Grading The NBA’s Southeast Division
Entering this season, the Miami HEAT was supposed to be the only team worth watching in the Southeast Division. It didn’t seem like the HEAT had any real competition in the Eastern Conference, much less within their own division.
However, a month and a half into the season, the Southeast Division has been surprisingly competitive. Miami hasn’t dominated like many thought they would and it looks like there’s another contender in the division in the Atlanta Hawks. The Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats have also exceeded expectations, making the Southeast more interesting than expected.
Here are HOOPSWORLD’s Southeast Division grades:
Atlanta Hawks (14-6) – A – The Hawks haven’t received much attention, but they’ve been one of the biggest surprises so far this season. When Atlanta traded Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams to clear cap space for next summer, it seemed like the Hawks were entering a rebuilding mode. However, Josh Smith and Al Horford have stepped up for the Hawks and a number of their offseason acquisitions have been productive including Lou Williams, Devin Harris and Kyle Korver. The Hawks have played much better than anyone expected and they’re currently tied for second place in the East and first in the division.
The Hawks have nine players roster who can become free agents after this season, which is one reason that many expected them to take a step back and rebuild since it seemed like many of their offseason acquisitions were brought in for their expiring contracts rather than their on-court abilities. However, these players have produced for Atlanta in their contract year.
The Hawks have a ton of weapons and, with all of the shooters on their roster, they could definitely upset a more talented team in the postseason.
Conclusion: The Hawks have been extremely impressive, with big wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers among others. Whether or not they can continue to play at this high level remains to be seen, but they have exceeded expectations and deserve an A grade for their performance in the first quarter of the season.
Miami HEAT (14-6) – B+ – Miami hasn’t struggled, but they haven’t run away with the division as expected. The defending champions were supposed to win the Eastern Conference, but they currently trail the New York Knicks, who have blown out the HEAT in their two meetings this season.
Even though the HEAT brought back their core from last year, and added Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, they haven’t been able to duplicate last season’s success, particularly on the defensive end.
Last season, the HEAT was one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, but they have struggled this year. Miami is currently allowing 99.5 points per game, which is fourth-highest in the conference behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Bobcats. The HEAT’s offense has been great, which is why they’ve only lost six games, but their defense has really fallen off from last year as evidenced by the fact that they’re ranked 18th in defensive efficiency.
The HEAT may be coasting through the regular season, as some defending champs tend to do, but they need to solve their problems on the defensive end otherwise they’ll be in for a rude awakening in the postseason, especially if they run into an elite offensive team like the Knicks.
Conclusion: There’s no reason to panic in Miami, but there are some issues that need to be resolved in the coming months. They didn’t get an A because their defense has regressed, they aren’t leading their conference or division and they lost to a depleted Washington Wizards team. The HEAT will still be the team to beat in the playoffs, but the first month and a half of this season could’ve gone better.
Orlando Magic (8-13) – B- – The Magic was supposed to be one of the worst teams in the league this year. Many experts had Orlando finishing in last place in the Eastern Conference and possibly the entire NBA. The Magic weren’t supposed to win anything this season, except maybe the draft lottery. However, new head coach Jacque Vaughn has his team playing hard and competing every single night.
Orlando’s balanced attack has put them in the hunt for one of the final seeds in the East. Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick have stepped up and emerged as viable offensive threats. Offseason acquisitions Arron Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless have been inserted into the starting lineup and produced. The Magic are a scrappy team that is much closer to .500 than most people expected.
When Dwight Howard was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, it seemed like it would years until the Magic was relevant again. However, they won their first meeting against the Lakers last week and are currently just one game behind L.A. in the standings. Nobody expected Orlando to be good, but Vaughn has done an excellent job coaching this team and he’s getting the most out of this roster.
Conclusion: The Magic will likely miss the playoffs since the East is loaded with talented teams, but the fact that they’re even in the hunt shows that they’re exceeding expectations. The rebuilding effort in Orlando was supposed to take several years, but it looks like the Magic is ahead of schedule.
Charlotte Bobcats (7-15) – C – Last season, the Bobcats won seven games over the course of the 66-game season, finishing with the lowest winning percentage in league history. This year, they’ve won seven games in the first three weeks of the season, matching last year’s win total in the month of November. Charlotte is likely heading to the lottery once again, but they’ve shown significant progress.
If it weren’t for their current 10-game losing streak, the Bobcats’ grade would be even better. With that said, Charlotte deserves credit for their success during the first month of the season.
Kemba Walker and Byron Mullens have made huge strides and the additions of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon have been huge for this team.
The Bobcats were a joke last year. This year, they’re actually competitive. Charlotte has six players averaging double figures and they’re averaging 95.9 points per game after averaging just 87 points last year. Head coach Mike Dunlap has the Bobcats playing better than expected and the future finally looks bright in Charlotte.
Conclusion: For most teams, a 7-15 start would be considered a disappointment. For the Bobcats, that’s definite progress considering just how bad they were last season. They have struggled over their last ten games, but the fact that they’ve already matched last season’s win total is impressive and shows the excellent job that Dunlap has done as well as the huge strides made by Charlotte’s key players.
Washington Wizards (3-16) – F – The Wizards weren’t supposed to be a cellar dweller this season. After adding Nene, Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor and Bradley Beal since this time last year, Washington had playoff aspirations. However, after Wall and Nene got injured early, Washington’s season went down the drain and once again they’re one of the Eastern Conference’s bottom feeders.
The Wizards currently have the worst record in the league. They have only won three games and changes may be coming in Washington. Head coach Randy Wittman may be fired at some point and no player can feel safe as the February trade deadline approaches.
This group of players hasn’t just struggled, they’ve been dreadful. They’re by far the worst team in the league, particularly on the offense end. They rank dead last in points per game, offensive efficiency and true shooting percentage among other important statistics.
There aren’t many bright spots on this team and there’s still no timetable for Wall to return, which means Washington will continue to lose games. At this point, it may make more sense for Washington to lose as many games as possible. They’re not going to be at full strength for awhile and they’re clearly not making the playoffs so trying to land the top pick in next year’s draft may be their best bet.
Conclusion: Once again, this is a rebuilding year in Washington. They have been one of the biggest disappointments in the league, which is why they receive an F for their performance in the first quarter of the season. Wall and Beal may form a scary one-two punch down the road, but the Wizards aren’t frightening anyone this season.
The Southeast Division is probably the worst in basketball, even with Atlanta, Orlando and Charlotte exceeding expectations. Putting it nicely, the division is certainly top heavy. At some point, the HEAT will likely pull away from the Hawks and win the division rather convincingly. Meanwhile, the four other franchises are still trying to find an identity. Several years ago, this was one of the most competitive divisions in basketball, but it’ll be at least a few years until that’s once again the case.
This is the fifth entry in a six-part series from HOOPSWORLD, grading each division in the NBA. Check out Joel Brigham’s analysis of the Central Division here, Derek Page’s Southwest Division grades here, Alex Raskin’s take on the Atlantic Division here and Eric Pincus’ thoughts on the Pacific Division here.