NBA preview: Southeast

Steve Kerr
Yahoo! Sports

Shaquille O'Neal may not have been too happy when the Lakers traded him to Miami, but he's going to be thrilled to encounter the opposing centers in the NBA's newly formed Southeast Division in the Eastern Conference.

After years of doing battle in the West with the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Yao Ming, David Robinson and Vlade Divac, Shaq now faces the following roster of big men in his new division: Kelvin Cato, Brendan Haywood, Jahidi White and Jason Collier. Does the word "domination" come to mind? As a result the Heat shouldn't have any problem winning this division, with only Orlando a distant threat to knock them off.

1. Miami Heat
Miami boasts talented second-year guard Dwyane Wade as a running mate for O'Neal, and he'll have to continue to develop his playmaking skills to make up for the loss of Lamar Odom. Eddie Jones is licking his chops at the thought of shooting open shots he hasn't seen since his days as a Laker with O'Neal.

The Heat will need young big men Udonis Haslem and Malik Allen to defend and rebound in support of Shaq. They will also count on veterans Christian Laettner, Damon Jones and Wesley Person to knock down open shots and provide leadership.

The Heat will take a while to develop and learn to play as a team, but in this division they'll have plenty of time to work out the kinks.

2. Orlando Magic
Orlando will also have to figure out how to play together very quickly, as almost the entire roster was revamped following the Tracy McGrady trade. Still, there's reason for hope for the Magic.

Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley form an explosive backcourt, and Cato and Tony Battie are both solid defenders and rebounders, something Orlando lacked desperately a year ago. The Magic were the worst defensive club in the NBA last season, and Battie and Cato will help them improve.

Pat Garrity is healthy and ready to display the shooting skills at the forward spot that make him one of the league's best marksmen, and Grant Hill will quietly make another comeback attempt after his fourth foot surgery. Hill is apparently healthy and played well in training camp, and a complete recovery would make the Magic one of the more talented teams in the East.

Rookie Dwight Howard is gifted but young, and coach Johnny Davis would love to bring him along slowly. A playoff berth is certainly a possibility for this club.

3. Washington Wizards
The Wizards are one of those franchises that just can't seem to get it right. They've been spinning their wheels for what seems like forever but haven't been able to build a winning foundation.

Eddie Jordan is attempting to change that, but he has a difficult task. Kwame Brown hasn't developed the way the Wizards had hoped when they drafted him years ago, and already he is injured and expected to miss the first part of the season. Still, there's talent on this squad, especially on the perimeter.

Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes are both dynamic young talents, and the addition of Antawn Jamison gives Washington a 20-point scorer at the small forward spot. The question for the Wizards, though, is whether they can stop anyone. They gave up 97 points per game last season. Jordan hopes young big man Etan Thomas can stabilize a weak front line.

4. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks will give Mike Woodson a try at turning around a team that has been wallowing in the NBA's gutter for years. He has a difficult task ahead of him.

Atlanta seems to go through major personnel overhauls yearly, and this season is no different. The new faces include Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Jon Barry and Al Harrington. The Hawks also drafted a couple of swingmen: Josh Childress of Stanford and Josh Smith from Oak Hill Academy.

Woodson will try to build a foundation for the franchise by emphasizing defense, as his mentor Larry Brown did in Philadelphia and Detroit. Unfortunately, there's nobody named Ben Wallace or Rasheed Wallace to help.

5. Charlotte Bobcats
The good news for the city of Charlotte is that it has a basketball team again. The bad news is that it won't be any good – yet.

But the Bobcats will build a young team around the defensive exploits of UConn star Emeka Okafor, who is an outstanding shot blocker and rebounder. They hope Okafor can eventually develop a reliable offensive game, but his post game is unrefined. He's also undersized at 6 feet 8 inches, so he'll have to adjust to playing against the bigger, stronger athletes in the NBA.

Okafor will be joined by a collection of unproven young players and aging veterans, which means the Bobcats will have a tough time putting points on the board. It'll be a long season in Charlotte, but at least there will be a season.

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