Race To The Top: Hawks, Wizards or Heat?

Since 2010, and the formation and subsequent dismantle of Miami’s big three, the Southeast has been one of the least competitive divisions in the NBA. In their first two years together, Miami’s supersquad won the division by six games, and since then, no second-place team has come within ten games of the eventual division winner.

However, for the first time in those five years, a team other than Miami came away with the division title last season when the Atlanta Hawks came out of nowhere, winning not only the division, but the entire Eastern Conference.

Now as the season is finally underway, it appears this year’s division race will be the most competitive in years. ESPN released their divisional predictions last week and experts are as mixed and confused as anybody else. Ten analysts predicted Atlanta would repeat as division champs, eight said the Heat would come out on top, and seven casted their votes for Washington.

With all of the confusion and ambiguity mucking up the division picture, let’s take a deeper look at each of the three teams vying for the top spot.

Atlanta Hawks

Offseason moves: After their most successful campaign in franchise history, it’s not surprising that Atlanta was relatively quiet this offseason. After some brief flirting with the Orlando Magic, the Hawks were able to re-sign forward Paul Millsap to a three-year, $59 million deal. However, in order to keep their All-Star big man, Atlanta was forced to part with swingman DeMarre Carroll who played vital minutes for them last year, serving as one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders. The Hawks also picked up center Tiago Splitter from the Spurs in a salary dump. Splitter figures to fill Pero Antic’s role off the bench after the Macedonian split for Turkey this offseason.

Way-too-early season trends: After a disappointing 106-94 opening night loss to the Pistons in which the team was outrebounded 59 to 40, the Hawks were able to win their next two games against the Knicks and Hornets. In his three games this year, Hawks 6th man Denis Schroder has shined as bright as anyone. In less than 26 minutes per game, the young German international has averaged 15.7 points on 50% shooting, 2.7 assists and 3 rebounds a game.

Washington Wizards

Offseason moves: Much like Atlanta, Washington made very sparse moves this offseason. With hopes of signing hometown hero Kevin Durant next year, and all of the money tied up in their frontcourt and John Wall, the Wizards were restricted to budget pickups this offseason. They were able to add shooters Jared Dudley, Gary Neal, and Alan Anderson, whose combined salaries for the 2015-16 season total less than $11 million. Washington lost out to the Clippers in their biddings for postseason star Paul Pierce, and so Jared Dudley is tasked with picking up that slack on the wing.

Way-too-early season trends: With two wins out of the gate, the Wizards look to build off of last season’s success. After an injury-plagued 2014-15 season, in which he started just 59 games, guard Bradley Beal has started this season on fire. The three point specialist has led the team in scoring in both games, averaging 25 points per game, cashing in on half of his three point attempts. Meanwhile his backcourt mate John Wall, has been up to his regular tricks, some not so good. In an offseason in which the point guard pledged $100 to assistant coach Howard Eisley for every two-plus turnover game, Wall is down $200.00, turning the ball over 11 times in the first two games.

Miami Heat

Offseason moves: Miami may have had the busiest, most intriguing offseason in the entire league, let alone the Southeast Division. The team signed trade-deadline trophy Goran Dragic to a five-year deal, were able to retain forward Luol Deng after he opted in to his $10 million player option, and re-signed face of the franchise, Dwyane Wade, to a make-good $20 million deal. The team wasn’t done, though, adding free agents Gerald Green and Amare Stoudemire to team-friendly deals. Miami also got lucky in the draft, as Duke forward Justise Winslow, a consensus top-5 pick, fell into their lap at 10.

Way-too-early season trends: With all of their offseason maneuvering, returns from injuries, and the Hassan Whiteside project, Miami may be the biggest work in progress of any team in the NBA. They started the season off right with a win against the Hornets, in which both Chris Bosh and Wade put up 20 points. In both games, Justise Winslow has been one of the first players off the bench for head coach Erik Spoelstra, and while putting up just 5 points against Charlotte, the forward posted a team-leading +26 plus/minus. Meanwhile Gerald Green has remained a catatonic enigma in his first two games, putting up 19 points in his first game against the Hornets, and following it up with a 1-9 shooting, 5 point performance, in Friday night’s loss to the Cavs.

The Southeast Division is absolutely up for grabs, and there are foreseeable scenarios in which each of the top three teams could earn the division crown. If Atlanta is able to lean on players like Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to compensate for the loss of DeMarre Carroll, they may well repeat as division champs.

If John Wall and Bradley Beal continue their progression, and their frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Nene are able to consistently outrebound and outscore opposing frontcourts, Washington could come out on top.

If the South Beach science experiment breaks right for Miami, and they are able to get consistent contributions from guys like Whiteside, Winslow, Green and Stoudemire, it’ll be hard to pick against the Heat.

The race to the top in the Southeast is as competitive as any division in the league, and with so many moving parts and variables, it’s almost impossible to pick a winner at this point. It does, however, seem clear that each team is destined for the playoffs, and after a brief west coast vacation, the Larry O’Brien trophy may once again reside in the Southeast Division.

photo via llananba