Oct 29 2013 3:59PM

Southeast Preview

ATLANTA HAWKS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 44-38, Sixth in Eastern Conference, Lost in First Round to Indiana Pacers
The Hawks had their fifth straight winning season and earned a sixth consecutive playoff berth, tying Boston for the longest current streak in the Eastern Conference. With an unselfish, fastbreaking attack--their 24.5 assists and 17.7 fast-break points per game led the East--Atlanta finished second to Miami in

the Southeast--albeit a distant second (22 games back)--but also finished a comfortable 15 games ahead of third-place Washington. The Hawks ended up sixth in the East, one game out of fifth, then fell to Indiana in six games in the first round of the playoffs, their second straight first-round elimination.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
The wrecking ball that was looming throughout the 2012-13 season swung through following Atlanta's playoff elimination. General manager Danny Ferry relieved Larry Drew as coach and let some seven free agents walk, most notably forward Josh Smith. Ferry brought in long-time Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who plans to build a more blue-collar team in the Spurs mold. Atlanta added plenty of muscle in former Utah power forward Paul Millsap, veteran Elton Brand and 7-footer Gustavo Ayon to help two-time All-Star Al Horford. There's still plenty of speed in re-signed point guard Jeff Teague, and long-range threats in forward Kyle Korver (another returnee) and energetic guard Lou Williams, although Williams, likely won't be back before the 2014 portion of the schedule as he rehabs a torn ACL. How well the Hawks buy in to Budenholzer's system, how much inside help the team can provide Horford and how many will step up offensively until Williams returns will determine whether Atlanta offers a challenge to the Heat or sinks back into the pack with the rest of the Southeast.

