Last season, the Eastern Conference was disparaged by fans and pundits alike for it's lack of depth and competition. Outside of the Heat and the Pacers, the East seemed to lack any legitimate contenders. The Bulls struggled for stretches without Derrick Rose, young teams like the Wizards and Hornets (then Bobcats) struggled to crack .500, and the Nets and Knicks disappointed. However, last year's playoffs began a reversal of fortunes that carried into the offseason, as new contenders began to emerge and big free agency moves triggered a conference-wide power shift. The East is now a legitimate power, with the Cavaliers and Bulls legitimate title favorites, the Wizards, Hornets and Raptors emerging as rising young contenders, and veteran teams like the Heat, Nets and Hawks still lurking. We shouldn't be hearing nearly as many Leastern Conference jokes this year; whoever makes the playoffs will have to earn it.
The Wizards seem like a safe bet to be among those teams. They'll be looking to improve on last year's 44-38 record thanks to the continued growth of John Wall and Bradley Beal and a solid offseason that saw them retain Marcin Gortat and add Paul Pierce, DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries. They have an intriguing blend of young talent and veteran leadership and gained valuable playoff experience during last year's playoff run. But the Southeast Divison will hardly be a cakewalk. Three other playoff contenders will also be gunning for the Southeast crown, making it one of the most competitive divisions in the entire league.
While the Miami Heat may have lost LeBron James this offseason, it would be foolish to write them off completely. Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh are still an effective pairing. If Wade's knees hold up and Bosh can handle his expanded role, they should remain a productive veteran duo. The Heat did a solid job of retooling after losing LeBron, adding Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, and rookie Shabazz Napier. The Heat will remain a talented veteran team with strong leadership and a roster continuity. They're no longer NBA Finals contenders, but they should still compete for a playoff spot.
The Charlotte Hornets are in a similar position as the Wizards. After a surprising playoff berth last season, they earned their place as one of the league's most intriguing young teams. Signing Lance Stephenson for 3-years, $27 million deal was one of the most underrated moves of the offseason. Stephenson has some baggage, but he's a well-rounded, All-Star caliber producer, and he's only 23 years old. He'll join All-NBA third team center Al Jefferson and improving young point guard Kemba Walker on a talented Hornets squad that has enough firepower to win 50 games this year.
The Atlanta Hawks have been flying under the radar this offseason, but they should improve on last year's 38-44 record and compete for higher than the 8th seed. Al Horford will be healthy and will pair with Paul Millsap to form a strong frontcourt pairing, and free agent signings Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore and rookie Adreian Payne will improve the team's depth. The Orlando Magic are a couple years away from being competitive, but they have a decent collection of young talent in Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris. Add in veteran Channing Frye, and the Magic are capable of winning some key games down the stretch, which can throw a wrench into others' playoff goals.
The Wizards are as good a bet as any of these teams to win the Southeast, but they will face some stiff competition. The central Division may feature the East's two juggernauts in the Cavs and Bulls, the the Southeast is arguably even more competitive, with four likely playoff squads who each have to think they have a shot at the division crown. Nobody's gonna sneak in with a sub. 500 record this time. Fans should be in for some entertaining and competitive division races, with the Southeast chief among them.
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Tags: Basketball, NBA, Washington, Washington Wizards