Will the Miami Heat be on Top of the Southeast Division Once Again?

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It’s been five long years since a team not named the Miami Heat won the Southeast Division. Imagine a time period before LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, an era where Dwyane Wade was leading the NBA in points per game, and a two-year stretch where the Heat were eliminated in the first round in consecutive seasons.

The 2009-10 season was the last time the Heat couldn’t lay claim to being Southeast Division Champions. The Orlando Magic were division champions that season, capping off their third consecutive season of winning the division. In fact, the Heat not only didn’t win the Southeast, but they finished 12 games out of first place, and were the third-best team in the Southeast with a 47-35 record.

Since LeBron and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach in the Summer of 2010, it’s been all smooth sailing for the Heat within their division. Over the past four years, the Charlotte Hornets (previously the Bobcats) and the Washington Wizards have been afterthoughts, the Atlanta Hawks have remained a team in stagnation, while the Orlando Magic have become one of the worst teams in the NBA after Dwight Howard was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

However, the Summer of 2014 has marked a change in the Heat’s makeup. No. 6 has taken his talents back to Cleveland, and while the Heat return most of their core rotation from last year’s Finals run, the absence of the four-time MVP has caused an understandable degree of anxiety amongst the Heat faithful.

Including the Heat, four teams from the Southeast Division entered the postseason during the 2013-14 season, more than any other division in the NBA, with the exception of the Southwest Division of the Western Conference (four teams). The Washington Wizards return most of their core from their team last season minus Trevor Ariza, while the Charlotte Hornets added Lance Stephenson through free agency, and the Atlanta Hawks return a healthy Al Horford next year.

So the question begs, are the Heat still the runaway favorites in the Southeast? Or have some of the Heat’s division rivals closed the gap after the departure of ‘The King’? Let’s take a look at how each team looks entering the 2014-15 season.

Washington Wizards

John Wall and the Washington Wizards

Most can come to the conclusion that the Wizards will be the Heat’s toughest test from within the divisional ranks. The Wizards finished as the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed last season, advancing to the Semis before being knocked off by the Indiana Pacers in six games. The team from D.C. returns a strong nucleus which features the best young backcourt in the NBA in 23-year-old John Wall and 21-year-old Bradley Beal. Nene Hilario is back at PF, along with Marcin Gortat at C. Paul Pierce was added as a free agent to contribute some veteran playoff experience to a young team that lacks experience in the postseason.

The only real negative for the Wizards this offseason was losing Ariza through free agency to the Houston Rockets. Ariza was an underrated player who was the team’s best defender and who contributed nearly 15 points per game. The loss of Ariza may affect Washington’s strong team defense. The team ranked in the top 10 in points allowed per game and defensive rating. Washington hopes that the 36-year-old Pierce will be able to replace Ariza as the team’s small forward and third scoring option.

Atlanta Hawks

Al Horford, Paul Milsap, and the Atlanta Hawks

The other team from within the Southeast that could make a run at the divisional crown are the Hawks. While Atlanta barely clinched a postseason berth as the No. 8 seed by edging out the New York Knicks by a game with a 38-44 record, the Hawks nearly upset the No. 1 seeded Pacers in the first round during a seven-game series. While the Pacers were an extremely flawed team, the fact that Atlanta nearly won a playoff series was an accomplishment in itself.

The team from the ATL was absolutely decimated by injuries last season, as franchise player Horford, missed most of the regular season and the entire postseason due to injury. The team added one of the league’s best perimeter defenders in Thabo Sefolosha through free agency. The 2014-15 season marks the first time we’ll be able to witness the front court duo of Horford and Paul Milsap for an extended period of time.

If the Hawks look to contend with the Wizards and the Heat next season, they will have to improve a lethargic offense that ranked in the middle-of-the-pack in points per game and offensive rating. The return of a healthy Horford will be instrumental in Atlanta becoming a better team on offense.

