each of Orlando’s three games and has looked like their undisputed lead guard of the future. Anthony has also been very impressive in his rookie season, providing a spark off the bench in one of the most underrated units in the league.
After a back-to-back matchup with Washington, the Magic are 3-0, one of the last remaining undefeated teams in the league. That said, outside of the expected greatness of Terrance Ross and Nikola Vucevic and youth from Anthony, Fultz and Okeke, the rest of the group has left a lot to be desired.
Evan Fournier has been a solid starter but Dwayne Bacon hasn’t done much of anything with his minutes despite a reunion with Steve Clifford and the potential to be a great rotation player for this team. Aaron Gordon looked great in his first two games but put up a four-point dud on only one made shot in the most recent game against Washington.
If Orlando wants to be in the playoff mix in the East, it will need more contributions from its rotation players outside of its young core and stars.
2. Atlanta Hawks, 2-0
Atlanta had some of the most roster turnover in the league over the offseason, adding a mix of youth and experience to help get Trae Young and Co. over the hump and into the playoffs. So far, those additions seem to have paid off.
In the first game of the season, the Hawks beat the brakes off Chicago and scored a whopping 83 points in the first half alone. The game would have looked even more lopsided than the final 124-104 score if not for a 13-point fourth quarter by Atlanta.
As expected, Young has looked phenomenal, scoring at least 36 in each of the first two games and picking up at least seven assists in each as well. The supporting cast, however, has looked like a complete 180 from last season.
Even in their game against the Memphis Grizzlies, in which Atlanta was seriously undermanned, players like Nathan Knight, a rookie out of William & Mary, stepped up. Knight finished that game with 14 points in just nine minutes.
De’Andre Hunter looks like a great tertiary or fourth option on this team and a rotation staple while Kevin Huerter, John Collins, Cam Reddish, Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic have all flashed.
The Hawks might not end up with the best record in the Southeast when all is said in done, but there is so much to be excited about for this team, including its insane depth. The fact that an undrafted rookie two-way contract player was able to make a key contribution against the likes of Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke is telling of how competitive Atlanta is from top to bottom.
1. Miami HEAT, 1-1
Barring the annual Orlando snafu that Miami faces each year, the team and its fans have no reason to believe that it won’t be the best team in the Southeast this season. The key here for Miami will be the health of its stars, including Jimmy Butler, who made an early exit from their Christmas Day game against New Orleans.
Duncan Robinson still looks like a top-tier shooter in the league, while Goran Dragic’s age and plantar fasciitis from last season don’t seem to be slowing him down anytime soon. Meanwhile, rookie Precious Achiuwa looks like yet another steal for the HEAT as an electric big off the bench that could provide major intrigue when he plays next to Bam Adebayo.
Once head coach Erik Spoelstra figures out all the wrinkles in his rotation, i.e. which centers to give minutes to and where KZ Okpala might fit into the equation, Miami will likely go on a run.
Up next for the HEAT is one of the biggest tests the team will face all season, with a back-to-back against the Milwaukee Bucks and games against the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics all on the horizon. If they escape that stretch with a decent record, Miami has no excuse to not take the division crown once more.
While the top of the Southeast should look as it did last season, there is plenty of room for movement among all other teams in the division. An expanded play-in tournament could mean that all five of the teams in the division make a run at the postseason. While other divisions may offer more stability, the Southeast will undoubtedly be one of the most exciting throughout the year.
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