There's plenty of love flowing in the Southeast Division these days.
When the NBA recently asked each of the league's 30 head coaches to name the teams they thought had improved the most from last season, Boston was the obvious first choice of nearly all. The Southeast coaches, however, also made a special point of recognizing their peers.
Washington coach Eddie Jordan and Miami's Pat Riley chose Orlando and Atlanta, the latter for its draft-night selections of Al Horford and Acie Law.
New Magic coach Stan Van Gundy even mentioned his former employers, the Heat, citing the pending return of Dwyane Wade.
Here's the predicted order of finish for the Southeast:
Is that confetti in your hair? Hiring Van Gundy was a smart audible after Billy Donovan accepted Orlando's coaching job then immediately bolted back to Florida. Dwight Howard, provided he cuts down his turnovers and polishes his footwork, is well on his way to becoming the East's most dominant big man. With a former West All-Star (Lewis) now lining up next to Howard, the Magic should make a run at the Southeast title.
How's Cancun in June? Good news: The Magic no longer have to fret about Hill's near-daily medical reports. Bad news: Lewis, their new $118 million man, sprained his right ankle in the second preseason game.
In the crosshairs: Lewis received his big payday. Now he has to prove he deserves it. The talented 28-year-old swingman has only 16 games of playoff experience to show for his nine seasons in Seattle and his production dipped noticeably during two of those three trips to the postseason.
Is that confetti in your hair? The Wizards didn't make any notable changes to their roster, and it's not hard to see why. Injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler cut short what could have been a promising playoff run. Even with Etan Thomas possibly missing the season after heart surgery, Jordan returns all five of his starters – and a pair of key reserves in Antonio Daniels and Darius Songaila – from a team that looked capable of winning 50 games.
How's Cancun in June? Arenas is returning from surgery on his left knee and has already said he plans on opting out of his contract after the season. Antawn Jamison also is in a contract year. Can the Wizards stay focused? Even with talk of a disconnect between Jordan and Washington's front office?
In the crosshairs: If the Wizards are fortunate enough to win the Southeast, they'll still be exposed in the playoffs if their defense doesn't improve. That improvement needs to start with Arenas. Showing he can contribute on both ends of the floor will only help Agent Zero land the hefty payday he's seeking.
3. Miami Heat
Is that confetti in your hair? After previously faulting himself for not doing more to improve the team's roster, Riley sent Walker, Simien and Doleac to Minnesota for Davis and Blount. Davis will help shoulder some of the scoring responsibility until Wade returns. Blount also gives the team another option should Shaquille O'Neal not stay healthy.
How's Cancun in June? Dorell Wright has yet to show he's capable of holding down a starting job -- one more reason why Riley brought in Davis. Oh, and did we mention Wade will probably miss most of the first month of the season while his surgically repaired left knee and shoulder continue to heal?
In the crosshairs: O'Neal's legacy is secure, along with his bank account. But does the Big Fella still have enough left in his oversized tank for the Heat to make a serious playoff run? A clue: He played in just 59 and 40 regular-season games the previous two seasons and has already been limited by a quadriceps injury this fall.
Is that confetti in your hair? The Bobcats made it clear this summer they're serious about challenging for their first playoff berth. They hired a new coach (Sam Vincent), traded for an athletic scorer (Jason Richardson) and re-signed their top two free agents (Gerald Wallace and Matt Carroll). Add Emeka Okafor, Raymond Felton and Adam Morrison and Charlotte will have a young but talented core.
How's Cancun in June? Losing Sean May, Charlotte's expected starting power forward, to microfracture surgery was a big blow for a team already lacking frontcourt depth. Othella Harrington also has been sidelined with a knee injury and center Primoz Brezec only recently returned to the team.
In the crosshairs: Richardson's arrival and Wallace's return takes some of the pressure off Morrison. But the Bobcats' 2006 first-round pick still needs to improve that .376 shooting percentage – and at least attempt to play a little defense – if he wants to avoid being stuck with the bust label.
Allow us to introduce: Al Horford and Acie Law.
Dearly departed: Royal Ivey.
Is that confetti in your hair? Joe Johnson is primed for another All-Star season. Marvin Williams has shown signs of living up to his potential. Horford looks ready to contribute. Are the low-flying Hawks prepared to finally soar into the playoffs?
How's Cancun in June? While the Hawks have made it a point to chant "One, two, three playoffs" at the end of each practice this preseason, they're not going to have an easy time reaching that goal. Aside from Johnson, Atlanta is short on veteran talent.
In the crosshairs: Josh Smith is going to have to grow up this season for the Hawks to end their eight-season playoff drought. No one questions Smith's talent – on any given night he's capable of being a devastating matchup for opponents – but his shot selection also has the potential to wear on his coach.
- Rashard Lewis
- Stan Van Gundy
- Jason Richardson