The Southeast division is home to some of the more intriguing teams in the league. The Hawks and Hornets are on the rise, and the Hawks in particular may be knocking on the door of contender status. In Miami, Pat Riley fancies himself a whale hunter and certainly landed this offseason’s big fish after signing Kyle Lowry to a three-year contract. The Magic may have finally gotten the post-Dwight break they’ve desperately needed, while the Wizards retooled their team after trading away Russell Westbrook.
Tier 1: The class of the division
Miami Heat: Over/Under 48.5 Wins.
Now that the offseason buzz has died down, the Heat are a fascinating team. They are all in on this current iteration, but will the juice be worth the squeeze? Miami has no hopes of real cap space for years, and we all know the next time Pat Riley scouts a collegiate player will be the first.
In all likelihood, this team is relying on internal improvement to make the leap to contender status. Credit them for recognizing that the bubble Finals run was essentially catching lightning in a bottle and that changes were needed if they hoped to get back there. The defense will keep them competitive against anyone in the league.
The question is whether they will generate enough points in the half-court to compete with the best teams in the league. Tyler Herro took a step back last year, and he will need to recapture the magic of his rookie year. Bam Adebayo is the ideal big man in today’s NBA but cannot consistently punish defenses. He was passive at times last year and teams took advantage of it. Jimmy Butler isn’t getting any younger, and his resistance to shooting threes cramps Miami’s spacing when he is playing off the ball.
All of that means it will be up to Lowry to create easy baskets for himself and others. At his age, one has to wonder if he is physically able to take on that load for an entire season and playoff run. If he is, the Heat have an outside shot at cracking the top tier. If not, they might be locked in as a team that maxes out as a 4-5 seed.
Atlanta Hawks: Over/Under 47.5 Wins
The Hawks have done a tremendous job of accumulating young talent. The problem with having that many good-but-not-great players is that eventually, there aren’t enough minutes to go around, and those players will all want to get paid. No team in the league could benefit more from a consolidation trade than the Hawks. They have all their own picks and an abundance of young talent available to exchange for a second star. As things stand, their depth will help them win a ton of regular-season games, but the lack of a second star limits what they can achieve in the postseason.
Tier 2: The Middle Class
Charlotte Hornets: Over/Under 38.5 Wins
It should surprise no one that Zach Lowe had the Hornets in the top 10 of his league pass rankings. When LaMelo was healthy, the Hornets were a must-watch team last season. They remain exciting, but the path forward is a murky one.
They could and should have prioritized upgrading their center position in the offseason. Richaun Holmes was right there, and the Hornets could have easily outbid the Kings for his services. Alperen Sengun has looked good so far, and he would have fit in nicely next to LaMelo. Instead, they drafted James Bouknight and ultimately traded for Kai Jones. They probably felt Jones had a higher ceiling than both Holmes and Sengun, but he likely won’t reach that ceiling for a few years.
The problem is that by signing Gordon Heyward, they indicated a desire to win sooner than later. The best thing for this team would be to take a step back and position themselves for another high lottery pick. Unfortunately for them, they are too good to tank but not good enough to compete. The Kings found themselves in a similar position a couple of years ago, and we see how that turned out. If they hope to avoid the same fate, they will have to shake things up.
Washington Wizards: Over/Under 33.5 Wins.
The Wizards offseason can be summed up by as “addition by subtraction”. Westbrook late-season play may have distracted from just how poorly he played early in the season, but he was nothing short of disastrous on both ends of the floor.
Spencer Dinwiddie may not have Westbrook’s ceiling, but he certainly doesn’t have as low a floor. Dinwiddie will stabilize their point guard position and should fit in nicely next to Bradley Beal. Deni Avdija could see more opportunities to play with the ball in his hands. He was drafted for his passing and playmaking abilities but was relegated to spot-up duties next to Westbrook. He should take a step forward in his development this upcoming season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the 3-and-D wing the team has sorely lacked the past couple of seasons and along with Dinwiddie will help upgrade the team’s perimeter defense. Kyle Kuzma is a question mark, but there will be nights where he helps anchor the second unit.
Overall, the team is deeper and more versatile. They should exceed their win total easily and may be one of the more underrated teams heading into the season.
Tier 3: The bottom of the barrel
Orlando Magic: Over/Under 22.5 Wins
The Magic are going to be bad. The basketball will be ugly, and the team will struggle to score 90 points on a nightly basis. What they do have, however, is hope. Landing a consensus top four player at number five in the draft will do that for an organization. After several years of losing, the Magic could come out the other end with a promising core and hope for the future.
Players to Watch
- Spencer Dinwiddie - After suffering an ACL tear, Dinwiddie has been out of sight and out of mind for what feels like an eternity. His return to the court should quickly remind fans about how good he was for the Nets during some of those lean years.
- Tyler Herro - After the bubble, the conversation in league circles was about whether the Heat should consider including Herro in any James Harden packages. In retrospect, those conversations seem foolish but Herro has the ability to take a step forward and help shoulder the offensive burden in Miami.
- DeAndre Hunter - Hunter showed tremendous improvement as a player before his injury. His on-ball defense and perimeter shooting could make players like Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish expendable through trade.
The Heat are probably the best team in the division but they have too many vets that will require in-season rest. The Hawks are deep and can withstand an injury to any player outside of Trae Young. The Hawks are the next great team in the league if the right trade falls in their lap.
Division Award Winners
Divisions do not award these; however, it is interesting to consider who would win each of the major post-season awards if they were boiled down to just this division.
Most Valuable Player - Trae Young. If Young continues to put up absurd counting numbers, the team success one usually needs to be considered for the award will be there.
Defensive Player of the Year - Bam Adebayo. It was a close call between him and Capela. His ability to switch onto and defend perimeter players gives him the tiebreaker.
Sixth Man of the Year - Tyler Herro. The team is handing the second unit over to him. If he can stay on the court to close out games the numbers will be there.
Most Improved Player - LaMelo Ball. Second year players usually aren’t eligible for this award but Ball is capable of taking a Luka-type leap in his second season.
Rookie of the Year - Jalen Suggs. The offense will run through Suggs, and he will have every opportunity to run up his counting numbers. The same can’t be said for any other rookie.