Miami, Orlando & Atlanta Battle In The NBA’s Southeast Division

The Miami Heat are getting plenty of competition in their own Southeast Division this year. Orlando and Atlanta are both off to strong starts and this trio is tightly backed within a game of each other. With each team getting either major TV spotlight or facing a key schedule stretch this week, TheSportsNotebook takes a look at how all three have started the season. The rank listed in parentheses is where they would be seeded in the eight-team Eastern Conference playoffs if the season ended today.

Miami (11-5, 6th): Surprised to see the Heat sitting as the #6 seed so far? Don’t be. There’s a huge gap from the six-spot down to the last two, so they’re more likely to be #1 by the end of this week than they are to be #7. Dwayne Wade’s ankle injury has been the key factor of this team’s early schedule. Wade is listed as day-to-day, but he has missed seven games so far and beyond the Big Three, Miami is notoriously lacking in depth.

Wade’s backup at the point is Norris Cole and while I realize being D-Wade’s water boy isn’t the most desirable gig in the NBA, couldn’t team president Pat Riley find someone a little more capable than this? There’s a lot of veteran names behind LeBron James and Chris Bosh at the forward spots, but there’s little in the way of production from Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem or Joel Anthony. The Heat lack a true center, so they’ve got to get more consistent play—at least in terms of rebounding from the 6’8” Haslem and the 6’9” Anthony. Bosh is a good rebounder, but at eight boards a game, he’s not reminding anyone of Moses Malone. It’s not that Bosh is having a bad year—to the contrary, he’s getting 21 ppg, but this overall landscape on the frontcourt smacks of a team not very well put together when it comes to the role players, and that has to fall at Riley’s feet.

LeBron himself is having a typical LBJ season, with 30 points/7 rebounds/8 assists per game, while Wade has gotten 20 ppg when healthy and Mario Challmes continues to be a threat from the three-point line at the two-guard spot. But the Heat either need to add more post man who clearly understand their roles and offer one definitive skill—maybe it’s shotblocking, maybe its rebounding—or they risk disappointment in the playoffs again. You can catch the Heat on national television (shocking, I know), on Friday at home against New York, and then Sunday for a big-time showdown with Chicago on ABC.

Atlanta (12-5, #5): Atlanta’s about where you expect them to be in the conference—headed for a 4-5 series in the first round, maybe winning it and then saying an uncompetitive goodbye in the conference semi-finals, which was the formula they followed last year. The Hawks are going to have to be without center Al Horford for, basically the rest of the regular season, which places the entire burden of the post on Josh Smith. The latter is the superior player, but a Horford/Smith tandem would have given this team a matchup edge that could have been exploited against Miami. As it is now, they have to lean even harder on the backcourt, led up by Joe Johnson, a superior scorer who averages 19 ppg and at 6’7” is a matchup nightmare for opposing guards.

The backcourt is good, with Jeff Teague doing a good job running the offense and he’s got a good shooting touch. Vladimir Radmanvoic is a big man who can step out and hit the three. I don’t mean to knock this team, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with falling in the 4-5 slots and potentially winning a playoff series. In fact, it’s pretty good. But the talent on hand does suggest that any hope of pushing beyond that is wishful thinking at best. While the Hawks don’t play any one single game this week that’s really noteworthy, they do start a five-game stretch of road games at Milwaukee, San Antonio, Detroit, New Orleans and Toronto. Let’s see if they can win three of those five.

Orlando (11-4, 2nd): Tell me again, why does Dwight Howard want out of here so badly? He’s in a good city, great weather and he’s on a good team. He’s already been to the Finals, so he knows they can win. And there’s a chance to do it again this year. But say this for Howard—whatever his issues are with the organization, he’s staying focused on business, putting up a 20/16 line on a nightly basis. He’s still the anchor of a frontcourt that is very well put together. Ryan Anderson averages 17 ppg and at 6’10” he grabs rebounds and hits three-point shots. Hedo Turkoglu is another 6’10” forward who can play the finesse game, ably scoring and sharing the ball. The acquisition of Glen Davis from Boston was a coup, as “Big Baby” is ideal coming off the bench for some instant energy and he understands his role. The Magic have one of the NBA’s best frontcourts, one that can score, rebound, distribute and block shots all in one fell swoop.

Where the problem comes is in the backcourt. Jameer Nelson runs the offense well enough to make sure all the other talent doesn’t bog down, but he’s not a scorer, and he’s a mediocre shooter. J. J. Redick is a nice role player, but a team with championship aspirations should have him coming off the bench for some occasional three-point shooting. Jason Richardson is the one who needs to play better. At 6’6”, he has the proto-type size for a two-guard, but has to shoot more accurately if Orlando is going to keep this pace going.

With the Magic riding high at second in the East, they’re one of the NBA’s good stories early on, and you can catch them on TV tonight at Boston (7:30 PM EST, NBA-TV) and again on Thursday when the Celtics make a return visit (8 PM ET, TNT). In between they play a tougher game at Indiana on Tuesday night, get the Pacers back home on Sunday and in the midst of all that squeeze in a trip to New Orleans on Friday. Oh, and Monday? A trip to Philadelphia, another team playing as well as anyone. Tough schedule, but that’s the pace of life in this compressed NBA schedule.