Hawks Preview: Southeast Division
Monday and Tuesday we covered the Hawks' busy summer. However, they are not the only team in the NBA's new Southeast Division who had a busy offseason - far from it. Every team in the division was involved in at least one significant deal, and that's not even including the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. Today, Hawks.com takes a look at the rest of the Southeast Division and their prospects for the coming season.
Charlotte Bobcats: The NBA's newest franchise, the Bobcats will begin their first season of play in 2004-05. Like most expansion teams, they are sure to experience growing pains. The Bobcats shrewdly chose to build their team for the long haul through the expansion draft, eschewing more established players with larger contracts for younger players with more long-term potential.
The biggest piece to the foundation for Charlotte's future is F/C Emeka Okafor, the #2 pick of the draft from the University of Connecticut. Okafor compares well to Kenyon Martin coming out of college in that he is a dominant defensive force who is still developing an offensive arsenal around the basket.
Because of the direction Charlotte took in the expansion draft, their roster is filled with your typical expansion fodder: a bunch of role players, projects, and fringe players. Some of their players have potential to be NBA regulars, like Gerald Wallace and Melvin Ely, but have been stuck on the bench behind more established players. Others are just trying to keep their NBA dreams alive.
Outlook: It could be a long year for the Bobcats, but if Okafor can provide them with a foundation to build upon, and any of their other young players can prove they belong with the extra playing time, then they will have something to work with for the future. But this year is likely just for experience.
Orlando Magic:The promising era that began with the free agent signings of Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady back in 2000 came to an end for all intents and purposes this offseason, as the team underwent a major overhaul after posting the worst record in the NBA.
Though Hill is still a member of the team (at least in spirit if not in uniform), the team was forced to deal McGrady, a top-five talent who was tired of the team's losing ways. T-Mac was sent to Houston (along with Juwan Howard, Tyronne Lue, and Reece Gaines) in a deal that netted the team All-Star PG Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Kelvin Cato.
In addition to adding Francis, the team also selected prep phenom Dwight Howard (a native of Atlanta) with the #1 pick in the NBA draft. The team will need to be patient with the 18-year old Howard, but his performance for the team's summer league team leads some to believe he may be ready to contribute sooner than expected.
For now, the 2004-05 Magic will center around Francis, a do-everything guard whose offensive style may have clashed a little with Houston's defensive-minded head coach, Jeff Van Gundy. Francis will be working with all-new starters at every other position as well, as the team brought in Tony Battie in a trade from Cleveland, Cato and Mobley, and signed free agent F Hedo Turkoglu from the Spurs.
Outlook: If Hill were to be healthy (and everyone certainly wishes him the best), he and Francis would make for a potent one-two punch. But most likely, this team is still another year or two away from making its mark.
Miami Heat: This team didn't do much in the offseason at all. They made only one trade, adding some guy from the Western Conference who may be able to play a little ball. Ok, who are we kidding, the Heat potentially shifted the balance of power (perhaps literally) in the East with the trade for the self-proclaimed "Last Center Left", Shaquille O'Neal.
Though the Heat showed tremendous promise with the team they put together in 2003-04, the opportunity to land perhaps the NBA's most dominant player ever was too good to pass up. The Heat gave up 3/5 of their starting lineup (Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and Caron Butler) to land Shaq, but in the process became a popular choice to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals come June.
Complementing Shaq on the perimeter will be second-year guard Dwyane Wade, a phenomenal talent who might have won Rookie of the Year in any other non-Lebron/Carmelo season. The underrated Eddie Jones is still around as well, providing consistent scoring and perimeter defense like always. Past the three of them, there isn't a whole lot - but with Shaq and Wade, they just may not need it.
Outlook: It is a huge risk the Heat is taking. When healthy, Shaq is a force no one has an answer for (and certainly not in the size-deprived East). However, he has a history of nagging injuries. In trading much of their depth to get O'Neal, the team is banking on his 32-year old body holding up through the rigors of a full season and beyond. If the big man goes down, their playoff chances may go with him.
Washington Wizards: The only team not to shake its foundation to the core, the Wizards made only one big offseason acquisition, trading Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner (and the rights to Devin Harris) to Dallas for NBA 6th Man of the Year Antawn Jamison.
Jamison should have the opportunity in Washington to regain the form he exhibited in Golden State, where he was a consistent 20 ppg scorer. With the Wizards he will be reunited with Gilbert Arenas, another explosive scorer who was limited in action due to injuries last year.
The Wizards will need their production, as the rest of their team is full of question marks. They feature a squad with loads of promise but without much established production. Kwame Brown and Larry Hughes are talented players still looking to reach their full potential. But if players like Brown, Jared Jeffries, and Brendan Haywood start to turn that corner...watch out.
The other issue for this team is youth. Excluding Jamison and Larry Hughes, most of their entire projected rotation revolves around players who have played in the league for three years or less.
Outlook: People have been waiting for the Wizards to fufill their promise for several years now. Could this be the season it happens? Acquiring a professional like Jamison will be very helpful, but they will need Brown in particular to take the next step this year if they are going to be contenders.
With all of the new faces in the division, the Southeast could definitely be up for grabs for the team that puts its pieces together the quickest. Thursday, Hawks.com will take a look at the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Micah Hart is the Assistant Web Editor for the Atlanta Hawks