The Southeast is an interesting new fangled division. Since the NBA switched to a three-division format, the Southeast has been the shallowest in terms of talent. While they have had some nice teams (2004-06 Heat and the 2008-09 Magic), the rest of the teams in the division have varied from middling to bad. 2008-09, however, was the first year that the division managed to have three teams over .500. The division should be even a little better this year as Washington will be improved and Charlotte actually has an outside shot at the playoffs. Let’s take a look:
1. Orlando Magic: The absolute cream of the division and co-favorite for the Eastern Conference title. The Magic melded a unique style of taking a ton of threes (almost double their opponents) and a bunch of free throws on offense with a stifling defense (best in the NBA by efficiency numbers). Obviously, Dwight Howard is the best player on the team and the focal point for everything they do and is only 24 years old to boot. Throw in a core of pretty young players (Jameer Nelson is 27 and Rashard Lewis is 30) and Vince Carter (an upgrade over Hedo Turkoglu) and there is little reason why the Magic can’t at least stay at last year’s level as a team. In fact, the 2008-09 run was no fluke. Really, the Magic have been pretty formidable team for two years running. The 2007-08 version won 52 games but had the expected won-loss record of a 56-win team and was actually better offensively than last year’s model.
So, the Magic have been good for a while and should continue to be but can they return to the Finals? The answer depends as much on the Cavs as on the Magic. Cleveland struggled with Orlando’s style last year. Shaquille O’Neal is supposed to be the big body to finally contain Howard and fix that problem. The Lakers were effective against Howard in the Finals with a similar strategy. A Magic fan might note, however, that Howard is still improving and by the end of 2009-10, it might be impossible to stop Howard with a bunch of big men.
Despite all these facts, the Magic were objectively considered a surprise finalist to most people. I thought we could go through and see how other surprise finalists followed up their appearances. It’s hard to categorize what constitutes a “surprise” in this context. Sure Orlando was a surprise but the Magic were a damn good team last year but most people did not think they would beat an excellent Cavs team. On the other end, we have had .500ish teams get hot and make a surprise run to the Finals and that also can be considered a surprise team. So, a surprise finalist encompasses a few different scenarios, some of which don’t really apply to the Magic. In any event, we’ll just pick teams that were not reasonably expected to make the Finals at the start of the playoffs, even if some aren’t like the Magic because frankly it’s interesting to review and you never know what the facts will tell you. Here’s the list (from 1980 to the present):
-2006-07 Cavaliers: In 2006-07, the Cavs made the Finals by upsetting the Pistons based upon an insane performance by LeBron in Games 5 and 6 of the series. In 2007-08, the Cavs actually regressed in the regular season to 47-35 but were quite good in the playoffs. Cleveland lost to the eventual champ Celtics in a tough seven game series in the second round.
-1998-99 Knicks: The eight-seeded Knicks upset the higher seeded Heat, Hawks, and Pacers on their way to the Finals during the weird lockout season before getting waxed by the Spurs. New York followed its great playoff run with a 50-win season and a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. This time the Pacers beat them 4-2.
-1994-95 Rockets: Despite being a six seed, the Rockets went on to repeat and win the title in 1994-95. In 1995-96, the Rockets were a five seed again and improved the record slightly to 48-34. In the playoffs, however, they were swept out in the second round by the Payton/Kemp Sonics.
-1989-90 Blazers: Like the current Magic team, these Blazers were an excellent young team (59-23) but were just not expected to beat the dominant one seed in the playoffs (in Portland’s case this was the Magic Johnson Lakers). The Blazers didn’t have to beat the Lakers, however, because Phoenix ran L.A. off the court in round two. Portland then beat the Suns in the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Pistons in the Finals. In 1990-91, Portland was even better (63-19) but lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
-1985-86 Rockets: The Rockets featured the Twin Towers (Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson) and were 51-31. They managed to blow away the Magic Johnson Lakers 4-1 before losing to the Celtics in the Finals. In 1986-87, the Rockets slumped to 42-40 but still made the second round, where they lost to the Sonics 4-2.
-1980-81 Rockets: The Rockets were a fringe playoff team (40-42) but featured the best center in the NBA (Moses Malone). They beat the Lakers in the old best-of-three mini-series format and then went on to the Finals where they lost to the Celtics. In 1981-82, the Rockets improved to 46-36 but luck wasn’t on their side as they lost their first round mini-series this time (to the Sonics).
