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Southern Comfort: The Southeast in 2015-16

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The Southeast featured the best team in the Eastern Conference last regular season. This season, those Hawks are still there, but the Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic will be fighting for playoff positioning (okay, probably not the Magic, but close enough).

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Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Southeast Division, unlike its geographic mirror in the West, the Southwest, saw few major sea changes this offseason. The biggest free agent to leave was likely Atlanta's DeMarre Carroll. The biggest new arrival (perhaps literally) was Tiago Splitter, also acquired by the Hawks in a trade with San Antonio. The biggest changes in the division came from the draft, and the questions about this year's draft night in the Southeast could be fascinating for years to come.

In the more immediate future, the questions are more simple. Can the Hawks be as good as they were last year in their best regular season in franchise history without Carroll? Just how good will this Miami Heat team be with a full season of Goran Dragic, and can they stay healthy this year? Will the Washington Wizards push into the East's elite as they prepare for a year of thinking about next summer? What is the ceiling for the Charlotte Hornets, and can they return to the playoffs after a disappointing 2013-14? And in likely another year of lots of losing, what direction will the Orlando Magic franchise go?

There were few big changes in the offseason here. The Southeast mostly stayed comfortable with what it had. The changes may come on the court in 2015. Where? Here are some guesses.

Atlanta Hawks

2014-15: 60-22, 1st in East
Postseason: lost in Eastern Conference Finals in 4 to Cleveland
Draft: #15 pick (Kelly Oubre), traded to Washington for #19 pick (Jerian Grant), traded to New York for Tim Hardaway Jr.
Arrivals: Tim Hardaway Jr. (trade), Tiago Splitter (traded from San Antonio), Justin Holiday (FA)
Departures: Austin Daye (waived), DeMarre Carroll (FA), Pero Antic (FA), Elton Brand (retired)

The Hawks, alongside their mirror in the West, the champion Golden State Warriors, were the darlings of the league for much of the regular season. In their first second season under head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks played beautiful team basketball, using the lethal shooting of Kyle Korver and the prowess of twin big men Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Jeff Teague grew into an All-Star point guard and deserved the honor fully, and even Carroll, playing in the second year of a small contract after bouncing around the league for his first five seasons, grew into a lethal 3-and-D player.

The Hawks were 6th in the league in both offensive rating (1 08.9 points per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (103.1). They took intelligent shots and shot well, with their .527 eFG% behind only the Hawks and Clippers. On defense, they forced turnovers at an extremely high rate, forcing a 14.9% turnover rate per 100 possessions, behind only the 76ers and Bucks league-wide.

However, there were some weak spots. The Hawks were never the best on the glass on either end of the floor. They were dead last in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage (21.4%), and were 23rd in defensive rebound percentage (73.4%). They sometimes struggled with turnovers, with their 13.5% turnover rate 19th, right next to the Timberwolves at 13.7%.

In the playoffs, the Hawks never looked like the world beaters they had been during the regular season, being forced to seven games by the lowly Brooklyn Nets, then taken to six by the Wizards. Between Thabo Sefolosha's injury at the end of the regular season and the steadily increasing injury list in the playoffs (Carroll, then Korver), they ran out of options and were crushed and swept by the Cavaliers to end their season.

So, what's next? The Hawks chose not to take either Kelly Oubre or Jerian Grant in the draft, preferring to trade their pick for Tim Hardaway Jr., a move which raised eyebrows across the league. Hardaway is nowhere near the top of the depth chart in Atlanta, but watching those two rookies play in Washington and New York respectively (not to mention any other late first round picks) and succeed if Hardaway struggles may be a bitter pill to swallow.

Carroll's departure for Toronto in free agency was not really a surprise. The Hawks didn't have the cap space to pay him what he was looking for, and other teams did. For a guy who had made less than $8 million in six seasons, taking the big pay check made perfect sense. How the Hawks change without him will be interesting to watch. Kent Bazemore, who stepped up well in the playoffs, may have a larger role, and Sefolosha's form on return will be key.

Will the Hawks win sixty games again next year? Unlikely. However, Budenholzer's system, much like the San Antonio system he learned in, should resist a severe drop in form, even with the loss of a starter, and the Hawks' depth will continue to be key. Splitter was a great addition. The Hawks may not reach the lofty record of last year (or win every game in a month), but they have every chance to win the Southeast again and be a threat in the playoffs. Now they, like every East team, just have to figure out how to beat LeBron.

Washington Wizards

2014-15: 46-36, 5th
Postseason: lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals in 6 to Atlanta
Draft: #19 pick (Jerian Grant), traded to Atlanta for #15 pick (Kelly Oubre)
#49 pick (Aaron White)
Arrivals: Gary Neal (FA), Jared Dudley (traded from Milwaukee), Alan Anderson (FA)
Departures: Paul Pierce (FA)

No one ever really bought the Wizards last year. From the perspective of many of those who read this website (and many outside), coach Randy Wittman's lack of emphasis on the three-pointer was a problem for the Wizards, and the first-round series between the Wizards and the Toronto Raptors was widely rumored to have both Wittman and Dwane Casey coaching for their jobs. The Wizards won (and Casey kept his job regardless), and then put up a great fight in a losing effort to the Atlanta Hawks, including one of the best moments of the playoffs in "I called game."