3 POINTS

Having resigned himself to playing out of position at center, Al Horford has become one of the elite bigs in the NBA. Horford racked up 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.1 steals and blocks, while shooting .543 last season, with 43 double-doubles (sixth in the League). Most important, he averaged 37.2 minutes and missed only four games--he'd missed 55 the year before with a torn pectoral muscle. His career averages of 13.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks, on .539 shooting put him in the select company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwight Howard and Artis Gilmore. There aren't a ton of answers around the League for the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, etc. but Atlanta believes it might have one in DeMarre Carroll. Atlanta will be the 27-year-old's fifth team in as many seasons, but the first to really give him a chance to play. Ideally, he'll show the 50-percent shooting and near-77 percent form from the line that he displayed last year with the Jazz, while improving his 28.6 shooting from three. That's fine but more important to the Hawks will be the keeping opposing threes down, with his length and in-your-jersey defense. While Horford and Josh Smith had fun as running mates in their six years together, playing with Paul Millsap should bring an even bigger smile to Horford's face. Millsap is a 6-8, 245-pound bruiser who will never get outworked. He's built like another Louisiana Tech alumnus, Hall of Famer Karl Malone, but is much more defensive-minded. Expect him to literally be side-by-side with Horford mixing it up in the paint, as, unlike Smith, Millsap only steps on the three-point line on his way to the bench during timeouts.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
In only two offseasons Danny Ferry has changed the roster-type in Atlanta. Gone are the one-size-fits-all types Billy Knight brought in in building the core that got Atlanta to six straight playoff berths. Under Ferry, the Hawks have build a more conventional team, with players better-defined and built for their roles, the center position notwithstanding -- although when you have Al Horford, why mess with success? It's up to Budenholzer, who takes the seat at the end of the bench for the first time in his career. Atlanta believes Budenholzer, a basketball lifer, learned plenty from sitting a few seats away from Gregg Popovich in 17 years as an assistant--that's where he and Ferry met. "Coach Bud" and Ferry admit they don't always see eye-to-eye, but at the end of the day can talk things out. Winning in San Antonio-esque fashion would help. Rebranding meant letting a couple of key piece to the Hawks' recent success move on. In addition to Drew, an assistant to Mike Woodson, who started the run, the biggest was Josh Smith. While nothing brought out the groans at Philips Arena like Smith's tendency to put up a three, nothing electrified the Highlight Factory--you could argue even inspired the nickname for Philips -- like Smith's attacking the basket, and his play on the defensive end, which has been criminally underrated. The emotion that Smith brought will be hard to replace. As difficult to replace will be the toughness that the likes of Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson brought. Pachulia's the longest tenured Hawk, with Smith -- was a popular player in the locker room and gave the Hawks a grit and toughness that all good teams need and all opposing teams hate. Johnson was quiet but provided a spark off the bench almost every time he got on the court. That's a void that will have to be worked out over time. The Hawks hope not too much time. Also working itself out over time--and the Hawks again hope fairly quickly--is finding chemistry within the offense. The 2013-14 Hawks would like to establish an identity as an unselfish group that likes to push the ball, like last year's team that led the NBA with assists on 65.1 percent of its baskets and the East with 24.5 assists per game. A big help will be having Jeff Teague back to run the offense. Teague nearly joined Drew and Pachulia in Milwaukee, signing an offer sheet with the Bucks but Ferry recognized his impact and matched. Teague's speed will open the floor for Korver, who enters the season having hit a three in a franchise-high 73 consecutive games, and the other three-point shooters, which was a devastating weapon for Atlanta last season. It will be up to Teague, who shot a career-best .359 from three, and second-year guard John Jenkins to step up at the arc until Williams returns. If Atlanta can't hit its shots like last season, they'd better rebound better. Atlanta was 23rd in rebounding, and 27th in offensive rebounding. Losing Pachulia and Johnson won't help either category, especially the latter, but Millsap will. Budenholzer hopes Ayon, Brand and second-year power forward Mike Scott will crash the boards as well. In the end, the Hawks' ability to come together quickly will be the determining factor. Last season, Atlanta made similar wholesale changes, and things came together fairly quickly, primarily because the new faces were veterans like Devin Harris, Korver, Williams and DeShawn Stevenson. They also had an established system in place that the core of the team knew. This year's squad has few core players, an influx of younger players, especially in the backcourt, and a brand new system. How well and how quickly things can come together will make the difference between a team that competes in the East and seals second in the Southeast and a playoff spot like in '12-13, or a team that might struggle to make postseason at all.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
The Hawks liked the upside of guard Dennis Schroder enough to use their second pick in the 2013 Draft (No. 17 overall), on him. The 20-year-old Schroder from Braunschweig, Germany has shown superb court vision and passing skill and loves to push the tempo. He's a better passer than a shooter at this point in time, which isn't a bad thing when you consider the weapons that can score the ball that he'll have at his disposal. Budenholzer will accept the offensive shortcomings in exchange for what Schroeder provides defensively, where his length and active hands promise to give opposing guards fits. In addition to improving his shooting, he needs to fill out his 6-1, 168-pound frame, which makes Teague's 6-2, 181 look gargantuan. But he is only 20. Ideally, when the Hawks go small, he, Teague and Williams will make a light-speed tandem in an even faster version of last year's backcourt.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 21-61, 14th in Eastern Conference
The Bobcats moved out of the cellar in the Southeast--by a game--and tripled their win total from the previous season. But after reaching 7-5 on Nov. 24, getting two games over .500 for the first time since the end of 2009-10, and matching their 2011-12 win total, the Cats went on an 18-game losing streak, won six games over the next three months and had but two winning streaks the rest of the season, the longest a three-gamer to conclude the season (although it allowed them to pass Orlando). Charlotte won only four games against teams with winning records—one against Indiana on Opening Night, another against New York during the season’s final days—and finished in the bottom five in both scoring and rebounding. After the season, they fired coach Mike Dunlap, the third coaching change in four years.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
As Charlotte ushers in the Steve Clifford era, there is cause for optimism and realistic expectations for at least some improvement. Clifford comes highly recommended as a patient coach and developer of precocious talent. There is plenty of that, in third-year guard Kemba Walker, second-year guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and 2013 first-round pick (fourth overall), forward Cody Zeller. Clifford has something neither of his previous two predecessors--Paul Silas and Dunlap--had, a bona fide offensive big man in free agent signee Al Jefferson. The signing of Jefferson to a three-year, $40.5 million deal shows a commitment to the future from Bobcats brass. Such a commitment to Clifford would go a long way to getting the team on track, as with Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist as well as Jefferson, who is only 28, a strong foundation appears to be in place. The Bobcats are not a playoff team yet but will test teams that are and catch more than a few teams that are unprepared off-guard.

