The 2014/15 NBA regular season doesn’t officially begin until Tuesday October 28th, when the will Spurs raise another Championship banner to the rafters, and host the rival Mavericks. This is the time of year when most fans can still have hope, and every team is still undefeated. It’s also the time of year for predictions to start rolling in on how the upcoming season will play out. We’ve already gotten your input on the Atlantic and Southwest Divisions. Today we’ll be seeing who you folks think will win the Southeast Division. Let’s take a quick look at the possible contenders…
Note: All projected starters taken from the respective team pages at ESPN.com.
The Magic finished in the cellar of the Southeast Division last season, notching a record of 23-59. Orlando wasn’t expected to contend, and instead was focusing on rebuilding the franchise through the draft.
That focus continues into the 2014/15 campaign, when the team will break in its two first-round draft picks — Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon. Gordon has a higher upside than Payton, and with his off-the-charts athleticism, he’ll be a crowd-pleaser once he cracks the rotation. But it’s Payton who is more vital to any success the Magic hope to achieve this year.
If Payton can handle starting point guard duties, it would free up Victor Oladipo to return to his more natural shooting guard position. With Oladipo being able to focus more on his offense instead of being the primary distributor, it might help the second-year player take the next step toward stardom and keep him fresher by not making him chase around opposing teams’ point guards on defense.
Orlando is a franchise heading in the right direction, but it’s doubtful that this is the season they will break through in the Southeast Division. The Magic need Payton to be able to handle running the show, or else they will really feel the loss of Arron Afflalo, who was traded this summer in part for Evan Fournier. It will most likely be a few seasons before Orlando will be in the hunt for a division title. For now, player development is the main focus.
The Hawks should have a chance to improve on their 38-44 record of a season ago. Atlanta made the playoffs because it has the good fortune to play in the Eastern Conference, though a lottery pick would have been more helpful in the long run than their first round playoff exit was.
Working in Atlanta’s favor is the fact that it still plays in the east, though the conference will be tougher this year with the strides the Hornets, Wizards, and Cavs made this offseason. Even more important to the Hawks’ fortunes will be the return of Al Horford, who missed all but 29 games last year. With the return of the big man, along with the arrival of Thabo Sefolosha, the Hawks defense should be improved over last season.
It does looks like another middle-of-the-pack season is in the cards for Atlanta, with the future direction of the franchise a bit in doubt. Paul Millsap is in the final year of his team-friendly deal, and his pending free agency might make him a trade candidate. It wouldn’t improve the team’s chances of snagging a division crown if he is dealt. But if the trio of Millsap, Horford, and Jeff Teague remain intact and healthy, another playoff berth isn’t too far of a stretch.
The Wizards are on the brink of taking the next step forward in the East, and are one of the five most talented teams in the conference on paper. The backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal is one of the most talented in the conference, though Beal’s wrist injury that occurred last night bears watching. Wall seems poised to take the next step toward greatness this year, and if Beal remains healthy, he is an excellent complement whose outside prowess will open up the paint for his teammates.
It’s the arrival of Paul Pierce that has the biggest game-changing potential. While he’s no longer the dominant star of his Celtics’ days, Pierce is a leader who knows how to play the game, and more importantly, how to win. This will prove invaluable to his younger teammates as they attempt to take the division crown away from the Heat. If Pierce can provide stability and 14 to 17 points per game, the Wizards will be a dangerous team, and could wind up at the top of the division standings.
The Hornets are another up-and-coming team in the division. They surprised quite a few folks last year by snagging the seventh seed in the playoffs. Another trip to the postseason looks to be in the cards as the franchise made a number of notable upgrades this summer.
With the arrival of Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams, Charlotte addressed its biggest weakness of a season ago — outside shooting. Williams replaces the departed Josh McRoberts, who migrated south to Miami this summer to join the Heat. Williams should match McRoberts’ production while adding some veteran leadership to the mix.
But this season will depend on how well Stephenson adjusts to his new surroundings, and how well head coach Steve Clifford is able to contain the guard’s eccentricities. One of the primary factors in Charlotte’s breakthrough season was the team’s superior locker room chemistry, something that Stephenson is quite capable of disrupting. It also remains to be seen how he will adjust to being a primary scoring option instead of a supporting player like he was with the Pacers.
The outlook is bright in Charlotte, though I predict the team takes a step back this season. The playoffs are a possibility, but the Hornets will have a more difficult time sneaking up on teams this year.
- PG: Kemba Walker
- SG: Lance Stephenson
- SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
- PF: Marvin Williams
- C: Al Jefferson
It’s a new era in Miami now that LeBron James‘ talents are back in Ohio. The cupboard is hardly bare, but the Heat aren’t likely to win 54 games again this season. The division will be tougher with the Wizards looking to break through, and the Hornets a possibility to overtake Miami in the standings as well.
Chris Bosh will now be the team’s primary scoring option. Bosh handled those duties during his years in Toronto, but now he’ll be dealing with higher expectations, a much larger contract to live up to, and struggling to make the Heat Nation forget about LeBron. Not an easy task, but Bosh has the talent to carry a team when he’s motivated.
The health and stamina of Dwyane Wade will also be a major storyline in South Beach this year. With LeBron around, Wade could take games off to rest for the postseason. But making the playoffs will not be a given this year, and the team will need a full season out of Wade. The hope is that with LeBron gone, Wade will no longer need to defer, and will re-emerge as an upper-tier scorer. That might not be so easy, given the mileage that Wade has on his body. He can still take over a game at times, but he will never be the player that he was earlier in his career.
Miami added enough talent this summer to stay in the playoff hunt, but it’s no longer the team to beat in its own division, much less in the Eastern Conference. Team president Pat Riley did the best he could in the wake of LeBron’s departure, and adding Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts to the mix will help defuse that loss. But teams seldom improve after losing the best player in the league.