But, now what? The Wizards are stuck in the rather indifferent middle of the Eastern Conference. They made minimal moves in the offseason, adding Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson, but losing Pierce's leadership and ability to, even at this stage of his career, make big shots at big moments. They acquired Kelly Oubre in the draft, who is a great prospect, but not a gamechanger.

Could you argue that the Wizards will still be in the upper echelon of the East with Toronto, Atlanta and Chicago? Of course. John Wall and Bradley Beal are still monsters, and the offseason additions should give them some depth to work through the regular season slog. Realistically, are the Wizards anywhere near the Cavaliers? Most rational logic says no, and therein lies the problem. In the current conference picture, a team must go through Cleveland to dream of winning a title.

However, the Wizards may have the biggest dreams of any team, not for this season, but for next summer. If you were unaware, Kevin Durant is originally from Washington, D.C. and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. He also happens to be one of the best basketball players in the world. Examining how the Wizards go about structuring their roster and salary cap through the regular season will be fascinating.

And that brings us back to the start of this train of thought: the head coach. In a franchise with aspirations to attract a top-five free agent and win a championship, is Randy Wittman the coach? The Wizards reached their highest win total in Wittman's four seasons with 46 wins last year, but the last two seasons are the only two of Wittman's nine seasons in which he's coached teams to a winning record.

In a setting in which the prize is Washington's version of LeBron, the Wizards need every scrap of preparation to be just right. That does not mean they need to win a title this season, but it means they need to show that the potential is there, and that a single superstar in addition to the pieces they have could make the leap. The Wizards will likely make the playoffs again, and could win a series or two. Unless they win a title, the playoffs are less important to the long-term future of the franchise than next offseason is.

Miami Heat

2014-15: 37-45, 10th
Postseason: none
Draft: #10 pick (Justise Winslow)
#40 pick (Josh Richardson)
Arrivals: Gerald Green (FA), Amar'e Stoudemire (FA)
Departures: Henry Walker (waived), Zoran Dragic (traded to Boston), Shabazz Napier (traded to Orlando)

The arrivals section up there feels a bit lacking. This year's edition of the Miami Heat will look quite different from last year's, but primarily because they will get players back from injury who missed major time. Chris Bosh is cleared for full-speed practice after his blood clot scare. Josh McRoberts, who had knee surgery in December, is also good to go. And Goran Dragic, after his trade deadline arrival, is in for the full season. They also, after much rumor and speculation, kept the heart of their franchise in Dwayne Wade

Dragic didn't play with either Bosh or McRoberts last season. He also didn't play with draft pick Justise Winslow, who fell to the Heat at the tenth pick to the general shaking of heads around the league. Pat Riley did it again (because Charlotte really, REALLY wanted Frank Kaminksy. More on that shortly.) Winslow's length and athleticism coming off the bench behind Wade and Luol Deng should help balance the workload of some of Miami's deteriorating bodies.

Health remains the biggest question about the Heat, even with the return of McRoberts and Bosh. Wade's knees are still held together by scotch tape, and they will not be in better condition through the wear and tear of what will be Wade's thirteenth NBA season. Deng, though younger than Bosh and Wade, still has significant miles on his legs. All three of Wade, Bosh and Deng average more than 35 minutes per game over their entire careers.

However, the Heat play in the Eastern Conference, and in addition to adding their full complement of players back to the fold, they retain one of last season's greatest breakout stories in Hassan Whiteside. The test for Whiteside, now that he's reached such lofty heights as being regarded as one of the top ten centers in the game by such luminaries as the NBA 2K16 rating system, is to maintain the form he showed last year in completely dominant performances that kept the Heat in the playoff race up to the very end of the season.

From the start of January until the end of the season, Whiteside averaged a double-double every game. His defensive rebound percentage was the best in the league of any player that played in more than twenty games at 33%. His offensive rebound percentage was third, behind only Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. A question that comes to mind when teams look at attacking Whiteside: will he get the Hack-a-Center treatment that was so prevalent against Jordan in the playoffs? Whiteside was a 50% free throw shooter on over 150 attempts in 2014-15.

The Heat have plenty of question marks, but they also have an incredible amount of potential to overwhelm other teams, especially playing in the East. If they can stay healthy, they should easily make the playoffs, and could push into the upper echelon of teams in the East. More than likely, they get the sixth or seventh seed and make for a fascinating first round series that would be a prime upset pick. It could all go wrong, sure, but keep an eye on the Heat this year. They could really make some noise.