3 POINTS

In only two seasons, Kemba Walker has already put his stamp on the Bobcats franchise. He’s a dependable go-to playmaker, last season going for 18.8 points and 6.0 assists after the All-Star Break and was one of five players to lead his team in scoring (17.7 ppg), assists (5.7 apg) and steals (2.0 spg) ranking in the top 25 in all three categories. With Jefferson drawing all kinds of attention in the paint, the perimeter should clear and allow him to improve that troublesome career 31.5 three-point-shooting percentage. A 6-10, 290-pound block of granite, Al Jefferson has quietly put together a solid nine-year blue-collar career (16.0 points and 9.0 rebounds) and will give the Cats a viable go-to in the post (he's a career 50.0 percent shooter) that's been missing. He's also a force on the boards. One of two active players to average 17 points and 9.0 rebounds in each of the last six seasons (Dwight Howard is the other) he should make it seven this season, although he may start slow, having missed most of training camp with an ankle injury. Some were shocked when Charlotte used its top pick on Indiana center Cody Zeller. A lot of those same people are shocked now with the progress the 7-0, 240-pound center has made in his initial preseason. Zeller's stock is rising, thanks to his surprising display of athleticism and ability to run the floor. The prospect of his playing with Jefferson has actually started talk of Charlotte becoming the new "Lob City."

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
There is no standing pat, a common and sensible practice in the NBA, then there's what's been going on in Charlotte in recent years, where drastic turnover has taken place both on the coaching and playing fronts. That's not a good thing for a franchise that has been trying to rebuild through the draft and has had plenty of opportunity to get some prime early draft picks. Pity those draft picks, like Gerald Henderson. The only remaining player from the 2009-10 team that last had a winning record, has heard four different voices as head coach. The coaching carousel was in full swing, as usual, during the recent offseason, as the Cats cleaned house and brought in an entirely new staff, despite improvements during Mike Dunlap's one year. The carousel may finally come to a halt for a short time with the hiring of Steve Clifford. A career assistant, who has worked with both Jeff and Stan Van Gundy, he will take over as the sixth coach in franchise history and try to become the first Bobcats coach to last longer than three years. He's a patient man with a knack for molding young talent. That will be tested with the seeming impatience of the Bobcats franchise. One reason Clifford may have a chance to not only survive more than three years but also bring the Bobcats back to relevance is his talented staff he brought with him. Included on his staff are Patrick Ewing and Mark Price, both of whom will immediately fill important roles. Ewing will work with the bigs, sharpening up the skills of Zeller, Josh McRoberts and others. Charlotte needs some big play from its bigs other than Jefferson and, with Ewing's guidance, may have the pieces to provide it. Everyone knew Zeller has had a solid work ethic and willingness to do the dirty work inside, but he opened some eyes during the summer and in preseason with his athleticism, while McRoberts has shown he had skill as a passer and a shooter (he's a career 49 percent shooter) and isn't afraid to mix it up inside. The Bobcats also desperately need help on defense up front. That's a subject upon which Ewing can advise, but otherwise merely watch in horror. The Bobcats' talented backcourt gave the frontcourt plenty of opportunities to rebound last season, shooting 33. 5 percent on threes last season. Price could help the talented unit that features Walker and Henderson and small forward Kidd-Gilchrist. He's one of the NBA's greatest pure shooters and has completed similar turnarounds in Memphis and Atlanta, which made the playoffs for the first time in a decade in 2010, the year Price arrived. He also is credited with Rajon Rondo's improvement as a jumpshooter. Hope is that an improved inside game, with Jefferson and Zeller could open up the perimeter. Kidd-Gilchrist fought the good fight in the paint and ranked sixth among rookies in scoring (9.0 ppg), as a 19-year-old and with his long arms (a reported 7-0 wingspan), fifth in rebounding (5.8 rpg), and sixth in blocks per game (0.9). With some room to operate in the paint, Kidd-Gilchrist should put up even better numbers and start to justify his No. 2 draft position. The bench is an unknown quantity heading into the season. Ben Gordon has been a great shooter in the past, and Ramon Sessions can create, while bigs Bismack Biyambo, Frederick Taylor and McRoberts need to show something and provide greater quality in their minutes. Guard Jannero Pargo is a hard-worker and is as streaky a shooter as they come, which is great when he's on. Veteran Anthony Tolliver can provide quality minutes in small doses. On the whole, the bench is an area the Bobcats really need to shore up to make any kind of prolonged progress.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
It's not surprising that on a team that shot as poorly as Charlotte did last season their shooting guard would be overlooked. That's the fate of Gerald Henderson. His 44.7 field goal percentage was seventh among NBA shooting guards and his career-best 15.5 points per game ranked second on the Cats to Kemba Walker. He had career-highs for rebounds (3.7) and assists (2.6) and found some consistency toward the end of the season, scoring in double-digits in each of the final 24 games, the longest such stretch for a Bobcat since Stephen Jackson in 2010-11, shooting 46.4 percent during the stretch and averaging 19.6 ppg. Charlotte thought enough of him to re-sign him to a three-year, $18 million deal. The 12th overall pick in 2009 is eager to show that the Bobcats were right in taking him that high then and they were right in re-signing him long-term now. He's planning to provide some ammo to his argument by picking up his three-point shooting, something he declared was a priority during the off-season. Henderson shot a career-best 33.0 percent, although only 25.6 percent during that final 24-game stretch and is 27.2 percent for his career.