-PG, Darrell Armstrong 1999-00: 16.2 ppg, .433 FG%, 3.3 rpg, 6.1 apg, 19.5 PER
-SG, Tracy McGrady 2002-03: 32.1 ppg, .457 FG%, 6.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 30.3 PER
-SF, Grant Hill 2004-05: 19.7 ppg, .509 FG%, 4.7 rpg, 3.3 apg, 20.0 PER
-PF, Rashard Lewis 2007-08: 18.2 ppg, .455 FG%, 5.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 16.7 PER
-C, Dwight Howard 2008-09: 20.6 ppg, .572 FG%, 13.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 25.4 PER
2. Atlanta Hawks: 2008-09 was a very nice season for the Hawks. Atlanta won their most games (47) since 1997-98 and their first playoff series since 1998-99. The Hawks were a relatively solid team both offensively and defensively, without being great at anything. In keeping with that theme, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford were all good without being great. Management also chipped in by re-signing their free agents, Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams, and Zaza Pachulia. The Hawks have also added Jamal Crawford (in place of Flip Murray) and Joe Smith to keep Atlanta in line with last season.
A key issue to keep an eye on here is the improvement of Josh Smith. Smith looked like the potential star but he regressed in nearly every area in 2008-09. Smith was still good and he shot a career high .492% from the field but his boards, assists, and blocks all fell. Whether this was the result of a plan to reduce errors (Smith committed fewer fouls, shot less, and had fewer turnovers) or just bad luck, the trends was not good. The Hawks will need Smith to be the defensive presence and rebounding presence he was his first few years if they want to try to take the leap to 50 wins. Atlanta probably won’t make this leap but another season like 2008-09 is quite plausible.
-PG, Jason Terry 2001-02: 19.3 ppg, .430 FG%, 3.5 rpg, 5.7 apg, 19.2 PER
-SG, Joe Johnson 2008-09: 21.4 ppg, .437 FG%, 4.4 rpg, 5.7 apg, 18.2 PER
-SF, Shareef Abdur-Rahim 2002-03: 19.9 ppg, .478 FG%, 8.4 rpg, 3.0 apg, 20.0 PER
-PF, Josh Smith 2007-08: 17.2 ppg, .457 FG%, 8.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 19.0 PER
-C, Dikembe Mutombo 1999-00: 11.5 ppg, .562 FG%, 14.1 rpg, 1.3 apg, 19.4 PER
3. Miami Heat: The Heat are playing a dangerous game. They have a stripped down roster of Dwyane Wade and some reasonably useful players with cap friendly contracts. So, the Heat have to accomplish a number of goals: (1) compete sufficiently in 2008-09 to keep Wade happy, (2) re-sign Wade at the end of the year, and (3) sign someone else to help Wade. The Heat are a decent team with a good defense and below average offense. While they have Wade, who had a year that fits into Michael Jordan’s stable, the rest of the roster can’t score. The current starting line up features Wade and guys like Mario Chalmers, Michael Beasley, Udonis Haslem, and Jermaine O’Neal and not much off the bench. Of the non-Wade portion of the roster, only Beasley can score at all and he’s had problems of other kinds.
The mere presence of Wade makes us want to think that the Heat can surpass the other mediocre playoff teams but the second-line talent is a bit thin. Granted, this won’t preclude the Heat from perhaps acquiring a big name during the season (Pat Riley routinely makes such deals) but the roster, as currently constituted is a .500 club. If the Heat struggle, however, they could find themselves with tons of cap room but with Wade out the door.
-PG, Tim Hardaway 1999-00: 13.4 ppg, .386 FG%, 2.6 rpg, 6.3 apg, 16.4 PER
-SG, Dwyane Wade 2008-09: 30.2 ppg, .491 FG%, 5.0 rpg, 7.5 apg, 30.4 PER
-SF, Lamar Odom 2003-04: 17.1 ppg, .430 FG%, 9.7 rpg, 4.1 apg, 18.5 PER
-PF, Anthony Mason 2000-01: 16.1 ppg, .505 FG%, 7.9 rpg, 4.2 apg, 17.4 PER
-C, Shaquille O’Neal 2004-05: 22.9 ppg, .601 FG%, 10.4 rpg, 2.7 apg, 27.0 PER
4. Washington Wizards: The Wiz were not actually as bad as they looked last year. With tons of injuries, Washington’s four-year run of being a decent playoff team came to an abrupt end. The Wiz looked pretty awful but injuries didn’t help. Gilbert Arenas missed 80 games, Brendan Haywood missed 76 games, DeShawn Stevenson missed 50 games, and Caron Butler missed 15 games. Meanwhile, the remaining Wiz looked decent. Antawn Jamison was his usual great self and young players JaVale Mcgee and Andray Blatche were promising. The rest of the players were horrible. Mike James played a lot and not very well and the other main players (Dominic McGuire and Nick Young) were ineffective. The result was a team that was bad offensively and even worse defensively.
