Wednesday, October 31, 2007

NBA Preview: Southeast Division

We continue our preview even as the season has begun, with my own defending champion Spurs kicking off the season with a victory last night to go along with their rings. Amy Aimonovitch now finishes up her preview of the weaker of the two conferences with the youngest division in the East, the Southeast Division.

Southeast Division

1. Miami Heat
Last season: After their first round loss in the playoffs last year, it’s obvious that the Heat are getting older. Considering that early on in the season, Miami was 13-19, it’s amazing they finished 5th in the Eastern conference. Key injuries didn’t help Miami at all either. Shaquille O’Neal had to have knee surgery after only 5 games and then went on to miss the next three months. And I think everyone remembers Dwyane Wade’s dislocated shoulder. Even Pat Riley got in on the act, having knee and hip surgeries mid-season. Despite giving up more points than they scored, Miami managed to finish at 44-38. On explanation for this is that Miami went 18-6 in games decided by 5 points or less; some might see this as lucky, but you could also attribute it to experience and knowing how to pull out games. Surprisingly, despite having both Shaq and Wade, Miami’s offense was unimpressive. They shot well from the field, but they finished last in the league in free throw percentage (thanks mostly to Shaq, 42.2% and Antoine Walker, 43.8%). On top of that, Miami, even with Jason Kapono, didn’t shoot well from 3 point range, but they still shot an incredible amount of 3 pointers. Kapono made an amazing 51.4% of his 3 pointers, but at some point, he was offset by Walker (27.5%), Jason Williams (33.9%), and Gary Payton (26%). As a result, Miami shot 34.3% from 3 point range. Defensively, though, the Heat were much better, somewhat making up for their offensive woes.
This season: During the off-season, Miami lost Kapono, Eddie House, and James Posey, which all but decimated their outside shot. Without these three, the rest of the Heat only made 28.9% of their 3 pointers. The only guard the Heat picked up during the off-season, though, was Smush Parker, who isn’t particularly good at 3 pointers or defending. Luckily for Miami, they decided to pull a deal during the preseason and got rid of Antoine Walker, and picked up two players from Minnesota (Ricky Davis and Mark Blount). Walker was a liability last year, jacking up shots constantly and making less than 40% of them, and both his free throw and 3 point percentages were horrible (mentioned above). The biggest concern, of course, for the Heat this year is Wade’s healthy; he’s still out indefinitely after shoulder and knee surgeries, and who knows how many games Shaq will be able to play this season.

Prediction: If the Heat can stay healthy and a couple of players off the bench can help out, the Heat will finish 1st in the division and 4th in conference. Right now, with both Shaq and Wade, I just can’t pick against this team.

2. Orlando Magic
Last season: The Magic had an odd season last year; first they roared out to a 12-4 start, only to fall apart and eventually sink to 7 games under .500. At the end of the season, though, they managed to win six of the last seven games and secure the last playoff berth in the East. Part of the problem for the Magic was that certain players didn’t live up to their expectations. Jameer Nelson field goal percentage dropped by 50 points and his 3 point percentage fell by nearly 90 points. Darko Milicic (who I’m sure all Detroit fans remember) continued to play sluggishly and J.J. Redick missed the first part of the season with back problems. Redick’s injury was a blow to the Magic too, as they were in need of an outside shooter; the Magic didn’t have a dependable 3 point shooter last year, and as a result, didn’t take very many. The only player on the team with more than 3 attempts per game was Hedo Turkoglu. The biggest problem, though, for Orlando was turnovers. Howard was the worst offender here, averaging 3.9 turnovers per game; the Magic threw the ball down deep to Howard a lot and because of their lack of 3 point shooting, opponents were constantly double teaming him. Despite all these turnovers, Orlando still managed to finish fourth in the league in field goal percentage with 47.2%. But their free throws killed the Magic. Orlando only made 70.2% of its free throws, and Howard didn’t help them out, making less than 60% of his shots from the stripe. Defensively, the Magic were a lot better. Though they had a tendency to foul, they also gave up the third lowest field goal percentage, behind only Phoenix and San Antonio.
This season: Orlando’s biggest move this off-season might have been the one that didn’t work out, their attempt to obtain Florida coach Billy Donovan. Thankfully for Orlando, after Donovan backed out, they still managed to hire Stan Van Gundy, who was ousted from Miami by Pat Riley. Otherwise, Orlando had a decent off-season. For the most part, the Magic managed to shed some dead weight (Milicic and Travis Diener, who didn’t play because Orlando has too many guards) and picked up some valuable players. Picking up Rashard Lewis from the Sonics was probably their best move; Lewis is an outside shooter who can help draw double teams away from Howard and his 22.4 points per game will help Orlando’s offense. Unfortunately, Tony Battie will miss a substantial part of the season because of a torn rotator cuff.

Prediction: 2nd in the Southeast and 6th in the Eastern conference.

