With the intense NBA offseason cooling down, there is time for reflection on what the Washington Wizards accomplished and a chance to look at the road ahead. For the next couple of weeks, CSNwashington.com Insider J. Michael and Wizards correspondent Ben Standig will examine various issues and answer questions as the Wizards move toward the 2015-16 campaign.
Division races are not a hot topic in the NBA, but remain important for now. Where do the Wizards rank among the Southeast teams?
J. Michael: One of the weaker divisions in the league has gotten significantly stronger. I don’t expect the Hawks to be the dominant team they were last season because their Achilles’ heel – rebounding because of the lack of size and relying heavily on Kyle Korver to execute their offense – was revealed long before they entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the East and a 60-win team. They’ll still be good enough to be reckoned with but won’t come close to that type of domination.
The Miami Heat are a playoff team again, and just how big much of a leap they make will depend on how healthy Dwyane Wade can remain at 33, how quickly rookie Justice Winslow adapts and how Hassan Whiteside performs over an 82-game season. The latter is important because Whiteside had a strong run at the end of last year, but the center has yet to secure himself long-term in the NBA because of questionable behavior and decision-making throughout his career. Also, Chris Bosh is coming off life-threatening blood clots in his lungs. These are a lot of ifs and usually most of them don’t come to fruition at once.
I’m picking the Charlotte Hornets to return to the postseason and they’re traditionally a difficult matchup for the Wizards. I really like the addition of Nicolas Batum, one of the NBA’s more underrated two-way players, and the subtraction of Lance Stephenson is an addition all unto itself. Their interior defense remains a weakness and if rookie Frank Kaminsky can have any sort of impact the Hornets will make this division extremely competitive.
I still rank the Wizards above all three because they don’t have the same question marks. At worse, a No. 2 seed.
Ben Standig: Let's do some super early rankings, in reverse order...
5. Magic - Every year I love their young talent. This year is no exception. Maybe the addition of a tough-minded coach like Scott Skiles pushes them to another level. Of course, even in the East a jump of multiple levels is required for Orlando to reach the postseason. Very curious to see what the group of Victor Oladipo, Mario Hezonja, Nik Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Elfrid Payton can do this season.
4. Hornets - Are they better on paper, yes. Adding a two-way threat like Nicolas Batum and subtracting a nusance like Lance Stephenson is all good. Are they good enough to make real noise in the East? Eh. Al Jefferson rules when healthy, but their point guard play still doesn't excite me. Head coach steve Clifford does. Hey, at least they can't suffer injuries at an insane rate again, right?
3. Hawks - From winning the East regular season title to third in the Southeast division is quite a fall, though pegging three teams from these group to finish among the top six in the conference. Everything went perfect for Atlanta last season, at least before the playoffs started. Though the pass-heavy system on coach Mike Budenholzer worked perfectly for this NBA era, I just can't see such perfection again. Losing Demarre Carroll hurts and adding Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn't help much.
2. Wizards - Jared Dudley seems super positive on Twitter following back surgery. Bradley Beal didn't hurt his leg in Africa. John Wall is smiling. Good enough to contend for the division title and top-4 seed in the East. Let's move on.
1. Heat - The wild card team in the entire Eastern Conference. Does anybody have a better starting lineup than Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside? Even if Whiteside can't duplicate last season's highs, Miami can go with Amar'e Stoudamire and Josh McRoberts for size or Gerald Green or rookie Justise Winslow for wing help. Of course, we must note that half of those players are notable injury risks and Bosh is returning from a blood clot. All these factors together put the Heat's range anywhere from No. 2 in the East to thinking about lottery balls. Then again, there is NO WAY Pat Riley allows this team to miss the playoffs for a second straight season.