Welcome to the Southeast Division, where Miami Heat burn everything to the ground, the Orlando Magic figure to do so in a more figurative way, the Atlanta Hawks flutter about aimlessly, the Washington Wizards resemble something like a blueprint gone hysterical and the Charlotte Bobcats live the existence Michael Jordan complained about all lockout long. This is the Southeast, microcosm of the NBA writ large.
The only thing missed from the Heat is the big market itself; as a basketball environment, Miami is L.A.'s little brother, the one with better taste in women, worse taste in music and a penchant for wearing all white. Miami may have the population of Minneapolis, but NBA players treat South Beach like Mecca, and that's all that matters. That makes the Heat one of the elite clubs the little guys all fought desperately against during the stoppage.
It's the exact opposite in Atlanta, which has the trappings of a juggernaut: plenty of corporate support, a top-10 population base, good weather (compared to the Clevelands of the continent). But it's never clicked. Blame the ownership, blame the ATL's odd relationship with pro sports, blame Tyler Perry. But Atlanta acts more like Charlotte than it does Chicago. It's the league's avatar for a large market gone terribly wrong.
The Wizards remain attractive enough ... when they aren't hilariously bad, which they have been for a few years. Orlando isn't any NBA player's idea of Heaven -- we'll excuse the Lopez brothers from this exercise -- but the team has been successful, so it does OK for itself. A superstar is a helluva tool to have at your disposal. Charlotte is the market David Stern was talking about when he was talking about the need for competitive balance, because the Bobcats can't draw any free agents, can't climb out of abject mediocrity and can't make a dime without some handouts. The lockout was about a team like the Heat printing money in the bowels of the arena and a team like the Bobcats scrounging for aluminum cans for 5 cents a pop.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The strong get stronger: Miami added Shane Battier, who remains one of the league's better three-and-D players. He's also big enough to allow the Heat to get away with some terrifying lineups; LeBron James at power forward should be much more common, with two guards helping Battier and a center-slotted Chris Bosh spread the floor. You could even see Battier up at power forward, either as a reserve or in a truly small lineup with LeBron at center. Miami also picked up Norris Cole, who has been a shot in the arm in training camp and could eventually be the scoring point off the bench that the Heat need.
The Magic made only minor alterations to the supporting cast around Dwight Howard. Gilbert Arenas was waived under the amnesty provision, thus completing his career goal of having two NBA contract rules named after him. The team also swapped Brandon Bass for Glen Davis, who enters on a four-year, $26 million that ensures that Orlando will never stop giving away potentially gnarly contracts for mid-rung players. Speaking of which, Jason Richardson is back, too. I really don't understand why Dwight doesn't see the championship potential of this team!
The Hawks dropped Jamal Crawford, who had a disappointing season in '10-11 after winning Sixth Man of the Year for his work in the preceding campaign. Joe Johnson was largely awful after signing that $120 million contract, though his shooting has come around quite a bit by the time the season ended. Atlanta brought in Tracy McGrady (who should fill the Crawford role), Vlad Radmanovic and Willie Green; from the outside, this still looks a lot like the squad that finished with a negative efficiency differential last season.
The Wizards continue to rebuild, adding Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton -- two small forwards -- in the draft. The team elected not to clear out the expected starter at small forward (Rashard Lewis) because there was no one on the market for whom to redirect his massive cap hit. So long as the team believes that JaVale McGee and/or Andray Blatche will take D.C. where it needs to go, this team is stuck in purgatory. The big men on the bench (Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker) probably aren't anything like stars, but Washington holding its future in Blatche and McGee isn't looking terribly productive.
The Bobcats are resetting the clocks to 2004 and rebuilding nearly from scratch. The team swapped out Stephen Jackson for Corey Maggette and moved up 12 spots in the first round -- that's a good deal. With the higher pick, Charlotte took Bismack Biyombo to go with No. 9 pick Kemba Walker: a big and a small to build the team around. Only the big's best case is Ben Wallace -- so he's nothing like a scoring big -- and the small is quite small considering he looks a lot like an NBA two-guard in terms of his shot profile. Even when Charlotte does it right, the results look queasy.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
The Bobcats even mess up their savvy deals: the club signed Reggie Williams to a solid two-year, $5 million deal ... a couple days after Williams went under the knife for knee surgery that will kill at least half of his season. When your big free agent pick-up enters the roster needing knee surgery, there is a problem. Similarly, while the draft day deal was a good one hitting the right notes, it resulted in Corey Maggette joining the team. I've always appreciated Maggs more than perhaps the average fan does, but on the list of players to not add to a rebuilding club, Corey Maggette -- who covers up terrible on-court habits with canny skill -- is near the top.
The Wizards played Nick Young's restricted free agency perfectly: eventually, Young signed his cheap qualifying offer and will re-enter the market unrestricted next summer. But unless Young becomes much more efficient, the additional year isn't going to help the development of Wall, McGee or Vesely. The idea that Jordan Crawford is a suitable stand-in for anything regarding the NBA is disturbing; the best thing about the underwhelming Mo Evans and Roger Mason signings are that they should take minutes from Crawford, who makes Damon Jones look unselfish. What can you say about the Wizards? This is what rebuilding looks like: terrifying, slow and terrifying.
The Hawks are the team in the NBA least likely to earn a repeat trip to the playoffs. Atlanta was the East's No. 5 seed last season and even knocked out the Magic in the first round. But that was largely smoke and mirrors. Atlanta had a negative efficiency differential, which means that based on scoring margin, the Hawks were a below-.500 team. The Hawks won a good share of close games, but when they lost, they usually got blown out of the gym. By slaying Orlando, Larry Drew showed himself to be a pretty good coach. But so long as Joe Johnson plays like he did last season -- average, basically -- this team's backcourt just isn't good enough to ensure another postseason bid. Al Horford and Josh Smith can only do so much.
The Magic are in the throes of the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, with resolution by March 15 seeming far, far away. In the meantime, the roster is basically the same as it was last season, excepting the surgical removal of Arenas and the Davis-Bass swap. I respect Otis Smith's decision to use the full wick, but I fail to see how, short of divine intervention, anything will be different this season.
The worst thing you can say about the Heat's offseason is that they addressed a smaller need (wing defense and shooting) than their biggest need, a dominant defensive big man. Of course, the relative scarcity of dominant defensive big man and the quality of wing defender/shooter the team picked up limits any criticism you can offer.
It will be miraculous if ...
LeBron James actually sheds his villain persona, as he hopes to.
Chris Bosh squelches the Drake comparisons.
Dwight Howard doesn't change his mind another two dozen times about where he wants to play.
Stan Van Gundy fails to compare David Stern to a dead despot.
There aren't calls for Jeff Teague's liberty by mid-January.
There aren't two trillion Josh Smith trade rumors by February.
Flip Saunders doesn't angrily bench his entire starting line-up in the regular season. (This happened in the first preseason game.)
Jan Vesely's girlfriend isn't mentioned in at least four Bill Simmons columns.
DeSagana Diop gets into playing shape by the end of the season.
Bismack Biyombo isn't a household name by the All-Star break.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Projected order of finish (asterisks indicate playoff berths):
1. Miami Heat*
2. Orlando Magic*
3. Atlanta Hawks
4. Washington Wizards
5. Charlotte Bobcats
Division MVP: LeBron James.
Division ROY: Kemba Walker.
Division DPOY: Dwight Howard.
All-Stars: LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Dwight, Horford.
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