NBA preview: Southeast

NBA preview: Southeast
By Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
October 14, 2005

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
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If the Heat are the Beatles, then the rest of the Southeast Division is made up of roadies – they're just setting the stage for Miami's anticipated postseason run.

This is by far the most predictable division in the NBA, with the Heat being a foregone conclusion to win it. Miami will use the regular season to try to figure out how to fit all the pieces together. Meanwhile, Washington and Orlando hope to sneak into the playoffs, while Atlanta and Charlotte simply seek respectability.

All in all, the division is not exactly a breeding ground for championship basketball, but it may be an ideal place for a Miami team that needs time to become title contenders. Here's how I see the Southeast shaking out.

1. Miami Heat
Best-case scenario: It all works like magic: Jason Williams and Gary Payton share time at the point, Antoine Walker happily comes off the bench and Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade stay healthy and dominate. All the pieces fit perfectly, the Heat overwhelms the Southeast and brings an NBA title to South Beach, where Shaq throws the party to end all parties.

Worst-case scenario: Everything falls apart. O'Neal misses much of the season with injuries, Payton and J-Will fight over playing time and Walker can't accept a lesser role. Wade carries the team, but he can't overcome all the commotion around him. Miami still wins a lot of games, but its postseason is cut short by team dysfunction.

Outlook: Shaq and Wade will dominate games regardless of who's on the floor with them. Miami will run away with the division, but this team was built to win a championship. Success in the postseason depends on how much each player is willing to sacrifice. If the Heat players forget about statistics, share the ball, extend themselves defensively, and compete on a nightly basis, Shaq could lead them to a title.

2. Washington Wizards
Best-case scenario: The fairytale of last season continues. Antonio Daniels and Caron Butler more than make up for the loss of Larry Hughes, Gilbert Arenas lights up the league, and Antawn Jamison provides scoring and leadership. The lack of interior offense isn't a factor and the Wizards waltz right back to the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: The Wizards become a jump-shooting team and too perimeter-oriented. The inside game is nonexistent, and the magic from a year ago disappears. Arenas scores a ton of points, but he can't repeat his performance from last season. The Wizards miss the playoffs.

Outlook: It will be tougher for the Wizards this year because they can't sneak up on anyone. The toughest jump to make in the NBA is not from the lottery to the playoffs; it's from the playoffs to elite status. Washington simply doesn't have enough inside to be a well-rounded team, and it will rely too much on Arenas. The Wizards could slide out of the playoffs.

3. Orlando Magic
Best-case scenario: Dwight Howard becomes an All-Star because Steve Francis feeds him the ball. Grant Hill regains some of the explosiveness he lost due to his foot injury, and Orlando becomes a solid team. They sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs and bask in the glow of Howard's bright future.

Worst-case scenario: Howard is the forgotten man on the block and Francis neglects to get him the ball enough. Hill suffers a letdown after his remarkable comeback in 2004-05, and the Magic stumbles along to a subpar performance. They miss the playoffs for a third straight year.

Outlook: They have to improve, if only because Howard has the look of a superstar, and he'll be much better with one NBA season under his belt. Brian Hill will make sure his young big man gets the ball, but he has to help his team forge an identity, which will take some time. The Magic will have a tough time making the playoffs.

4. Atlanta Hawks
Best-case scenario: The Hawks' young talent explodes onto the scene, with athletes and scorers all over the floor. Joe Johnson becomes a dynamic point guard, and he distributes the ball to his shooters, leading Atlanta to a major turnaround and 30-plus victories.

Worst-case scenario: The Hawks remain the Hawks. Johnson isn't really a point guard, and the team is a rudderless ship. The youth and inexperience are glaring, and Atlanta takes another trip down Lottery Lane.

Outlook: Atlanta will be better because the talent level has been upgraded. But this is still a very young team that needs an inside game and time to grow. The Hawks will score enough points to beat teams on some nights, but their defense won't be good enough to win on their off-nights. Twenty-six wins sounds about right – which is 13 more than last year.

5. Charlotte Bobcats
Best-case scenario: Emeka Okafor emerges as a Ben Wallace-type All-Star and Raymond Felton has an immediate impact. The team creates an identity as a defensive-minded, ball-hawking, stingy unit. The Bobcats win enough games to pass Atlanta and get out of the Southeast cellar.

Worst-case scenario: Okafor hurts his back, Felton isn't ready to play and the Bobcats are simply an upgraded version of last season's team that won 18 games. They head back to the lottery and search for more talent.

Outlook: Charlotte is making progress, but it is on a long-term plan. The Bobcats' young players will continue to develop and grow together, but they're still a long way from being competitive on a nightly basis. Anything more than 25 wins would be a great showing.

Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Friday, Oct 14, 2005 9:06 am, EDT

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