Rising(?) East – Examining the Southeast Division

The Southeast Division has rarely been relevant in the past decade, outside of the Miami super-teams and Atlanta’s 60 win season last year. But as mentioned in my last post, the Southeast is one of two divisions with four teams over .500. Charlotte and Orlando have been frisky, jumping out to 10-8 records. They both potentially join division mates Atlanta and Miami in the playoff conversation. I mentioned this already but it bears repeating: the top eight teams in the Southeast and Central divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. One of the toughest questions for NBA analysis is always, “is this a blip or a real thing?”

What makes me confident that the East is actually gaining ground on the West is that two East teams I most expected to be near the top are at the bottom – Milwaukee and Washington. I still have faith in both teams, but the East is no longer one big doormat and these two slow starters are learning that the hard way. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s go back to the goodness.

Southeast Division

  1. Miami (10-6)
  2. Atlanta (12-9)
  3. Charlotte (10-8)
  4. Orlando (10-8)

Quick hits on each team:

Miami can throw out a starting-5 that can stand toe to toe with just about anyone, and they do one thing exceedingly well – play efficient defense. Opponents shoot so poorly against the Heat it’s like they’re using those tight carnival rims that always screw me out of a useless prize dammit. The Heat hold opponents to 41% from the field (1st in NBA), 32% from three (4th), allow the second fewest free throw attempts per game and lead the league in point allowed per game (92.5). The reason they aren’t, say 14-2, rather than 10-6, is an almost equally anemic offense. Basically Heat games this season have been brick-laying contests in which Miami forces slightly more clanks from their opponent than they produce. They’ve only gotten off for more than 100 points four times this season, but three were against Houston, Sacramento and the Lakers. Those three may as well spot the other team 15 points at the start of each game. With the talent on Miami’s roster – Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh – you expect the scoring to go up at some point. The mantra for these guys is to keep healthy for the playoffs.

Atlanta will not win 60 games again this season. We all knew that. But an early 7-game win streak (albeit against less than stellar competition) shot them to the top of the conference early. Their defense has taken a bit of a hit without DeMarre Carroll, and with Tiago Splitter on the injured list. But Budenholzer ball continues to thrive – the Hawks are second in the league in assists and top half in most shooting categories. They should compete for a top four seed all year.

Charlotte is a team that I had completely written off after the season-ending injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That they are 10-8 is a testament to the coaching staff, Nic Batum’s bounce back season and a more efficient Kemba Walker. The narrative around this team is that they are hoisting threes at will and just trying to outscore teams with their defensive stopper MKG on the shelf. They have gone nuts in certain games, scoring 130 on the Bulls and 108 on the Mavs in back to back games. They hit 14 threes in that Bulls beatdown, but only 6 against the Mavs. They rank 6th in scoring and 12th in three point attempts, numbers that seem improbable for a team that features Al Jefferson. I love Big Al, but he slows the game down and has never been known as a great kick out passer once he gets the ball down low. Nice job by coach Steve Clifford pivoting their style after MKG went down and helping Marvin Williams find a niche as a stretch four.

Orlando is just awesome. They are a joy to watch. They are filled with pedigreed athletes (due to so many years of high lottery picks), they play hard for Scott Skiles, they make mistakes but always seem to put up a fight against tougher competition. This is the trajectory I hoped they’d be on and I expect their above-average play to continue. Victor Oladipo has taken the next step and has slightly improved his jumper but it still needs work. Elfrid Payton has fantastic hair but also needs work on his jumper. Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon are fascinating swiss army knife type of players and Evan Fournier has surprised me with his scoring. Nikola Vucevic gives them a constant 15 and 10 post presence. With so many pieces Skiles can roll out many different lineup combinations to mix things up and keep other teams guessing. For instance, potentially their toughest lineup to defend this season is Fournier, Payton, Vucevic, Channing Frye and Tobias Harris. Figure out a way to slow that group down, and here comes Oladipo and Gordon; two more difficult problems to solve. Orlando may slip in to the playoffs as an 8 seed, and drive Cleveland batty in Round 1.

Back in a bit with a diagnosis and analysis of Milwaukee and Washington.

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