New King’s Court: The Southeast Division is Wide Open

By Lenn Robbins | @lennrobbins

A funny thing happened on the way to the 2015 NBA Southeast Division title: It became wide open. Wide open.

Consider this: Last season Miami won the division by a whopping 10 games, the largest margin in the NBA.

It was the Heat’s fourth straight division title. Everyone else has been playing for second.

The Heat might be fortunate to grab second in the Southeast Division in 2015. Suddenly, Washington looks better on paper. And Charlotte could be next season’s Toronto Raptors – the team that catches everyone by surprise and wins a division.

We all know how this happened, of course. It’s called free agency.

LeBron James’ decision to return to Cleveland buckled Miami. The Heat retained Chris Bosh and the aging Dwyane Wade, and they added Luol Deng, but that troika can’t compare to the Big 3.

"I'm here to tell you something else: We are not done, not even close," Heat owner Micky Arison wrote in a message to Heat Nation.

The Heat are not done. They added two versatile frontcourt players in Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. They might have upgraded their point guard position with the drafting of Shabazz Napier.

And they have additional leadership in Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen, players that know how to win. What the Heat don’t have, however, is the best player on the planet.

Which means the Southeast is wide open.

The team that looks like it has the best chance at taking the division is the Washington Wizards, which finished 10 games behind Miami. The Wizards have youth, momentum and Paul Pierce on their side.

After ousting Chicago last season in a first-round playoff series, the Wizards signed Pierce, filling their void at small forward. They also have a locker room leader.

Pierce will do wonders for one of the league’s best young backcourts. John Wall and Bradley Beal are potent. Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario are bruisers up front.

Washington, which hasn’t won an NBA title since 1978, added depth and muscle with the additions of DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries. After taking out the Bulls, the Wizards pushed the Indiana Pacers to six games in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the former Forest Hills High star, has returned Washington to respectability. The Wizards are poised to push deeper in the playoffs.

Speaking of teams unfamiliar with the NBA playoffs, we bring you the Charlotte Hornets, previously Bobcats, now Hornets again.

Miami swept Charlotte in a first-round playoff series last season. But it might have gone differently had Big Al Jefferson not suffered a plantar fascia injury.
The Hornets made the most talked-about free agent signing of the off-season by inking mercurial guard Lance Stephenson of Brooklyn.

There’s nothing Stephenson can’t do on the floor and other things you wish he didn’t do – such as blowing in James’ ear.

Pairing Stephenson with Kemba Walker of the Bronx in the backcourt gives Charlotte a potent, all-NYC tandem. They could be explosive, or implosive.
Charlotte might be the most intriguing team in the league. Jefferson will want the ball. Stephenson might kidnap the ball. Walker is at his best with the ball in his hands.

Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and power forward Cody Zeller wouldn’t mind a chance to shake hands with the ball. There might not be enough balls in Charlotte but there is talent.

And there is a renewed buzz. Charlotte has its Hornets nickname back. Lance and Kemba are in the backcourt. Suddenly, Charlotte is buzzing.

If Charlotte is buzzing, Atlanta is rising. The Hawks almost pulled the playoff stunner of 2014, pushing the Indiana Pacers to a decisive Game 7.

Al Horford solidified his status as one of the league’s premier big men. He gets a lot of help on the boards from power forward Paul Millsap. That inside game is balanced by Kyle Korver’s deadeye three-point shooting.

Atlanta added depth and youth by drafting Michigan State power forward Adreian Payne and signing defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha.

In a division that now boasts some stellar point guards in Wall and Walker, Atlanta will go as far as their lead guard can take them.

Jeff Teague shot just 36 percent from the field in the playoffs and averaged 3.2 turnovers per game.

Shelvin Mack, who is coming off his best season, and Dennis Schroder, who dazzled during the summer league games, will push him. Atlanta has the horses. It needs the jockey.

Which brings us to Orlando, which needs just about everything.

The Magic hit it big in last year’s draft with guard Victor Oladipo. They might have a big-time player in this year’s first-round pick, power forward Aaron Gordon of Arizona, a great athlete with an unpolished game, who was the fourth player picked.

Orlando also took point guard Elfrid Payton of Louisiana-Lafayette with the 10th pick in the draft. He might have a chance to start from the get-go.

But this is not a league that is welcoming to rookies. And Orlando’s free agent signings of Channing Frye and Ben Gordon don’t make this team significantly better.

The Magic finished 31 games behind Miami. The best news for Orlando is that the Heat no longer are the class of the division.

The Southeast is open – wide open.