Summer Notes: Southeast Division

This summer, HEAT.com is taking a look at the many changes made around the league and taking stock of how they’ll affect each division in 2010-11.

Over the course of a few short weeks, the Southeast Division – one which was already represented by four teams in the 09-10 playoffs – became, if not the toughest, one of the two most hotly contested divisions in the league alongside the Northwest Division. And with no team clearly pulling a Wile E. Coyote over the edge, it stands to remain so for quite some time.

Orlando Magic
2009-10 Record: 59-23
Finished: 1st in Division, Lost in Eastern Conference Finals to Boston Celtics

Two summers ago, the Magic opted to make significant and oft-debated changes to a team fresh off a trip to the NBA Finals. After being felled by the Celtics in six games this season, Orlando kept the outfit together and stuck to accessorizing, adding backup point guard Chris Duhon and former-HEAT guard Quentin Richardson to replace Matt Barnes (Lakers) while preventing the Chicago Bulls from stealing away the underappreciated J.J. Redick. The truly elite teams can slot in different supporting players every couple of years and continue contending, and all for all his strange detractors – you say he has limited post moves, I say he limits the post moves of everyone else – Dwight Howard is proving to be that exact sort of MVP-caliber anchor.

The Magic added raw Kentucky center Daniel Orton late in the draft, a player once projected to be selected much higher. But dropping may prove beneficial to Orton, who needs time to develop and will have little pressure with Mr. Howard and Marcin Gortat ahead of him on the depth chart.

Finally, shame on us lest we forget to mention the retirement of one of the league’s most unique personalities in Adonal Foyle – a poet, and I bet you didn’t know it.

Atlanta Hawks
2009-10 Record: 53-29
Finished: 2nd in Division, Lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals to Orlando Magic

Ever since taking the eventual-champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round of the ‘08 playoffs the Hawks have been working under the classification of “Up and Comer”. They arrived last year behind All-Star turns from Joe Johnson and Al Horford and shoulda-been Josh Smith, but this summer was more about maintaining than building.

Johnson was a member of the heralded 2010 free-agent crop, but he was also one of the first pieces off the market when the Hawks signed the 29-year-old to a $123 million dollar contract that will run through his 35th birthday. With resources being dedicated to keeping the band together, it’s understandable that Atlanta stuck to building through the draft, adding a perimeter scorer in Jordan Crawford.

But the question that now falls on the Hawks, as it has for every young and talented team the league has ever had, is will they continue to improve? The changes that tend to get the most publicity are the ones that get a team from high draft picks to 50 wins, but the toughest leap to make in this league – by far – is the one from perennial playoff team to legitimate contender. And with a backcourt near its prime, Atlanta will be banking on internal improvements from Smith and Horford to push them higher than the second round.

Miami HEAT
2009-10 Record: 47-35
Finished: 3rd in Division, Lost in First Round to Boston Celtics

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, the HEAT did pretty well this summer following an undeniable formula for success:

Step 1: Amass a hoard of cap space
Step 2: Use cap space on unique talent
Step 3: ?
Step 4: Profit

Or, to use actual numbers, the average Player Efficiency Rating – based on 09-10 numbers and not counting rookies – for Miami’s roster (14 players) is 14.37. The 15-player PER for the 95-96 Chicago Bulls? 12.96. It’s an uneven, and possibly unfair, comparison, and PER doesn’t take into account much defense, but it’s food for thought nonetheless.

Charlotte Bobcats
2009-10 Record: 44-38
Finished: 4th in Division, Lost in First Round to Orlando Magic

If you use Points Allowed per 100 Possessions – do it – to measure defense, the Bobcats were the cream of the defensive crop, giving up a league-best 102.8 points per 100. From that group Charlotte lost solid-defensive center Tyson Chandler – trading him to Dallas – and five-year starting point guard Raymond Felton – signed by the Knicks – and replaced them with Shaun Livingston, Dominic McGuire, Eduardo Najera and Kwame Brown.

The Bobcats also have an ace in the hole in the unguaranteed contract of Erick Dampier, acquired in the Chandler deal. The Bobcats can elect to waive Dampier and save some money, or wait a little while and see if any teams looking to shed salary will give up quality talent to do so. Until either a decision or a move is made, true judgment of Charlotte’s offseason will have to wait.

Washington Wizards
2009-10 Record: 26-56
Finished: 5th in Division, Won the No. 1 Pick in the 2009-10 NBA Draft

It’s impossible to win an NBA Championship without getting a little lucky along the way, so anyone begrudging the Wizards winning the lottery and the rights to Kentucky point guard John Wall needs to remember the Lakers getting lucky with Kobe Bryant, the Spurs winning a pair of lotteries for franchise centers, the Bulls for getting a decent guard a No.3 in 1984 and now the HEAT for some impeccable financial timing. So, whether choosing Wall was an easy decision or not – really, only two other players from the ’10 Draft have equitable raw talent – the Wizards come out huge winners.

But as the Blazers and Clippers have recently discovered, even the most universally praised moves eventually need to translate to the court, and the Eeyore cloud following the Wizards is that nobody is sure how exactly Wall and Gilbert Arenas, fresh off a lengthy suspension, will be able to play in the same backcourt. Arenas has natural scoring tendencies but has played on-ball for most of his career while the Wizards will likely want to give Wall as many playmaking reps as possible. And since Arenas has, for the moment, as close to an untradeable contract as you can get (four years, $80 million remaining), it’s a question the Wizards can’t easily escape.

There’s a ton of hidden talent on this team, though, among them Andray Blatche, who has as much physical talent as just about anyone in the league, and JaVale McGee, coming off a strong summer finishing alley-oops from John Wall and playing with Team USA. After a couple years in limbo, the Wizards are officially committed to Wall, and, along with the West’s Sacramento Kings, are a new team on the watch list.

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