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With one full season under its belt, Miami's Big Three is ready to make good on LeBron's prophesy.
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Southeast Division: Heat poised to extend control

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
Posted Nov 30 2011 12:49PM - Updated Dec 2 2011 9:34AM

In terms of star appeal and overall strength, this might be the division du jour in the Eastern Conference, although if suspense is your thing, you best look elsewhere for that.

That's because the Southeast once again appears to belong in the palms (hands and tree) of the Miami Heat, the reigning champs who clearly are on the way up. In the meantime, the two competitors for divisional bragging rights are dealing with issues that may cause grief in the near future. Yes, in short time, maybe even later this season, both Orlando and Atlanta could be sporting a different look if certain players are traded and/or unable to be re-signed as free agents. Dwight Howard, with a pending free agency next summer, is on the front burner for the Magic, a franchise that hopes he won't pull a Shaquille O'Neal and demand out (Shaq landed with the Lakers, and the rest was history). Meanwhile, the Hawks are still coping with the frustrating inability to move beyond the conference semifinals, a threshold that has dogged the franchise since it moved from St. Louis. Which was, like, a long time ago. Do they pull a blockbuster deal and roll the dice? They might.

At the bottom of the Southeast is where you'll likely find the Wizards and especially the Bobcats, both struggling with growing pains. The Wizards are your classic team with a bunch of talented young players who haven't a clue; once they figure it out, watch out. And that's actually a problem the Bobcats would love to have, because unlike Washington, there's no John Wall on the roster, no sure-fire franchise rock to build around in Charlotte. Which means, once again, each member of the Bobcats will struggle to get a few thousand followers on Twitter. All except Michael, of course.

And so the division is Miami's to lose, and if the Heat make it a no-contest, then that's too bad. Because this division initially had the makings of a fierce rivalry between the Florida teams. Orlando and Miami both reached the NBA Finals in recent years, and both made several major moves over that time to make multiple runs at league championships. And now it's all about what Orlando does, or doesn't do, with the thorny issue of Howard's free agency. Miami may not realize LeBron James' promise of several NBA titles, but if Howard leaves Orlando and a void in the Southeast, then a strong of divisional championships are certainly possible for Miami.

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2010-11 record: 58-24

Finish: First in Southeast Division

Playoffs: Defeated Philadelphia in Eastern Conference first round (4-1), defeated Boston in Eastern Conference semifinals (4-1), defeated Chicago in Eastern Conference finals (4-1), lost to Dallas in NBA Finals (4-2)

Strengths: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were pretty much as hyped in Year One, especially as the season progressed. Three Olympians and All-Stars, in their prime, were too much to handle for most of the NBA. They came a few games short of winning the championship, quite a feat considering their limited time together and the so-so supporting cast.

Challenges: With three players weighing down the salary cap, can Miami ever afford to bring the right piece(s) to vault the Big Three over the top? You figure the supporting cast will always feature an inexpensive new face or two, because time is ticking, especially if Miami plans to fulfill LeBron's prophesy: "Not one, not two, not three ... " etc.

Outlook: Once again, Miami will be in the championship mix, although probably with a lot less resentment thrown in its face. LeBron and Wade are motivated and eager to show that their sloppy finish was a fluke, and they're much more comfortable around each other. For entertainment value, this team can't be beat. Maybe this is the year when they can't be beat on the court, either.

This could make a difference: Quite honest, last season was a wash for Mike Miller, who pulled up lame with a bum wrist in the preseason and never properly healed. Because cap limitations will prevent Miami from vastly improving the big-man dilemma, a healthy Miller could be the difference when the calendar flips to June.

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2010-11 record: 52-30

Finish: Second in Southeast Division

Playoffs: Defeated by Atlanta in Eastern Conference first round (4-2)

Strengths: Dwight Howard is the game's premier 7-footer and arguably one of the NBA's Top 4-5 players regardless of position, a game-changer in the prime of his career. As long as he's healthy, Orlando is a top-tier team, even with the somewhat questionable talent surrounding him. He's also in his walk year, which makes him extra dangerous and motivated.

Challenges: Once again, Orlando is trying to find all the right pieces to complement Howard before (a) he bolts as a free agent or (b) he starts to slow down or break down. But there's no evidence that the current supporting cast can help. Too many key players (Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Quentin Richardson and now Jameer Nelson?) are either past their prime or already peaked.

Outlook: As a title contender, this team's in trouble. Howard can only take the Magic so far; who's riding shotgun? When the outside shots are falling, Orlando will beat most teams, but inconsistency will cause their doom.