Charlotte Hornets

2014-15: 33-49, 11th
Postseason: none
Draft: #9 pick (Frank Kaminsky)
#39 pick (Juan Pablo Vaulet), traded to Brooklyn for cash and 2018/2019 second round picks
Arrivals: Tyler Hansbrough (FA), Spencer Hawes (trade from LA Clippers), Jeremy Lin (FA), Jeremy Lamb (traded from Oklahoma City), Nicolas Batum (traded from Portland)
Departures: Lance Stephenson (traded to LA Clippers), Gerald Henderson (traded to Portland), Noah Vonleh (traded to Portland)

Michael Jordan thinks he knows what he wants. The Hornets owner shocked much of the NBA by taking Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky III over Justise Winslow with the ninth overall pick in this year's draft, when almost every expert made the opposite selection. The noise on draft night was that Kaminsky was the only player that Jordan wanted, and that is, well, confusing. For a player whose skill transition to the NBA has been relatively widely questioned, such high value is strange, especially given Jordan could likely have traded down and still gotten Kaminsky.

Now, they have Kaminsky, and they didn't stop there. The Hornets were by some distance the most active of the five teams in the Southeast, and after a 2014-15 season in which they were expected to return to the playoffs for a second consecutive year and build on the defensive success of the prior year, that was no surprise. The Lance Stephenson trade signing from Indiana was a resounding failure across the board, and Stephenson was shipped off to the Clippers for aging veterans Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes.

Barnes will bring much-needed outside shooting to the Hornets. (correction: Barnes was traded to Memphis in the Luke Ridnour merry-go-round). Barnes is not particularly well known for his defense (more so his lack thereof), and will prove interesting to integrate into Clifford's defensive scheme. Charlotte was 24th in the league in three pointers shot per game in 2014-15. Nicolas Batum will hope to help that, and will also look to bounce back after a similarly bad year in Portland, and a pretty awful EuroBasket tournament, in which he shot below 20% from beyond the arc and missed three free throws which would have given France a chance to beat Spain in the tournament semifinals.

Two of Charlotte's other signings in the offseason are players looking to prove themselves in a new setting. Linsanity is now three years past, and Jeremy Lin is now on his third team since that season in New York after a mediocre season with the terrible Lakers. Jeremy Lamb, on the other hand, could never really break into the rotation in Oklahoma City, and is reunited with his title winning UConn backcourt mate in Kemba Walker. Both players are on minimal, short-term contracts, and while neither is likely to make a major difference in Charlotte's team destiny, both have plenty of motivation to do so.

The Hornets are interesting. They made many changes and appear to have mostly gone sideways rather than significantly improving. They still have strong pieces in Walker, Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and have many players that need to demonstrate their abilities to play well at the NBA level. The Hornets could make the playoffs, or they could crash and burn once more. This is a volatile team, with the potential to explode into the playoffs or implode into the lottery.

Orlando Magic

2014-15: 25-57, 13th
Postseason: none
Draft: #5 pick (Mario Hezonja)
#51 pick (Tyler Harvey)
Arrivals: Jason Smith (FA), Shabazz Napier (traded from Miami), Melvin Ejim (FA)
Departures: Ben Gordon (waived), Kyle O'Quinn (traded to New York), Maurice Harkless (traded to Portland)

Two words. Mario Hezonja.

Speaking of volatile, the Croatian man who has been compared to J.R. Smith will be so much fun to watch work in his NBA debut. A worthy selection at the fifth pick of the draft, Hezonja is a playmaker and scorer that can do some crazy things. However, this by no means says that the Magic are moving out of the lottery any time soon.

The Magic largely stayed pat with their young talent acquired in previous years, showing no desire to abandon young talents like Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, and Nikola Vucevic. They have intriguing young pieces, but much like the Timberwolves, their pieces are very, very young. Channing Frye, who has had a nice career but is no world-beater, is their oldest and most experienced player. Rather than the Wolves' choice to add long-time veterans in Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince in the offseason, the Magic acquired another young talent in Shabazz Napier, and that was about it.

The Magic's biggest change was at head coach, where veteran coach and former player Scott Skiles was the man of choice. Skiles has been out of the league for the last two seasons after stints in Milwaukee, Chicago and Phoenix. His experience in Chicago showed that he can bring a team out of the depths into the playoffs, and an experienced head coach will have no problem managing the young players and personalities of the Magic locker room.

Oladipo has been a popular pick for potential most improved player going into the 2015-16 season. In his second season in the league, he reduced his turnover percentage from 19.2 to 14.3, a massive improvement. Nikola Vucevic continues to be one of the better young centers in the league, his 10.9 rebounds per game sixth in the NBA. If the Magic plan to do much winning next year, the weight will primarily be on these two players' shoulders.

However, the general expectation is for the Magic to return for another top lottery pick, given their lack of significant changes during the offseason. Much like the Wolves, the Magic have to figure out which of their young talents are worth building the rest of their franchise around this season, and by doing so will likely be pretty abysmal. However, they have many bright possibilities moving forward, and should be at the very least watchable and bad.

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My predictions of the Southeast teams for the year, in short: the Hawks, Wizards and Heat will make the playoffs; the Magic will be the worst team in the NBA by record; the Hornets will be near the playoffs, but will ultimately disappoint. This division, while it saw few major changes, contains many fascinating stories moving into the regular season, and will be a delight to watch. Bring on the NBA season.