Miami Heat: Not only are the defending NBA champions the favorite to win their division—and probably the Eastern Conference as a whole—the Heat also got better in the offseason. That, coupled with the fact that the Southwest Division may be one of the weakest overall divisional alignments in all of the major professional sports, will likely ensure another Southeast Division title for the Heat. The only thing that could prevent that would be devastating injuries to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. In addition to returning all of its key players, Miami also managed to improve its roster this offseason. With limited financial flexibility, general manager Pat Riley still managed to acquire the NBA’s all-time leading three-point shooter Ray Allen for just $6 million over the next two years. Allen, although 37-years old, notched career-best mark from distance of 45.3%, and there is no indication his long-range output will decline while playing with the likes of James and Wade. Another signing made by Riley that could turn out to be one of the best moves of the offseason was his acquisition of another long-range threat—and Allen’s former teammate in Seattle—Rashard Lewis. Lewis is 33-years old himself, and has been cast in a negative light for much the recent years due to the terrible contract handed to him by the Orlando Magic, but Lewis is still a 16 ppg scorer over the course of his career. Playing with James will likely be the best thing to happen to Lewis’ career, and he should certainly re-establish his reputation as one of the league’s best shooters as a member of the Heat.
The Heat should have no issues on their way to a third consecutive Southeastern Division title, with James—last year’s MVP—Wade, and Bosh all returning and still in the primes of their careers.
Could Make the Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
Atlanta Hawks: Although the Hawks lost Joe Johnson in the trade sending him to the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta did sign Lou Williams in free agency who led his former team—the Philadelphia 76ers—in scoring last season at 15 ppg while playing only 26 mpg. With his new team, Williams should be playing upwards of 30 minutes a night, and the extra time on the floor will definitely cause his scoring numbers to increase. Although Williams is already a pretty well-known name around the league, expect him to break out and take his game—and stats—to the next level this year. Another player who Hawks fans should hope to have a break out year is Jeff Teague, the 24-year old point guard out of Wake Forest. In his first season as the full-time starter, Teague rewarded coach Larry Drew by putting up 13 ppg and 5 apg in starting all 66 of the Hawks games last season. Teague figures to start entering the prime of his career this year and, alongside the departure of Joe Johnson, Teague should give the Hawks the premier point guard they have been waiting for since management drafted Marvin Williams over Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 NBA Draft. Returning to the team are cornerstones Al Horford and Josh Smith. Horford missed 55 games last season, and has dealt with injury issues for most of his career in the short five years he has spent in the league so far. But, at 26, Horford is another player with great room for improvement and, if he can stay healthy in 2012-13, should improve on his career averages of 13 ppg and 10 rpg. Smith had one of his best season to date last year with 19 ppg and 10 rpg, as well as averaging roughly 2 bpg. This year should see him continue to become one of the league’s most versatile players, both offensively and defensively.
With Williams and Teague likely to elevate their games this year, combined with the presence of Horford and Smith, the Hawks have four players that could inevitably have their best season in the Association to date this season. All are young players and make up a core of players that—if kept together—should develop into one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams. As for now, though, the Hawks should contend for a spot in the lower half of the postseason seeding.
Washington Wizards: The Wizards have a very intriguing team this year. On the front line, Nene and Emeka Okafor give Washington an established, veteran tandem that provides production on offense and defense, not to mention in the rebounding department. Outside, Trevor Ariza arrived with Okafor this offseason, and shores up a gaping hole the Wizards previously had at small forward. Ariza, at 27-years old, is in the prime of his career and an established threat on the wing via his solid defense alongside his ability to slash to the paint and shoot the three-ball proficiently. Bradley Beal, the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, posted solid numbers in the NBA Summer League and should be one of the Association’s better rookies in the upcoming season. On the bench, the Wizards also have some interesting pieces, namely Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker, and Jordan Crawford. Vesely, the team’s first-rounder from last season, showed flashes of what his game could be but also the work he needed to put in to become a consistent contributor. Booker and Crawford are both players the Wizards organization is high on. Booker, entering his third-year in the league, put up 9 ppg and 7 rpg last season, and Wizards fans should expect to vie for plenty of minutes this season. The same can be said for Crawford, who broke out last season with 15 ppg.
The largest, most looming question for the Wizards is one that fans would originally assume to be a sure thing—John Wall. Wall will miss the first month or so of the season, and the Wiz will need to stay afloat until his return. And when he does return, Wall must improve on his skills as a floor general. Wall put up 8 apg last season, but shot only 42% from the field and turned the ball over 4 times a game last year—way too often for any point guard. More specifically, his output and control of the offense is also too low for what one would expect from a budding superstar point guard.
Either way, this Wizards team has a better chance than many would believe at making the postseason this year, and it will be interesting at the very least to see the development of Wall and Vesely.
Charlotte Bobcats: After becoming the worst team in league history with a 7-59 record last season, you’d like to think there’s nowhere to go but up for the Charlotte Bobcats. This year, that should ring true, but things will not be that much better. With that being said, the addition of No. 2 overall draft choice Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should pay immediate dividends on this Bobcats team. And at the guard positions, Charlotte actually has a relative amount of depth with free agent acquisitions Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions joining franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson—who broke out with 15 ppg last year. In the post though, Charlotte will often find itself at a disadvantage with Tyrus Thomas and Byron Mullens likely to start, and little to no bench depth beyond that.
As evidenced by this section alone, there really isn’t too much to say (or write) about these Charlotte Bobcats. If Charlotte makes a run at the playoffs, there likely will be no one who can honestly say they are not surprised. All in all, though, the Cats should be better than last season and will not be the worst team in the league again, let alone their own division as that title now belongs to the…
Orlando Magic: As little as there was to say about Charlotte, there is even less out there for the Orlando Magic. The entire league waited for rookie GM Rob Hennigan to panic and give Dwight Howard away after far better deals passed Orlando by. And that’s exactly what happened. Orlando received a bunch of flotsam and jetsam in exchange for the league’s best center. As a result, there will be no “magic” in Orlando for likely the rest of this decade. Yes, this decade. That is how debilitating and crippling Hennigan’s trade will be to this franchise and if he still has a job in 2015, I won’t be alone in saying I am surprised. This team has few decent players in Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson, and Glen Davis. But when guys like that are your best options, you are in a whole load of trouble.
Orlando will be lucky to win 15 games this year, and certainly will not make the playoffs. The only aspect of this team that might keep its team interested is how the performances of rookies Moe Harkless, Kyle O’Quinn, and Andrew Nicholson pan out.
Top 5 Players
C: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
F: Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
F: Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
F: LeBron James, Miami Heat
G: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat