NBA Southeast Division Preview

TheSportsNotebook’s march to the October 29 opening of the NBA season continues with a venture into the home neighborhood of the two-time defending champs and the game’s best player. The Southeast Division is home to the Miami Heat and LeBron James, along with playoff regular Atlanta and a hopeful in Washington.

Let’s take a look at the basic personnel of all five teams in the NBA Southeast Division and compare them to Las Vegas expectations, as measured in the Over/Under NBA win futures.

Miami: There are almost no changes in the key personnel of the Heat, from the starting lineup to the bench. Beyond LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, you still have Mario Challmes and Udonis Haslem filling out the starting five, young Norris Cole providing minutes at the point and Ray Allen and Shane Battier to provide veteran leadership and three-point shooting.

The big X-factor for this season is the decision to give Greg Oden a chance to redeem his career. The top overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft has been hampered physically by bad legs and has struggled with alcohol abuse. What no one doubts is that if he’s healthy in all aspects he can be a great player, and he fills a potential need for Miami.

Miami won 65 games last year, but was taken to the wire by Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals and barely survived San Antonio in the NBA Finals. They have to improve if they’re going to keep their throne, and there’s no reason among the regular returnees to expect improvement, and every reason (namely Dwayne Wade’s knee) to think some decline might set in. Oden is the one person who can decisively alter that dynamic.

I don’t mean to get carried away and call Oden the key to the Heat season–as long as a guy who wears #6 is still around, he’s always and everywhere the key. But it’s going to be tough for Miami to beat its win prop of 61.5, and if going 62-20 requires pushing Wade too hard prior to the playoffs, it wouldn’t even be smart. If the Oden bet pans out, they’ll do it, but I think 58-60 wins and a narrow Under is a little more realistic.

Atlanta: With Josh Smith having left for Detroit the expectations are way down for this year’s Atlanta Hawks, with a win future of just 39.5. I don’t see why the outlook is so gloomy. This team still has a physical rebounder in Al Horford and they brought in Paul Millsap from Utah who can do his share of pounding the glass.

The backcourt isn’t great, but Kyle Korver can hit the three, and Jeff Teague is competent at the point. If Lou Williams can get his knee healthy, this can be a nice playoff team around the 5-6 spots in the Eastern bracket. In either case, they can get to a 40-42 record and in the soft East, even winning 45 games or so is not out of the question. That adds up to an Over.

Washington: The Wizards played good basketball at the end of last season, way too late to become relevant in the playoff race, but for long enough to have hopes of postseason play be alive and well on the Beltway. The backcourt is in good hands, with John Wall at the point, and I like Bradley Beal at the two-guard spot.

Washington has Nene up front to do some rebounding, and a big key to this team’s success will be Emeka Okafor. The center has to get himself healthy from a herniated disk and then show he can anchor the defense and rebounding efforts.

The 38.5 win prop looks right to me. I have to take a stand though, and I’m going to lean to the Under. The Wizards are very heavily dependent on Wall, and he’s yet to prove he can carry a team through a full season. So on that basis, 36 wins looks more likely than 41 wins, which provides a little more maneuvering room on the Under.

Charlotte: Michael Jordan is collecting himself some young talent, as rookie post player Cody Zeller joins Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker. Whether this trio coalesces into a good NBA team is another question, but it’s quite a combined college pedigree–the latter two were key parts of national title runs (Walker for 2011 UConn and Kidd-Gilchrist for 2012 Kentucky), while Zeller was the cornerstone of Indiana’s return to prominence the last couple years.

Expectations are low, as they should be, but given how much the Bobcats have struggled in recent years, a 26.5 win prop seems almost absurdly high. These kids, the rookie Zeller in particular, still have a lot to learn about life in the NBA. I think they’ll win 24 or 25 games, but I’m an optimist and that still puts them Under.

Orlando: Jameer Nelson is no longer the player who helped key a 2009 run to the NBA Finals when Dwight Howard was still in Orlando, but the veteran Nelson pairs up with Arron Afflalo and makes for a respectable backcourt. I like the two young forwards in Moe Harkless and Tobias Harris, though they have growing pains to go through. Glen Davis showed with the Boston Celtics that he can be a contributing member to a championship-caliber team.

There’s a hole at center, but I don’t see why the Magic are seen as worse than the Bobcats, and not even in the same league as the Wizards, as a 23.5 win future suggests. That’s why I’ll go Over.

TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will have one final preseason overview prior to the October 29 opener, tying together all six division previews and making playoff predictions.