MIAMI HEAT

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 66-16, NBA Champion
The Heat had one of the finest regular seasons to date. Their 66 wins were fifth most in NBA history and they flirted with breaking the 1971-72 Lakers' mark for most consecutive wins (33) with a 27-game streak of excellence. The Heat were dominant on both ends, turning their pressure defense against teams into highlight plays on YouTube, beating foes by an average of almost 8 points per contest. During the first two rounds of the playoffs, Miami continued their juggernaut ways, dispatching the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls in 9 games, before gutting out a pair of seven-game series in the Conference Finals and Finals to become repeat champs.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
With its core intact and LeBron James playing at a level that few players have ever scaled, the Heat are odds-on-favorites to hit a mark that symbolizes NBA greatness: the threepeat. If not for a hot Dallas team and even hotter Dirk Nowitzki in 2011, we'd be talking about Miami gunning for a quadpeat. The presence of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh has made it easy for Pat Riley to build a contender and Erik Spoelstra to coach a winner, but give credit to Riley for getting the right complementary pieces and Spoelstra for game planning the roster to its full potential. Much like the MJ-led championship teams and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers title teams, the Heat have been wise to surround their core with savvy veteran/young and hungry role players to round out the superstar attack. If all goes accordingly, Heat fans will party again on South Beach come June.

