When looking at the Southeast Division, there is one obvious loss in the division: LeBron James. With the Miami HEAT losing James, the division is practically there for the taking. Outside of the Orlando Magic, the rest of the four teams all have a legitimate chance at winning the division.
While the talk of the division won’t be dominated by James and the HEAT this season for the first time in a long time, there are other things to keep an eye on as the season shakes out. Here are six things to know about the Southeast Division:
1. The HEAT are focusing on becoming a defense-first team
After losing LeBron James over the summer, the biggest question surrounding the HEAT is how successful they can be without the four-time MVP. The team has added pieces in Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger to help replace James’ offensive production, so it comes down to the team’s defense. HEAT head coach Erik Spoelstra wants the team to return to being a defense-first team, which is what made them so successful during their playoff runs. That was evident on the first day of camp when Spoelstra had his team work solely on defense.
“We’re doing defensive drills all the time, like we did before; before we got caught up in the offensive numbers,” Chris Bosh said. “We had a lot of offensive firepower, sharing the ball and getting used to all of the talent on the floor offensively. But now, we’ve gotten back to how we were defensively in the first and second year, doing more defensive drills than offensive drills. Of course, we still want to score a lot of points and play fast, but we want to play off of misses.”
Perhaps the biggest key to the team’s defense will be Deng. The HEAT signed Deng over the summer as a free agent and are hoping he can contribute to the defense immediately. Deng averaged 16 points per game last season between the Bulls and Cavaliers, but is also a proven defender.
“Lu brings so many of the things that we like in this organization, which is why we thought he’d be such a great fit and why we recruited him so hard,” Spoelstra said. “[We like] his defensive mentality, his toughness, his resolve, his ability to make multiple efforts defensively, his ability to guard multiple positions and, offensively, we feel like he’s a very underrated player. We like the things he brings to the table on that side of the floor. He’s really active without the ball, we think he’s an underrated shooter and he does a lot of intangible things on that end of the floor that we like.”
2. The Wizards will be tested early
After securing the fifth seed in last season’s playoffs, the Washington Wizards enter the 2014-15 season with expectations they haven’t had in quite some time. Led by John Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards figure to be one of the favorites to land home-court advantage in the playoffs.
However, those expectations may have taken a hit as the Wizards have suffered preseason injuries to Beal and backup power forward Kris Humphries. Beal underwent successful wrist surgery on Sunday and is expected to miss the next six weeks. Beal will miss at least the Wizards’ first 12 games during that time frame, including matchups against the Miami HEAT, Toronto Raptors, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers and two games against the Indiana Pacers.
In addition to Beal, the Wizards will also be without Humphries, who has nerve damage in his finger. While Humphries is only projected to miss a month at the most, the Wizards will miss his depth in the frontcourt and his ability to run the court in the Wizards’ up-tempo offense.
After those 12 games, the Wizards may have a hole to climb out of and could have a losing record early on in the season. While the importance of playing at home during the playoffs is crucial, the Wizards’ chances of making the playoffs should remain unchanged. They’ll just need players like Wall, Gortat and Paul Pierce to step up early in the season.
3. Hornets believe Lance Stephenson will lead them to next level
Perhaps no team had a bigger signing this past offseason than the Charlotte Hornets did with Lance Stephenson. On paper, Stephenson brings the ability to put up points and he also gives the team a great perimeter defender. Stephenson also brings a ton of playoff experience with him and will be able to lead some of the younger guys throughout the season.
Stephenson joins a team led by Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson that earned a trip to the playoffs last season under new head coach Steve Clifford. Charlotte had the sixth-best defense in the league last season en route to 43 wins and figure to improve even more with the addition of Stevenson this season as the franchise transitions back to the Hornets. Given the idea of how much the Hornets can improve with Stephenson now on the team, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that Jefferson was thrilled when the Hornets signed Stephenson.
“When I found out he was coming, I was very excited about that because he could help us get to that next level,” Jefferson told NBA TV. “I really think that he has been misunderstood. I think that’s the passion that he has for the game; I’d rather a guy have too much passion than not enough passion. Lance is the type of guy that’s going to play hard if he’s down 20 points or up 20 points. That’s the type of guy you want to go to war with every night, that’s the type of guy you want to fight with every night.”
