Thunder Obsessed staff got together and we’re going to preview all six divisions. Then we’re going to vote, pick a conference champ, then a world champion. We’ll conclude it all by choosing your award winners. Then at the end of the season we’ll see how wrong we were. Southwest Division – here. Pacific Division – here.
Losses: Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia, Devon Harris, Johan Petro, Dahntay Jones, Ivan Johnson, Anthony Tolliver
Expectations: The Atlanta Hawks have managed to solidify themselves as a low to mid-tier playoff team for what feels like forever. In the 2012-13 season, the Hawks finished at 44-38, and were sent home by the Indiana Pacers in the first round, 4 games to 2. They didn’t do much to improve drastically this offseason, if at all, but the style they play will definitely change a little due to the fact that Josh Smith no longer around.
A lot of what Josh Smith was doing on the court for the Hawks will be sorely missed. And a lot of it won’t be. With Smith moved on to Detroit, the Hawks picked up the ever consistent Paul Millsap to replace him. He won’t be flashy or do the super-athletic things Smith could, but he also won’t have his fans hoping he doesn’t make a jumper out of fear he’ll take a whole bunch more. Considering how nice Millsap’s contract is, the switch can probably be considered a wash, and maybe even an upgrade. The Hawks also resigned sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who almost left for Brooklyn at one point in the offseason.
With a starting five of Jeff Teague, Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Millsap and Al Horford, the Hawks should have no issue getting a bottom half playoff seed in the East yet again. Although they have a decent amount of turnover from last year’s roster, they should have a similar end result in 2013-14. A first or second round playoff exit for the seventh consecutive season is all but guaranteed, and being a mid-tier team with no shot at a title is better than tanking, isn’t it?
Losses: Tyrus Thomas, DeSagana Diop, Byron Mullens, Reggie Williams
Expectations: During the 2012-13 season, the Bobcats performed to an abysmal 21-61 record, good for second worst in the league. That only got them the 4th pick in the draft lottery, which led them to Indiana center Cody Zeller. Zeller will probably be a decent NBA player one day, but teams and fans generally hope for more than that after a terrible season.
With a likely starting five of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrest, Zeller and Al Jefferson, it’s all about getting better as the season progresses. That is a young core, so if they are the same team in game 2 as they are in game 82, the season would probably be considered a disappointment. No chance at the playoffs in the east this year, but getting some things headed towards mediocrity would do wonders for the organization. The irony here is that the Bobcats finally won’t be at the very bottom of the league, but it is really the year that they should want to be, because the 2014 draft class looking like one of the strongest ever.
The signing of Al Jefferson was an interesting move. It gives them a solid offensive presence near the basket, but one that comes with a price on the defensive end of the floor. Last year, the Jazz played to a very bad 107.6 defensive efficiency rating with Jefferson on the floor. When he sat, they had a very respectable rating of 98.4. His offensive efficiency numbers weren’t nearly good enough to make up the difference, so don’t expect Jefferson to make the Bobcats all that much better.
Losses: Mike Miller
Expectations: A three-peat. Anything else would be a disappointment. The Heat finished the regular season last year with the best record in the league at 66-16. They came into the playoffs with intentions to smash through all the competition, 2001 Lakers style, but they instead came very close to not even having a title to defend. They first went to 7 games against the Indiana Pacers, though they won every game they needed to with relative ease. The true trouble came against the Spurs in the Finals, where the Heat came incredibly close to losing, but pulled out an incredible 4-3 series victory.
The Heat have a major decision to make about their regular season. They could coast and try to stay healthy, which could leave them playing big games against the Bulls and Pacers on the road in the playoffs. On the other hand, Dwyane Wade’s injury was probably part of the reason they didn’t win so easily last year, so keeping him healthy has to be a priority. The Heat preserved Mike Miller last year in this same way and unleashed him only in the playoffs, where he was absolutely fantastic. They also need to see what they have with Greg Oden, but he is likely to follow the Mike Miller path to preservation as well.
The other option for the Heat is to go for history. Not just a three-peat, which is historic in itself, but a 70 win season. They made a serious run at the consecutive wins mark last year and finished the season with 66 wins, but they lost their shot at being considered a top 3 team of all-time with their two 7 game playoff series victories. Going for it in the regular season probably led to part of Dwyane Wade’s decline, so it would be fairly surprising to see them approach anything historic this time around. Plus, the NBA is so strong right now that it would be hard to fathom a team winning70 games and blowing through the postseason. If you want to win a title like the Heat do in 2014, it is going to be tough.
Overall, the Heat will easily win the Southeast division and get a top 2 or 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. When LeBron James is starting for your team, some things are guaranteed.
Losses: Hedo Turkoglu, Beno Udrih, Al Harrington
Expectations: Andrew Wiggins. Seriously. That’s the goal. A sub-20 win season would be ideal.
Last year, the Magic finished with the worst record in the league, at 20-62, which resulted in the second pick in the draft and Indiana shooting guard Victor Oladipo. Although Dick Vitale referred to him as “Michael” every chance he got during the college season, Oladipo has a lot of developing to do on the offensive side of the ball. He’s all but guaranteed to be a solid perimeter defender, and that was enough to make him the pretty close to the only sure thing in the 2013 draft.
Realistically, this Magic team isn’t going to have to try to be bad this season. Any use of the word “tanking” should refer to the team’s offseason, as they could try their absolute hardest this year and still look like they are trying to lose. The draft is always a gamble, so only time will tell if the strategy pays off for them.
The Magic do have a couple of very young pieces that they should begin to enjoy watching together. Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris are all promising players, and should get plenty of playing time this year. With 9 year starting point guard Jameer Nelson likely to be traded, the Magic will be fully removed from the Dwight Howard era, and will only have the future in sight.
Losses: Leandro Barbosa, Jason Collins, Cartier Martin, AJ Price
Expectations: 11 of the top 12 teams in defensive efficiency rating made the playoffs last year. The outlier was the always injured Washington professional basketball team, who are looking to make a run at the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. The Wizards finished last year 23-59, but after starting 4-28, they clearly improved throughout the year. John Wall’s health was the reason for that variation, as he missed the first 33 games of the season.
If both John Wall and Bradley Beal can stay relatively healthy this year, there is no reason not to expect the Wizards to make the playoffs. Behind that defense and their ever improving young stars, the Wizards have themselves set up to make a run at the six seed.
The Wizards starting 5 is looking like Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Nene and Emeka Okafor, and they’ll likely be rounding out the rotation with Eric Maynor, Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza, Kevin Seraphin and some mix of either Al Harrington, Trevor Booker or Jan Vesely. Chris Singleton and Garrett Temple will also be waiting to grab some minutes should anyone falter. Overall, if their young stars can stay healthy, they have enough depth to stay afloat should any others get injured.