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Assessing the Wizards chances in the Southeast Division

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Do the Wizards have a chance to win their first division since the 1978-79 season?

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NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are approximately two weeks away from the beginning of regular season, and we have finally had an opportunity to see the Wizards play in a few preseason games. We have also received some clarity on some of the other Southeast Division teams and how good they will actually be this season.

Last year Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte finished ahead of the Wizards, all with 48-34 records, while Orlando finished behind the Wizards at 35-47. An argument can be made that each team ahead of the Wizards has taken at least one step back from the pace they set last year, and there are questions if Orlando is ready to move up.

With all the talk of the Wizards attempting to make it back to the playoffs after a down year last year, why can’t the Wizards win the division too? Let’s assess the other teams in the division and see how Washington stacks up:

Miami Heat: Can they still be competitive without Wade & Bosh?

NBA: Preseason-Brooklyn Nets at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Sadly, Chris Bosh’s struggles with his health came to a head a few weeks ago when it was announced that he failed his physical prior to training camp. That’s a tremendous blow to a team that also lost Dwyane Wade in free agency this summer. Now, the Heat not only lost their two most recognizable stars, but their two leading scorers, who both averaged 19 points per game.

They have also lost bench depth by losing Gerald Green, their leading scorer off the bench for most of the season, and Joe Johnson. The only notable replacements for all of these losses are underachieving veterans Dion Waiters and Derrick Williams.

Miami won the division due to tie breakers last year. It’s hard to imagine this team repeating the same success without the talent they lost this summer.

Atlanta Hawks: Can the Hawks keep it together without Al Horford?

NBA: Preseason-Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For years, Al Horford was a stabilizing force for the Hawks. Even before the arrival of Paul Millsap and Mike Budenholzer, Horford was a key part of Atlanta’s playoff runs. Losing a player of his caliber is hard, and replacing him with Dwight Howard, who posted the worst numbers since his rookie year last season, does not appear to be an improvement.

Dwight Howard is not the most dynamic offensive player at this point of his career. Whether you blame injuries, playing in an offensive system in Houston that didn’t give him as many opportunities to score, or not developing his game beyond relying on his athleticism, the bottom line is he isn’t the same player he was five years ago. More importantly, he does not possess the offensive skill set that Horford had, which allowed Atlanta to run such a unique system with multiple points of attack.

Howard may wind up being more effective this year in Atlanta, but his ability to score and be dependable in crucial moments will be put to the test more as well. Not only will he have to expand his offensive game, but he will have to hit his free throws, which is perhaps his biggest weakness. If he can’t improve his poor free throw shooting to stay on the floor, then how much has Atlanta improved?

Trading Jeff Teague for the 12th overall pick, which turned into Baylor product Taurean Prince, improved the team’s wing depth, but made them much weaker at point guard. Last year, their point guard situation was perhaps one of the best in the league. Teague and Schroder were both capable of starting and played well when they had to share the floor last season. Now, Schroder is expected to be the starter and his back up will be Jarrett Jack, who is coming off a torn ACL last year. The combination of Schroder and Jack doesn’t even begin to compare to Teague and Schroder.

Atlanta has been a middling team for years, but there was always a clear expectation of who they were. This year feels different and there is a good chance that they decline significantly if they do not get a better version of Dwight Howard than we saw the past few years.

Charlotte Hornets: Has their core peaked?

NBA: Preseason-Minnesota Timberwolves at Charlotte Hornets Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Lin was fantastic coming off the bench for the Hornets last year, averaging nearly 12 points a game, but his stellar play also played him out of Charlotte’s price range so they had to replace him with a familiar face in Ramon Sessions. We know first-hand how effective Sessions can be but how does Sessions fit Charlotte’s version of spacing the floor?

Last year the Hornets were able to pair Lin with Kemba Walker on the floor and create a dynamic backcourt that could shoot the ball from three and take players off the dribble. Sessions is an excellent penetrator, capable of drawing fouls at a high rate, but he is not the three point shooter that Lin is. Both players possess different strengths so it will be interesting to see how effective Sessions will be in the same role as Lin.

The other major change is Al Jefferson leaving the team to join the Pacers. Jefferson was a key piece for the start of the Hornets’ rebuild with his low-post scoring. However, last year as they changed their offense he became less of a focal point on offense, and started coming off the bench towards the middle of the year last season. This year he has been replaced by Roy Hibbert who is a much more effective defender and a decent fit with small lineups, but he isn’t a go-to player on the low block like Jefferson.

Charlotte will benefit from getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back after losing Courtney Lee in free agency. Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams will also need to match or outperform their career years last year. Walker shot a career high 37 percent from three last year, but prior to last year he never shot better than 33 percent. Batum shot the ball more than at any point in his career last season and his efficiency dropped as a result. He’ll need to improve on that to keep Charlotte competitive. Marvin Williams shot a career best 40 percent from three while attempting over 100 more threes than he has in any other season in his career. Charlotte needs to hope that will hold up this season.

All in all, that’s a lot to ask. It’s hard to imagine that all of those things will happen, so there’s a good chance they could take a step back after an excellent performance last season.

Orlando Magic: Can this roster experiment work?

NBA: Preseason-San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando is one of the more bizarre teams in the league. They started their offseason with the shocking news that Scott Skiles was resigning after only one year, even after guiding the team to a 10-win improvement over last season. Now, Frank Vogel has to come in and hope he can continue to push the team in the right direction.

Going into the summer, the Magic had a good situation with their big men. They already had Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s leading scorer last year, and Aaron Gordon, a young forward whom they traded away a recently signed Tobias Harris to give more playing time to. But over the summer they invested even more in their big men. They traded Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and their first round pick to acquire Serge Ibaka. Then, they went and signed Bismack Biyombo to a long-term deal.

Clearly, with a glut of big men on the roster, and a new coach, it’s clear they want Aaron Gordon to become the team’s starting small forward. Both Vogel and Gordon outlined the expectations. They expect Gordon to play a role very similar to what Paul George did in Indiana, which is a lot of ball handling and outside shooting. Gordon has not spent much time as a wing player during his time in the NBA nor has he really shown the ability to do so. In his first two seasons, Gordon only made 55 threes total and only shot 33 percent beyond 5 feet away from the last season. This experiment seems doomed to failure, but even if it works, it will likely be a work in progress this season.

What does this all mean for the Wizards?

This is by no means a sign that they Wizards will walk away with the division, but this definitely shows that none of the teams in the division have done anything to take a step to distinguish themselves as the favorite. If the Wizards can improve, stay relatively healthy and adapt to Coach Scott Brooks, then they should at minimum be in the discussion to compete for the top spot in the division.

Winning the division doesn’t hold the significance that it did two years prior when it meant having an automatic top-four spot, but if nothing else, it is a tangible goal that this team should set that gives them a stepping stone into the future.

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