3 POINTS

He doesn't quite stir the Heat's drink like the straw that is LeBron, but when Mario Chalmers is playing well, the team tends to perform accordingly. A clutch player, Chalmers is afforded many open opportunities with his teammates with more name recognition. Opportunities he usually capitalizes on. It would behoove the Heat if Chalmers continues to grow and assume a bigger role to free up some minutes and responsibility on the Heat's Big Three. It bears paying attention to Dwyane Wade this season. His days of being a premier shooting guard is likely behind him at age 31 (32 in January) and with a bothersome knee that has limited him over the past two seasons and noticeably during the past playoffs. Wade can still be All-Star caliber on some nights, but without the explosiveness that enabled him to free himself up from defenders, he'll have to adjust his game and develop a three-point shot that he's avoided most of his career. Shooters are a premium in today's NBA and Miami understands that better than most teams. Outside of their bigs and Wade, the Heat's roster is dotted with three-point shooters. Led by the NBA three-point king, Ray Allen, Miami also has expert corner three man Shane Battier and budding marksmen Chalmers and Norris Cole--all are afforded step-in-and-let-it-fly shots set up by LeBron.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Everything falls back to LeBron, as it should when you're the best player in the game. His presence affects every aspect of what makes the Heat go. Like other greats before him (Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kareem, Wilt, Russell), LeBron on the floor automatically makes him an MVP candidate. The biggest obstacle from him winning another MVP is the media tiring of writing his name on the ballot. James made a big jump last season, evidenced by his much improved post game and shooting. If he can eke out even more, Oscar Robertson's legendary triple-double season might even be within reach. And if that happens, LeBron would join Chamberlain and Russell as the only players to win MVP three straight years. If there's one weakness of the Heat clearly exposed during the playoffs is the Miami's vulnerability inside. On offense the Heat's best interior option is James. Not that he's a bad option, but the lack of other options means a team can provide help in the form of a bigger player against him. And as Indiana showed, the presence of a shotblocking big in the middle goes a long way in thwarting the Heat from attacking the basket, which means less daylight for the Heat snipers around the three-point line. On defense, the Heat's lack of size in their frontcourt means teams with beefier front lines can bully Miami around, although Bosh, Wade and James do an adequate job blocking shots. A full season of Chris Andersen should help since his arrival midseason energized the Heat. Talent is not lacking with the Heat, but in order to pull off the trifecta, the team needs to stay motivated and avoid the complacency that plagues many multiple-winning champs. It helps that their best player is leading the charge, determined to cement himself among the game's best. But it will also take some creativity on the part of head coach Erik Spoelstra to keep the team's gaze on the prize. If he does, he has a shot at becoming this generation's Phil Jackson in gobbling up multiple coaching rings in quick fashion. Pat Riley wants nothing more than to make good on the "threepeat" trademark which he owns. When you're on the mountaintop, everyone is clawing at your feet to reach the summit. Every legitimate NBA contender have spent their offseason re-tooling their roster with the Heat in mind. After the recent Finals, many see the algebraic formula that solves the Heat: dominating defensive big man, speedy point guard play, athletic and long wing man to defend LeBron. There's possibly more variable left, but the answer is near. And with so many teams shooting for the top, there's bound to be more weaknesses exposed by the Heat. It is imperative the team find either countermeasures to the opposition or find ways to execute better or play more efficiently if they want to triple up. Injuries are part of the game and no team is immune to it, but as a top-heavy team with many veterans, the Heat are susceptible. An injury to either Bosh or Wade and the role players that looked good off the bench are no longer as deadly when asked to do more. An injury to the durable James and the Miami Heat may as well be the Florida Marlins. Staying healthy will determine whether the Heat reach their likely destiny.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
It's hard to pick a guy whose resume includes eight All-Star berths as overlooked, but that is life for Bosh playing in the shadow of LeBron and Wade. The uncertainty of Wade with his balky knee and age means Bosh will need to assume some of the scoring. Even if Wade is completely healthy, Bosh is the key player (after LeBron James, of course) who helps make the Miami engine go. One of the best shooting big men, Bosh gets a ton of looks from between 10-18 feet, a shot he can conceivably knock down at a 50 percent rate. While this may seem trite, it's his ability to stretch the floor that allows LeBron room to operate and get to the basket, opening up opportunities for the shooters on the Heat roster to flourish. With the Heat's small frontline, Bosh will also have to pick up his rebounding. Yes, his role on offense puts him in bad position for rebounds, but he can make things up on the defensive glass. His 6.8 rebound average last season was disappointing; if Bosh were to grab 9-10 a night it would go a long way in helping the team and shedding his soft reputation.