This could make a difference: Should Howard announce he'd rather sign elsewhere next summer, the Magic might reach a point where the unthinkable happens and they trade him by the deadline. It's better to get something for him now, rather than watch him walk and get nothing (see O'Neal, Shaq).

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2010-11 record: 44-38

Finish: Third in Southeast Division

Playoffs: Defeated Orlando in Eastern Conference first round (4-2), lost to Chicago in Eastern Conference semifinals (4-2)

Strengths: With a nucleus that hasn't changed much in six years, these guys are as familiar to each other as socks and sneakers. We're talking Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Al Horford, four players who can all play more than one position. They've made the Hawks a steady 45-win team by growing together and staying healthy.

Challenges: Did we mention the Hawks are good for 45 wins? That means they're stuck in a comfortable rut, unable to make a clean break for a championship run with the personnel on hand. Would a roster shakeup, meaning a trade of Smith or Horford, help in that regard? New ownership, anxious to win over the fans right away, would've been willing to take a shot, but the sale last summer fell through.

Outlook: In street terms, the Hawks be what they be. They're too good to rise or fall far from their present perch, which will continue to make them semi-interesting but not solid enough to captivate the rest of the NBA or even the sports scene in Atlanta. Expect more of the same-old, same-old from this consistent crew.

This could make a difference: Jeff Teague took over the point guard duties when Kirk Hinrich pulled up lame right before the playoffs and was a silver lining, delivering some solid performances when he bruised MVP Derrick Rose's ego. If that was the real Teague and not a tease, then all the Hawks need now is a competent big man (via trade?) to form a solid starting five.

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2010-11 record: 34-48

Finish: Fourth in Southeast Division

Playoffs: N/A

Strengths: The Bobcats will make you work hard for points. They were that way under Larry Brown, and continue under Paul Silas. What the Bobcats lack in individual talent is compensated with group effort. And that's a good thing, since there's no one of All-Star fiber in Charlotte.

Challenges: The Bobcats finished next-to-last offensively, and points were hard to come by even before they sent Gerald Wallace packing at midseason. That's been the theme of this franchise since inception. Their leading returning scorer is point guard D.J. Augustin at 14.4 per game. And the irony: Michael Jordan, the owner, was a scoring machine as a player. Can the Bobcats find someone half as reliable? Does such player exist on the current roster? Most likely, no.

Outlook: Silas reinvigorated a team that made the playoffs a year earlier, but the Bobcats are likely back to square one in some regards. They lack a star player -- what else is new? -- and swagger. What the Bobcats need most is an identity, something to distinguish them from the pack of mediocre teams that, like Charlotte, are merely treading water.

This could make a difference: The Bobcats really need to nail down their No. 1 picks and free agency decisions in the future. That's the only way Charlotte can rise from the bottom. If rookie Bismack Biyombo becomes a stud, then great. If Jordan signs someone next summer when money becomes available, great. Otherwise, the Bobcats just hope to win over the home customers with hard work.

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2010-11 record: 23-59

Finish: Fifth in Southeast Division

Playoffs: N/A

Strengths: The Wizards are hoping youth isn't wasted on the young, and the indications are mostly positive in that regard. John Wall and JaVale McGee are a pair of intriguing pups at important positions (point guard and center) who could grow old together. Same for Jordan Crawford and Nick Young, if he re-signs. For a developing team like Washington, whose time is tomorrow, that's what you're aiming for. Just stockpile young talent and hope at least one becomes a true star.

Challenges: A year ago Washington rolled the dice and gave Andray Blatche the big contract, hoping he'd mature as a person and player. Right now, that process is still ongoing. Blatche has an enormous skill set for a big man but too often leaves you wondering if he'll be anything more than a tease. Also, in exchange for dumping Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards are stuck with his mild-mannered alter-ego, Rashard Lewis, whose contract is equally insane. He's an amnesty candidate.

Outlook: The Wizards are probably a year or two away from making a move toward respectability. Wall appears to be the real deal, and the only potential superstar on the roster. Everywhere else, there are too many questions about maturity and motivation to make anyone believe prosperity is right around the corner. Another good pickup in the draft lottery would help.

This could make a difference: Can Flip Saunders sell defense to this team? That will determine whether the Wizards reach the playoffs and whether Saunders can buy himself more time on the bench. Washington ranked 24th of 30 teams in points allowed, and often, the Wizards didn't even seem to put forth the effort. That's often the case with young teams.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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