The Southeast Division looks pretty straightforward, with two fairly bad teams and three likely playoff contenders if things go as scripted. But what would have to happen for the top three teams in the division to struggle. Likewise, what scenario would see the two cellar-dwellers rise up the standings? Let's find out.
Last Season: 43-39, lost in first round to Wizards
Best case: The Hawks may not have terrific talent, but they buy in fully to head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. They play their socks off, particularly on the defensive end, which Bud knows how to coach very well. This season, Dennis Schroder takes another step up in his development and becomes a much more effective floor general. Taurean Prince has a similarly strong campaign as he steps up his improvement. Meanwhile, rookie John Collins continues to be an effective offensive machine. They're not quite good enough to be a playoff contender, but they comfortably avoid the worst record in the league which most are penciling them in to have.
Worst Case: The offense, which already projects to be bad without Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr., gets even worse as Schroder doesn’t handle being the main outlet well. He calls his own number way too often and continues to make too many boneheaded mistakes. The defense also takes a significant step back without the talents of Dwight Howard and Millsap to prop it up. The Hawks crash to the bottom of the East, which could actually be a good thing in terms of helping them land a young star to rebuild around.
Prediction: Worst case
Last Season: 41-41, 9th in East
Best Case: The Heat’s red-hot end to last season really wasn’t a fluke. Miami continue to thrive as Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters expertly orchestrate Erik Spoelstra’s dribble-drive offense. Waiters and James Johnson prove that they were not one-hit wonders and maintain the great shape they were in during their contract years. Kelly Olynyk is a massive upgrade over Luke Babbitt as the Chris Bosh-like stretch big man, which gives another dimension to the offense. The Heat rise all the way to a number four seed and claim home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs.
Worst Case: The Heat regress to the mean in a big way. Waiters, Johnson, and Wayne Ellington revert back to the below-average players they’ve been for most of their careers. One, or both, of Dragic and Waiters goes down with another significant injury and the offense can’t quite adjust without those key cogs. The three-pointers that kept going down during the second half of last season go cold, as Miami finishes 12th in the East and misses out of the postseason once again.
Prediction: Best Case
Last Season: 36-46, 10th in East
Best Case: Cody Zeller remains healthy for the entire year with Howard able to soak up more minutes. The arrival of Howard also does wonders to the defense, which bounces back after disappointing last season. More importantly, Howard doesn’t completely tick his new teammates off like he has during his previous stops. Meanwhile, Malik Monk is the stud he was projected to be as he becomes a consistent scorer and makes up for the injury to Nicolas Batum. Charlotte make a strong challenge for home-court advantage in the first round and eventually end up in the fourth or fifth seed.
Worst Case: Zeller goes down once again and the Hornets repeat last year’s disastrous performances that saw them go 3-17 without him last season. Howard’s effectiveness drops significantly as he gets older and once again causes turmoil in the locker room. Monk’s defense is as bad as advertised, which cancels out whatever good he does on offense. Meanwhile, Kemba Walker goes down, robbing the Hornets of their most important player by a mile. The Hornets once again miss out on the postseason, ending up ninth or tenth.
Prediction: Somewhere in between, but leaning toward best case
Last Season: 29-53, 13th in East
Best Case: One, or both, of Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton finally take that leap to stardom and turn the Magic into a competent offense. Rookie Jonathan Isaac is as advertised on defense and can at least contribute on offense. Mario Hezonja finally shows signs of life after two horrific years. Nikola Vucevic returns to being a near-20-point, 10-rebound player. The Magic rise up to mediocrity and finish just outside the playoff spots.
Worst Case: Gordon and Payton still show no signs of potential stardom, as their inconsistent shooting continues to hold them back. Isaac is rawer than expected offensively and struggles to make any impact on either end of the court. The offense remains anemic without additional shooting. Vogel still can’t get them to play competent defense, gets fired, and the Magic tear it all down to start another painful rebuild.
Prediction: Worst Case
Last Season: 49-33, lost to Celtics in second round
Best Case: The Wizards’ excellent starting lineup stays relatively healthy for the season. That includes Bradley Beal, who continues to make his case as one of the top shooting guards in the game. Meanwhile, his backcourt mate John Wall takes yet another step up and turns into a legitimate MVP candidate. The Wizards once again get little from their bench, but the second unit is at least not as awful as last year. The Wizards once again land the third seed in the East and finally break through to the conference finals.
Worst Case: Injuries hit the Washington's starting lineup, and they just don’t have enough depth to recover adequately. Otto Porter stagnates after signing his big deal. Meanwhile, their bench continues to struggle mightily, especially in terms of contributing on offense. They slip down to the fifth or sixth seed and get knocked out of the postseason in the first round.
Prediction: Best case
Have a different best or worst case scenario for these teams? Let us know in the comments below!