ORLANDO MAGIC

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 20-62, 15th in Eastern Conference
The Magic found Year One post-Dwight Howard as difficult as advertised and arguably worse than Year One post-Shaq, as the '96-97 Magic still made the playoffs. Throw in 208 manpower games lost and it's little wonder Orlando's streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances end. Adding insult to injury, the Magic lost 16 of its final 18 games and got passed by Charlotte on the final day of the season for the League's worst record. First-year coach Jacque Vaughn's club managed only 20 wins, the franchise's lowest total since its inaugural campaign in 1989-90, but in the process discovered some great young talent that points toward a bright future.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Orlando was one of the youngest teams in the NBA last season and remains so. But the team's young core is growing together, everyone is buying into Vaughn and is starting to believe in each other. Unfortunately there is no shortcut to experience and the 2013-14 Magic will continue to learn some hard lessons. In a division that has the two-time defending champion Miami Heat and three hungry teams that are further ahead in the process, that probably means another and possibly tougher battle to stay out of the fifth in the Southeast. GM Rob Hennigan was assistant GM in the Oklahoma City the last two years, but that's long-term thinking. In the short run, there is the knowledge that after Miami, the rest of the division is unpredictable, potentially opening the door a crack. Talent, youthful enthusiasm, and chemistry can go a long way. The Magic is about to find out how far.

3 POINTS

Considered something of a throw-in in the Dwight Howard trade, forward Maurice Harkless has shown that he can throw down and should start at small forward. Only 20, Harkless showed he can shoot, (46.0 field goal percentage) and, in unrookie-like fashion, got stronger as the season went on--averaging 11.5 ppg in February and 13.1 in March and April. He then got stronger over the offseason, tacking on 10 pounds of muscle. Already a solid defender (1.2 spg) he will be a thorn in opposing small forwards' sides. Center Nikola Vucevic and power forward Tobias Harris have become fast friends and a devastating 1-2 punch in the paint for the Magic. Last April 10 against Milwaukee each scored 30 points and grabbed 19 rebounds, the first duo to do so since New York Knicks Willis Reed and Walt Bellamy in 1967. Reed and Bellamy are both in the Hall of Fame. Vucevic, 23, the NBA's leading rebounder from Dec. 1 on, and Harris, 21, the second-youngest Magic player ever to go for 30, have a ways to go before they get to Springfield, but the duo will be fun to watch for years to come. Victor Oladipo has already performed his first trick as a member of the Magic--he's made doubters of Orlando for selecting him with the second overall pick in the 2013 Draft disappear. After an impressive summer league and electrifying play during the preseason, the 6-4 guard, has earned the trust of Vaughn, a pretty good point in his day, and is expected to unseat veteran Jameer Nelson on the point.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
No city in the United States is as kid-friendly as Orlando, aka, "The Magic City," with Disney World a long outlet pass away from the Amway Center. The Orlando Magic is holding true to that idea. They're relying heavily on their youth-laden roster that is led by the quartet of center Nikola Vucevic, power forward Tobias Harris, small forward Maurice Harkless and guard Victor Oladipo, nicknamed "Core Four." All are exciting, and very talented players with have tremendous upside. The problem is that they also combine for five years of NBA experience with Vucevic the greybeard of the group, turning 23 at the end of October. The Magic had 12 players on the preseason roster with two-or-fewer years of experience. w. Coach Vaughn played 12 years in the NBA, but he is only in his second season as a head coach and general manager Rob Hennigan is the youngest in the NBA, at 30, and, of course, is in his first year on the job. Hennigan is actually younger than veteran point guard Jameer Nelson, who by himself doubles the NBA experience of "Core Four." But