Charlotte Hornets

Steve Clifford Coaching the Charlotte Bobcats

The team formerly known as the Bobcats has reverted back to its old team name, the Hornets. Whether the change in name marks a change in the team’s fortunes remains to be seen. The Bobcats/Hornets franchise has been around for 10 years, but the team has not only yet to win a postseason series, it has yet to even win a playoff game.

Though the Hornets did make the postseason as the No. 7 seed with a solid 43-39 record, just two years after finishing with the league’s worst winning percentage over the course of a single season in NBA history, it will be an uphill battle for the team to clinch a playoff berth in consecutive seasons.

While the team did add Stephenson through free agency, the former Pacer is at his best when he’s surrounded by a talented supporting cast. In Indiana, Stephenson was not the main guy. He was merely one of the main guys. Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West are all Pacers who were ahead of the former University of Cincinnati product on the pecking order.

In Charlotte, Stephenson will be depended upon to be the No. 2 guy in partnering alongside franchise centerpiece, Al Jefferson. Josh McRoberts was a key player for the team in 2013-14, and he left Charlotte for the Heat during free agency. With the Knicks bringing back Carmelo Anthony, and the Cleveland Cavaliers becoming automatic Eastern Conference contenders with the return of LeBron, it’s hard to envision the Hornets entering the postseason in 2015.

Orlando Magic

Victor Oladipo and the Orlando Magic

Since D12 left Orlando, the Magic haven’t been the same team. In fact, they’ve been one of the worst teams in the entire NBA. In 2013, the team had the worst record. In 2014, the Magic had the third-worst record in the league.

While the team has some solid young talent in Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, they also lost their leading scorer, Arron Afflalo (18.2 PPG) through free agency and added questionable pieces (Ben Gordon) in an effort to replace some of the scoring punch they lost during the offseason. Jameer Nelson, who had been a starter with the team since 2004, also departed during the offseason. The Magic ranked 25th in points per game, and second-to-last in offensive rating in 2014.

There is no reason to believe that the 2014-15 season will be any different for the Magic in terms of winning. Orlando should again be one of the top five worst teams in the NBA.

How Will The Division Shape Up?

Erik Spoelstra and Dwyane Wade

Finally, the reason why all of you clicked this article in the first place: Which team will enter the 2014-15 season as the favorites to win the Southeast? What will the division pecking order be by the end of the season?

The Heat will go through their share of growing pains without LeBron at the beginning of the 2014-15 season. Remember how the 2010-11 Heat started out the first 20 or so games with a sub .500 record and the media panicked and acted as if the ‘Big Three’ experiment would be a failure? Expect something similar to happen this upcoming season. The media and the NBA fan base are already down on the Heat now that ‘The King’ has departed, and expect them to egg on Miami when they do struggle for a period of time without LeBron.

However, there’s not enough reason to believe that the team from South Beach won’t win their fifth consecutive division title. While the division race will be a lot closer than what it was last season, when the Heat won the division by 10 games over the runner-up Wizards, expect the same results.

Miami should win the division in a tight three-way race between the Heat, Wizards and Hawks. The squad from D.C. and the team from the ATL will be neck-and-neck for runner-up within the division, while the Hornets will flounder in their first season with their old name back. The Magic just don’t have the pieces to even contend for a playoff spot at the moment.

While the Southeast promises to be more competitive than it has been over the past half-decade, the Heat still remain the team to beat.

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D.J. Siddiqi grew up in the heart of South Florida in Broward County. Growing up in South Florida during the late 90's and 2000's, D.J. witnessed the Pat Riley years where the Miami Heat faced off with the New York Knicks all the way to the painful late 2000's seasons where the Heat were a one-man team with Dwyane Wade. D.J. has closely followed the Heat over the past decade-and-a-half, and unfortunately witnessed Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals in person when the Dallas Mavericks overcame a 15-point deficit to knock off the Heat. D.J. has writing experience as a columnist with sites such as Bleacher Report and Rant Sports, and he is proud to bring his knowledge of the Heat and the NBA to Heat Nation.