3. Washington Wizards
Last season: As usual, the Wizards were an amazing offensive team last year and abysmal on the defensive end. Washington gave up nearly 105 points per game and as a result went 41-41. While the Wizards might have the Big 3 of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler, none of those players are known for their defense, only their shooting. With all these shooters and no defensive specialist, Washington allowed opponents to shoot 37.7% from 3 point range (second worst in the league beating only Memphis) and 47.3% from the field (good enough for 27th in the league). Offensively, though, the Wizards dazzled. Both Arenas and Butler made the All-Star team and the team averaged 104.3 points per game (which was still slightly less than they gave up per game). The Wizards did excell in forcing turnovers and offensive rebounding. Unfortunately for Washington, though, they didn’t end the season well; Arenas suffered a knee injury and the team finished out the year 2-8 before being swept by Cleveland in the playoffs.
This season: Despite all of this team’s problems on defense, Washington did almost nothing during the off-season; the only player they signed, Oleksiy Pecherov, is just another player who likes to shoot. Otherwise, they simply resigned their free agents, which could be a problem for this team. Arenas is coming off of knee surgery and Jamison is now 31, so it’s hard to imagine that both those players can have outstanding years, although, it’s never good to count them out. If the Big 3 in Washington don’t perform up to expectations, this will be a long season for the Wizards.

Prediction: I just can’t count out Arenas, Butler, and Jamison, so I have the Wizards finishing 3rd in the Southeast and squeezing into the playoffs with the 8th seed.

4. Atlanta Hawks
Last season: The Hawks went only 30-52 last year, much as they usually do. At least last year they actually had an excuse though; all of Atlanta’s key players, except for Sheldon Williams, sat out at least 10 games. The injuries were the worst in the backcourt, specifically at point guard, where Tyroon Lue missed 26 games and Speedy Claxton suffered knee problems that kept him out of 40 games. Those weren’t the only injuries though; Joe Johnson missed the last 21 games with a calf strain, Marvin Williams missed 17, and Josh Childress missed 27 games with foot problems. Because of all of these injuries, Atlanta’s top players could only took the court together 7 times. Worst still is the fact that the Hawks are essentially in the middle of custody battle between their two ownership groups; currently they are trying to resolve whose team it really is. This makes it a lot harder for the Hawks to make moves, since both sides must agree. And the Hawks need help. Offensively, they were one of the worst teams in the league last year. The Hawks made only 32.9% of their 3 pointers, which was the worst in the league. Because Atlanta couldn’t shoot from the outside, it gave opponents the opportunity to double team Johnson and Josh Smith. On the defensive end, the Hawks were also plagued by the 3 pointer, giving up 37.6%. Really, the only thing that the Hawks excelled at on defense was blocks.
This season: The only moves Atlanta made this off-season were drafting Al Horford and Acie Law. Seriously. Amazingly, though, they managed to go 7-1 in the preseason, and now suddenly people are predicting great things for the Hawks. This team was lucky to win 30 games last year and all they’ve added this year are two rookies. They also have to find a steady point guard this year; Lue has suffered injuries the last two years that forced him to miss time, Claxton is getting older and coming off knee problems, and Law is only a rookie, so while he may start, he’s going to have some growing pains. On top of that, there’s still always the legal battle for ownership hanging over this team, considering that both sides must approve any deal. So even if the Hawks want help during the season, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for them to get a deal done.

Prediction: I just don’t see this team turning the corner yet, so I’ve got them 4th in the division.

5. Charlotte Bobcats
Last season: Despite going 33-59 last year, the Bobcats actually finished with the most wins by a 3rd year franchise in the last two decades. Like the Hawks, the Bobcats also suffered through several injuries to key players. Emeka Okafor missed 15 games with a calf strain, Brevin Knight sat out 37 games with abdominal injuries, and Sean May suffered knee problems which caused him to miss 44 games, and this after he missed 59 games as a rookie. But not everything can be blamed on the injuries; for some reason, the Bobcats decided to start Adam Morrison. While he managed to average 11.8 points, his shooting percentages were horrendous. Morrison shot 37.6% from the field and 33.7% from the 3 point line. Overall, offensively, this team was horrible. They finished 25th in the league in field goal percentage, making only 44.6% of their shots. Obviously, Morrison didn’t help bring that up, but then again, neither did Raymond Felton, who shot 38.4% from the field. And, for some reason, the two of them combined took about 25 shots each game. Defensively, the Bobcats were slightly better. While they allowed opponents to shoot 46.5% from the field and had trouble with fouls and rebounding, they did excel in forcing turnovers, though not quite as much as they did the year before.
This season: Not only are the Bobcats looking at a new coach (which can cause enough problems), but they’ve also lost on of their top players, Sean May, to knee surgery. However, the Bobcats also picked up Jason Richardson over the off-season from the Warriors. Richardson may not be an All-Star, but he can score, when he’s not injured; last season, Richardson only played 51 games because of knee issues. Unfortunately, the Bobcats also let Knight go, meaning they just gave up on a backup point guard who can get you over 6 assists a game. The biggest issue for the Bobcats, though, is going to be the frontcourt. Sure they have Okafor, Wallace, and Walter Herrmann (who’s only in his second year) but beyond that they only have Morrison (who was terrible last year), Othella Harrington (who is 33), and rookie Jared Dudley to backup their starters. Essentially, if this team suffers injuries, they will fall apart.

Prediction: 5th in the division.


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