The Southeast Division will be one of the most exciting divisions this season: there's Jimmy Butler and the rest of the Miami Heat eyeing another deep playoff run, Trae Young and his new supporting cast, LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward in Charlotte, and Russell Westbrook in a Wizards uniform.
Let's answer some burning questions about each team in the Southeast Division.
MIAMI HEAT: Was last year’s finals run for real?
The Miami Heat had quite the run last season. They were the giant slayers of the East, eliminating Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals en route to their first NBA Finals trip since “The Heatles” era in 2015. In the finals, despite the injuries to All-Stars Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, Miami still hung tough, winning two games before eventually losing to the Los Angeles Lakers.
There are two ways to look at the Heat’s improbable ascent to the top of the Eastern Conference summit. Did they peak at the right time or did they simply catch lightning in a bottle and take advantage of situations that caused other more talented teams to fold?
That’s the challenge facing the Heat right now. They have a mostly intact lineup, led by Jimmy Butler, Adebayo and the dynamic shooting duo of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Their offseason acquisitions of Maurice Harkless and Avery Bradley should make up for the loss of Jae Crowder, while securing Adebayo to a long-term deal should make the team’s outlook even rosier.
The Heat have the pieces to challenge the rest of the field and make a second straight NBA Finals appearance. It’s up to them to prove that they belong at the top.
ATLANTA HAWKS: Can Trae Young and company improve on the defensive end?
A few teams had their objective so clearly laid out in the offseason like the Hawks, who wanted to make the playoffs no matter what the cost.
With that in mind, they went out and absolutely nailed free agency. Not only did they get one of the top players available in Bogdan Bogdanovic, but they also netted veteran Danilo Gallinari and one of the best defensive guards in the league in Kris Dunn. Onyeka Okongwu is also an excellent piece to add to the team’s youthful nucleus.
The Hawks have the firepower to hang with all the best scoring squads in the league. The challenge for this team, though, is on the other end.
The Hawks gave up the most points (119.7) in the league last season and also had the fourth worst defensive rating (114.8), which led to the third worst net rating (-7.6).
It’s no secret that the Hawks struggle on defense because teams attack guard Trae Young relentlessly and target him on pick-and-rolls as well as in isolation. A slight improvement in Young’s defense could be the game-changer the Hawks need.
ORLANDO MAGIC: Can the Magic finish in the top 8?
While non-playoff teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards signed All-Stars and really impactful players to their lineups, the reigning 8th seed of the Eastern Conference decided to chill and trust the guys who they already have.
The Magic’s entire offseason came via signing Dwayne Bacon in free agency, and Cole Anthony with the 15th pick in the draft. That’s it. They actually lost depth with the departure of DJ Augustin to free agency, and with promising swingman Jonathon Simmons still rehabbing from an ACL tear, it’s clear the Magic will be trusting heavily on their veterans this season.
Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon are a reliable frontline duo, while Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross can still shoot the lights out. There’s also Markelle Fultz, who finally put together an entire promising season for the Magic.
Is that enough to return to the playoffs for the third straight season? The Magic are hoping it is. But when you add the improvements that other squads have made, plus the new play-in tournament incentive, it’s clear that the battle for the 8th seed is about to get tougher than ever.
CHARLOTTE HORNETS: Was investing in Gordon Hayward the right move?
It was one of the most compelling offseasons in franchise history for the Charlotte Hornets. It began at the NBA Draft, when they drafted one of the most promising young prospects in LaMelo Ball, who should provide an instant jolt of excitement to the Hornets. Charlotte then followed that up by surprising everyone and signing Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120 million contract.
The money for Hayward signifies that the Hornets are determined to make the playoffs after missing out the past few years. A five-man lineup of Ball, Hayward, Terry Rozier, PJ Washington and Miles Bridges is a great core to build on and should bring a lot of hype back to Buzz City.
However the cost of success is a huge pill to swallow for the Hornets. With Hayward’s big contract, the team lost a lot of flexibility moving forward as far as reshaping their lineup. Hayward is a talented player, and a former All-Star at his peak, but is he the guy who can make the Hornets a perennial playoff contender?
WASHINGTON WIZARDS: Will the Russell Westbrook-Bradley Beal tandem work?
It’s about to get crazy in D.C. with the arrival of Russell Westbrook to the Wizards. A blockbuster trade that sent John Wall to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Westbrook stunned many considering the hefty contracts the two have. But nevertheless, Washington wanted a culture change, and they’re going to get it with Westbrook, one of the most ferocious competitors the game has ever seen.
It still remains to be seen how Westbrook will fit with Bradley Beal, who ascended to the top of the pecking order in Washington during Wall’s absence. Beal averaged career-highs in points and 3-pointers (30.5 points, 3.0 made triples) in the Wizards’ failed playoff push last season. Washington also seemingly found a gem in Davis Bertans, who turned out to be one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in the league.
Westbrook may not be the ideal fit for Beal since both players like to operate with the ball in their hands. But what Westbrook can do is put a ton of pressure on defenders, which could give Beal and Bertans more space to let it fly. Westbrook was at his best when he was flanked with shooters at every position, and in theory the Wizards can provide that for him.
Washington made a tough decision to trade Wall, someone who had been at the forefront of the franchise’s greatest moments. But injuries took a toll on him, and it was time to move on. Westbrook, despite his inefficient shooting and shaky decision-making, is still a terrific player who should make the Wizards immediately better. The challenge now for him is whether he can put the team on his shoulders to help the Wizards return to the playoffs once again.