The Heat is on in the Southeast

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

Headlining the NBA’s Southeast Division is the defending champion Miami Heat, which is sticking with the if-it’s-not-broken-don’t-fix-it approach.

The Pat Riley-led Heat will return essentially its entire team this season, with, most notably, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.

Wade posted impressive numbers in his third year with 27 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists-not to mention his NBA Finals performance.

And then there’s Shaq.

The perennial close-to-the-hoop threat scored 20 points and grabbed nine boards a game last season on his way to his fourth ring.

The aging big man doesn’t show up every night and he’s clearly past his prime–but if you recall, his prime was really, really good. Seriously, who can deny that he can still get it done when he wants to?

Also on the roster are veterans (read: geezers) Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning, who finally got themselves rings last year.

Mourning got his by sticking by his team through thick-and-thin until star players filled in around him, and Payton got his by shopping around until he found a team with coattails he could on ride to the prize.

If the Heat wants to repeat, it’s going to have to find the motivation for yet another 82-game campaign. It won’t be able to coast through the regular season and then storm through the playoffs on team members’ way to the crown like the 2003-2004 Shaq/Kobe/Malone Lakers thought they could do, only to lose in the Finals to the Detroit Pistons.

Now that Shaq has shown up Kobe by winning the championship without him, his motivation will have to come from another source.

The only other team in the Southeast Division that finished the year over .500 was the Gilbert Arenas-led Washington Wizards, which barely pulled if off with a record of 42-40.

Arenas scored 29 points and dished out six assists per game last season as he carried his team to a fifth-place finish in the East.

Arenas is complemented by power forward Antawn Jamison. The two will be surrounded by a supporting cast of Caron Butler and former Jazzman/ Washington newcomer DeShawn Stevenson. But the Wizards’ fate will rest on the shoulders of the Arenas/Jamison tandem.

Let’s head south. The Orlando Magic, which doesn’t have a single player who averaged 16 or more points last season, finished the year with a 36-46 record. The Magic may not have an outright star, but at least it’s a well-rounded team. Four starters averaged between 14.6 and 15.8 points last season.

Led by rebounding maven Dwight Howard, the Magic, which finished 10th in the East, will probably win a few more games than it did last year, but not many. Other Magicians of note include Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Tony Battie and career-long injury victim/ former product-endorser Grant Hill.

Making his NBA debut for the Magic is Duke standout J.J. Redick, who can beat the majority of the league’s guards at HORSE, but whether that translates into a successful career in the NBA–where a more complete game is necessary for survival–is yet to be seen.

And now, let’s take the stairs down to the Southeast Division’s basement, which is where the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks dwell in the dim, depressing light.

Both squads won a measly 26 games last season and neither seems to be on its way to a breakout season anytime soon.

As for the Bobcats, they picked up Gonzaga star Adam Morrison in the draft. Morrison averaged 28 points and 5.5 rebounds for John Stockton’s alma mater, but one talented rookie won’t bring salvation. The Bobcats gave up 100.9 points last year, proving to be one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA.

That’s not to say that the Bobcats are completely devoid of hope, as the Hawks are. Emeka Okafor averaged a double-double at the power forward position, scoring 13.2 points and corralling in 10 rebounds.

And finally, the team in the direst of straits is the bottom-dwelling Hawks. If you can name three players on their team and you’re not from Georgia, you deserve a prize.

The Hawks picked up Speedy Claxton in the offseason. Claxton will bring a wee bit of scoring to Atlanta, which should help out Joe Johnson, who gets 20 a night for the Hawks.

Which makes me wonder: Why do Joe Johnson’s 20 points a game for the Hawks seem so impressive when the same stat for Shaq seems so pedestrian?