Nelson, who may lose his starting position to Oladipo, will still have a major impact. He's a great teammate and a leader by example, who has been on an Eastern Conference Champion and has seen just about everything. Best of all, if Oladipo isn't ready for the grind of handling the point on a nightly basis, Nelson still has game. Last season, some dwelled on his career-lows in shooting, three-point shooting, and turnover ratio. They missed his career-bests in scoring, assists per game, and three-point field goals made. All the while he dealt with myriad injuries that cost him 26 games. And he's still only 31. While he's in the minority, Nelson is not the only Magic player with NBA experience. Hedo Turkoglu has the most experience being his 14th season, while Glen "Big Baby" Davis, a six-year veteran, has a ring with the Celtics and has played two seasons in Orlando. Injuries have hit Davis hard the last two years, as he missed 48 games with a shoulder injury and missed most of training camp following July foot surgery. That led to the Magic signing free agent Jason Maxiell, a former first-round pick, who has played eight years, all with Detroit, where he experienced a pair of conference finals. Maxiell will serve as a big brother not only in experience and actual body type (at 6-7, 260, only Davis tips the scales further) but as a force in the paint, as last season he had a blocked a career-high 95 shots (1.3 bpg). That's just what the doctor ordered for the Magic, who allowed opponents to shoot 46.3 percent (the ninth-highest in the League) and blocked only 4.4 shots per game, 25th in the league, ironically tied with Detroit. The Magic were 9-37 in games when they had fewer blocks than their opponents a year ago but weren't much better when they had more or were equal to their opponent, going 11-25. Orlando is hoping to turn the page on last season and start a new tradition. They've tried to put the Dwight Howard er--or at least Howard--behind them. As part of that, they allowed Harris to change numbers from #15 to #12, Howard's old number. The move, a heart-felt request by Harris, who will wear the number as a tribute to a friend that passed away from leukemia, not only illustrates Harris' class, but also allows Magic fans to move on as well as get the satisfaction of knowing that they ruffled Howard's feathers in the process. The future should be bright in The Magic City and, if precedent means anything, that future will arrive soon, as following both previous seasons in which the Magic won 20-something or fewer games, the team responded with an increase of at least 15 wins.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Orlando's first-round pick in 2012 (19th overall), 6-9, 250-pound forward Andrew Nicholson got an opportunity to get his feet wet last season when Glen Davis got hurt and showed that he could make a splash in small doses. Nicholson led the Magic in scoring five times, led the team in rebounding on three others and put up a pair of double-doubles. He shot a solid 52. 7 percent and converted nearly 80 percent of the time from the free throw line. Knowing he needed to do more to get more court time than the 16.7 minutes he got last season, the 23-year-old worked extra hard on extending his range and added the three-point shot to his repertoire (although it won't necessarily be a big part of it). Nicholson's improvement adds another big body to the mix and although he still has some work to do on both ends of the floor and Davis will return Nicholson will push for playing time and keep the power forward position interesting.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 29-53, 12th in Eastern Conference
The Wizards lost 221 manpower games to injury in 2012-13, none more important than the seasons first 33 that belonged to point guard John Wall. Without Wall, Washington stumbled coming out of the gate dropping their first 12 games on the way to a 5-28 start. While the start was too much to overcome, things improved once Wall returned, as the Wizards flirted with .500, going 24-25 the rest of the way and finished third in the Southeast. The 24 wins were more than the Wizards earned in three of the five seasons since 2007-08, the last time Washington qualified for the playoffs and had a winning season (43-39).