Despite the struggles, management has apparently decided that they are close enough to double down and go for it. The top five draft pick (the reward for a crappy 2008-09) was traded to Minnesota for depth (Mike Miller and Randy Foye) and the team is hoping for a return to form from the injured players (particularly Arenas) and that Jamison (now 33) ages gracefully. The entire plan is not particularly ambitious. If everything breaks right, the Wiz could win 45-50 games and maybe get to the second round where Orlando, Boston, or Cleveland would wax them. If, however, Arenas hurts his knee again or Jamison declines more quickly than expected the Wiz could be terrible again and are locked into to huge contracts to Arenas and Jamison. Moreover, the Wiz have traded a pretty high draft pick for Miller and Foye, who are nothing more than decent bench players at this point. Such low ceiling/high risk tactics make little sense to me but that’s the Wiz for you.
-PG, Gilbert Arenas 2006-07: 28.4 ppg, .418 FG%, 4.6 rpg, 6.0 apg, 24.0 PER
-SG, Larry Hughes 2004-05: 22.0 ppg, .430 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 4.7 apg, 21.6 PER
-SF, Michael Jordan 2001-02: 22.9 ppg, .416 FG%, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 20.8 PER
-PF, Antawn Jamison 2008-09: 22.2 ppg, .468 FG%, 8.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 20.6 PER
-C, Brendan Haywood 2007-08: 10.6 ppg, .528 FG%, 7.2 rpg, 0.9 apg, 18.3 PER
5. Charlotte Bobcats: 2008-09 was the best season in Bobcat history. Led by Larry Brown, Charlotte played strong defensively and won a franchise best 35 wins. Now the bad news…the Bobcats were a terrible offensive team and just traded their best low post player Emeka Okafor for a Tyson Chandler, who can defend well, is not healthy, and can’t score. The trade was also an indicator that Charlotte is looking to save money (Chandler has a shorter deal) and not to necessarily to make a push to the playoffs. Now, Charlotte has some nice defenders in Chandler and Gerald Wallace but very few scorers. Indeed, Brown has loaded up on solid pros with at best average offensive skills so far (D.J. Augustin, Boris Diaw, Raymond Felton, Raja Bell, DeSagana Diop). The only scorers on the roster now are Wallace and Vlad Radmanovic, who played poorly last year and isn’t an ideal Larry Brown player.
Can the Bobcats make the playoffs? It’s not impossible but the balance of the roster is so skewed that it’ll be tough. The Bobcats need points and the main hope to improve in that regard is from Radmanovic (who hopefully won’t shoot as poorly as he did last year) and the young backcourt of Felton and Augustin (Bell, the previous starter, is likely to miss major time with a wrist injury). Felton, unfortunately, has shown little improvement offensively in his four years in the NBA. In fact, his scoring rates have declined slightly each season. Augustin has looked a bit more effective offensively so he is where any theoretical improvement may come from. In the end, there are just not enough points for the Bobcats to seriously contend for a playoff spot.
-PG, Brevin Knight 2005-06: 12.6 ppg, .399 FG%, 3.2 rpg, 8.8 apg, 17.3 PER
-SG, Jason Richardson 2007-08: 21.8 ppg, .441 FG%, 5.4 rpg, 3.1 apg, 18.4 PER
-SF, Gerald Wallace 2006-07: 18.1 ppg, .502 FG%, 7.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 19.8 PER
-PF, Emeka Okafor 2006-07: 14.4 ppg, .532 FG%, 11.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 20.1 PER
-C, Primoz Brezec 2004-05: 13.0 ppg, .512 FG%, 7.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, 16.1 PER