4. The Magic’s rookies should be effective
The Orlando Magic added two rookies in the first-round of June’s draft in Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton and early indications are that both of these players should be in for productive seasons. Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn has the team playing an up-tempo offense, something the team isn’t used to.
With younger, more athletic players in Gordon and Payton, an up-tempo offense may be just what the team needs to utilize their strengths. Through two games in the preseason, the Magic’s offense has featured plenty of running and ball movement. The major advantage of a quick offense is it enables the offense to get down the floor quickly and catch the defense before they are set. Adding shooters in Channing Frye, Ben Gordon and rookie Devyn Marble over the summer, the Magic will now be able to spread the floor and give Payton and Gordon open lanes to drive the ball.
Payton has already shown the ability to see the court well and find the open man as he’s averaging six assists over the first two preseason games. Meanwhile, Gordon has found himself on the highlight reels already this preseason with some athletic dunks and finishes, and he will continue to get those types of looks. The constant ball movement will benefit a player like Gordon who will be cutting toward the basketball often. Drafting both players signaled a change on the defensive side of the ball as the two players are excellent athletes and have great defensive potential.
5. The Atlanta Hawks may be better than advertised
The Atlanta Hawks surprised many last season by sneaking into the playoffs, even after All-Star center Al Horford went down for the season in December with a torn pectoral muscle. The Hawks finished a game ahead of the New York Knicks for the last playoff spot in the East and pushed the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round. Despite a better-than-expected showing in the playoffs, the Hawks haven’t received much national attention entering this year. The likely reason the Hawks haven’t been talked about much could be because the team remained fairly quiet in free agency in an offseason where there was plenty of movement. Still, Horford feels like the current Hawks roster is the best that he’s been on since entering the league in 2007.
“I think this is probably the deepest team I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here,” Horford told the Associated Press. “I’m real confident in our guys, the way they work and how they’ve played. I’m so excited about our team.”
With LeBron James out of Miami, there isn’t a clear-cut frontrunner to win the Southeast Division and the competition is wide open. Horford says he is feeling good as the Hawks’ October 29 regular season opener approaches. With the Hawks returning 12 out of 15 players from last season, they feel like their chemistry will help them remain a threat for the playoffs. The team also drafted Adreian Payne with the 15th pick in the first round and are hoping he can provide them with quality minutes off of the bench. Payne could also be useful should Horford prove he’s not ready to return as the rookie out of Michigan State has a great offensive game and can rebound the ball well.
6. The rookie class in the division is deep
When you take a look at the rookies who will have a chance to do some damage in their first season, the Southeast Division has plenty to choose from. In addition to the rookies mentioned above in Payton, Gordon and Payne, there are at least three more rookies that will make an impact in their first seasons.
Players like Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston in Charlotte should have an opportunity to impress this season. Vonleh is nursing a sports hernia, but once he’s 100 percent the Hornets could have one of the steals from the draft. He was projected to go as high as fourth in the draft, but ultimately fell to No. 9. At 6’9, the former Hoosier product is athletic and has the ability to shoot from long distance, which has earned him comparisons to Chris Bosh. Once Vonleh can become healthy, his shooting will help the Hornets out dramatically as they finished 23rd in three-point shooting last season.
Vonleh’s teammate, Hairston, will also be able to make an impact in his rookie season. Hairston is a much more proven shooter than Vonleh is and it’ll be his range that will likely earn him his time on the court. Hairston shot 36 percent from three-point range – and hit six three-pointers in a game – for the Hornets during the Summer League. His time on the court may not come early in the season, but the Hornets will most certainly need his shooting touch.
While the Hawks, Magic and Hornets all have rookies to watch, the HEAT also have a notable first-year player in Shabazz Napier. The upside with Napier is much higher than the two players ahead of him on the depth chart in Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole and that’s what makes Napier so intriguing. In college, Napier showed the ability to score points and be the leader his team needs and given a little bit of time, he can become that guy in Miami. Napier will need to battle in order to be the guy in Miami, but once he is the HEAT could become even better.
As the season progresses, the Southeast Division should become one of the most competitive divisions in the league. What makes the division so intriguing is the Magic could join the conversation in another season or two and the division could become one of the best in the league.
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