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Washington believes it has the pieces in place to make a run at .500 and make the playoffs. The Wizards are trying the stability route, as they not only retained head coach Randy Wittman, who begins his second full season, but almost the entire roster from last season. A healthy John Wall showed what a difference-maker he can be, and, paired with second-year two-guard Bradley Beal, gives Washington one of the most exciting and explosive guard tandems in the East. Up front, the Wizards would love a repeat performance from Martell Webster, who is coming off a career season at small forward, first-round pick Otto Porter, Jr., and bigs Nene and Kevin Seraphin. The bench also is talented with veterans like Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, Al Harrington, and rookie Glen Rice, Jr., is deep and won't drop off drastically from the starting unit. With any kind of health, the Wizards should get back to third, maybe challenge Atlanta for second, and end their playoff draught.

3 POINTS

How big a difference does John Wall make? Wall gave the team a six-point bump, improved the shooting by almost 50 points, and better than 70 points from. Washington committed almost eight fewer turnovers a game with the ball in his hands and even the defense improved, as opponents scored three fewer points. As amazing as Wall's ability to make and set up shots is his ability to block them. His 37 deflections tied for third on the team with Nene, who is seven inches and 55 pounds bigger and played 12 more games. Bradley Beal was an eye-opener as a rookie, until slowed by injury. His 13.9 ppg was second on the team in scoring, third among NBA rookies. The third overall pick in 2012, Beal shot 38.6 percent from three, canning a franchise-rookie-record 91 three-pointers and led East rookies in points and three-pointers made and NBA rookies in three-point shooting percentage. Once Wall returned, Beal led the team in scoring in January and February before leg injuries limited him to seven games over the final two months. He led the team in scoring during the preseason and he and Wall spell trouble for opposing backcourts. The drafting of small forward Otto Porter, is a heartwarming story around the nation's capital. The consensus All-American from Georgetown added to his off-court legend by opening his heart to a homeless man in October. During the summer he showed he has the kind of athleticism and length defensively that will make him a nemesis to opposing small forwards. Unfortunately, his debut will be delayed, as Porter missed his training camp with a right hip flexor.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Positive expectations should abound for the Wizards in 2013-14 and rightfully so. The team showed it could compete over the final two months last season and opens this season with John Wall, something it didn't have last year and which knee-capped them early last. Hopes to get to .500 and the playoffs ride on Wall's leadership and maturity. Recognizing that, the Wizards signed him to a five-year, $80-million extension in August. His future secure and his health no longer a question, it's time for Wall to concentrate on the present and be the leader the Wizards saw when they drafted him first overall in the 2010 Draft. From March on, only Wall, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant averaged 22.0 points, 7.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Now he needs to lead inside the locker room like them. A healthy Wall is ready to run, and run, and run with an explosive backcourt that includes talented second-year two Bradley Beal and rookie Glen Rice, Jr. But the group is young and Beal will learn all about NBA teams' ability to make adjustments and have to adjust accordingly. Rice also will learn about the rigors of a full NBA season--the kind that probably contributed to Beal breaking down in March and basically losing the final two months of the season. That troublesome injury bug that devastated the team last season has already caught up with first-round pick Otto Porter, who missed training camp. How long it takes him to get healthy and get adjusted, probably on the fly, is time the Wizards don't necessarily want to lose. Porter wasn't the only important casualty of training camp. Center Emeka Okafor's neck injury left a void in the middle and led to his subsequent to his trade to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat. Like Okafor, the 6-11 Gortat is a dependable pivot who can average a double-double in points and rebounds while providing some shotblocking, a boon for a Wizards team that ranked ninth in rebounding last season but was 12-37 when even or trailed in rebounding. One Wizard that remained relatively healthy veteran forward Martell Webster. His eighth NBA season was a big one for the 27-year-old, who was signed last year as a free agent then extended for four years during the off-season. He went off for a career-high 11.4 points (2.5 higher than his career average) and shot north of 42 percent from three. That was 38 points higher than his career average and more than 80 points better than the previous year in Minnesota. He was crucial to the Wizards ranking fourth in the East and 10th in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage. Washington will need another big year at the perimeter from him. But these Wizards are about more than just scoring the ball. They put the phrase "Washington Shutdown" in the vernacular long before Congress did. Last season the Wizards held opponents to 95.2 points and 44.0 percent shooting. The former was the lowest in a decade and ranked eighth in the NBA, while the latter was the lowest in franchise history and was eight-best in the League. That's the kind of Washington Shutdown that people in Washington, especially Wizards fans, can get behind and which is a good sign for a team with playoff aspirations.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
With veterans like Nene and GOrtat in the middle, you wouldn't expect Kevin Seraphin to be starting. Yet the fourth-year center from Cayenne in French Guiana, is expected to spice up the front line and may be just the right ingredient for success. Although undersized at 6-9, 275, Seraphin showed he could score the ball, averaging a career-best 9.1 ppg., and becoming the first Washington center since Gheorghe Muresan in 1995-96 to score at least 10 points in 16 straight games. He showed explosiveness, going off for 24 points and 13 rebounds (both career highs) on April 10 against Orlando. While hitting the boards isn't the strongest part of his game, Seraphin proved capable of doing so, as he led the Wizards off the glass 10 times and grabbed a team season-single-game-high seven offensive rebounds at New York on Nov. 30. The 23-year-old made only eight starts last season, down 13 from the year before, but he proved durable, as his 79 games played tied with Okafor for the team lead. The added incentive of playing in a contract year should add a little extra fire.