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NBA: Southeast showing surprising strength
(Yahoo! Sports)
Updated: 2004-12-15 08:58

When David Stern announced the NBA's realignment plan last season, many people wondered if the new Southeast Division would stack up with say, the Big Ten.

Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal (32) prepares to shoot over Washington Wizards' Brendan Haywood in the first quarter Monday, Dec. 13, 2004, in Miami, Fla. [AP]
The Orlando Magic were the worst team in the league, with the Atlanta Hawks right behind, I mean, ahead. The Washington Wizards were a perennial loser, and the Charlotte Bobcats were a soon-to-be expansion team. Only the Miami Heat looked anything like a playoff team, though not at all a serious contender. The question of whether any of these clubs could finish better than .500 was a legitimate one.

Well, quicker than you can say "I love realignment," the Southeast is suddenly the home of three of the Eastern Conference's top teams. Several offseason trades and draft picks ĘC as well as the return and development of some key players ĘC not only have made the Southeast the surprise division in the NBA but also perhaps the East's best division.

The Southeast's transformation began with Shaquille O'Neal's trade to Miami. The Heat went from a nice young team that made the playoffs last season to a powerful club boasting a lethal inside-outside combination of Shaq and Dwyane Wade.

Miami has room for improvement but is still off to a nice start with the East's best record, 16-7. With Detroit struggling and Indiana's roster decimated by suspensions, the Heat would be favored to win the East if the playoffs began today.

Shortly after Shaq's arrival in Florida, Orlando began its rebuilding project by trading league scoring champion Tracy McGrady. The Magic got Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato from the Rockets, and all three have been terrific, adding athleticism and depth to a roster devoid of both.

Orlando Magic forward Grant Hill, left, shoots over Phoenix Suns guard Quentin Richardson in the first quarter Monday, Dec. 13, 2004, in Phoenix. [AP]
Francis in particular has been superb, playing at an All-Star level and leading the Magic to a 13-7 start. He has benefited from the return of Grant Hill after his long recovery from foot problems, as Hill has assumed much of the ball-handling responsibility to allow Francis to play as a shooting guard at times.

With the first pick in the draft, general manager John Weisbrod took Dwight Howard, who looks like a star in the making. The rookie averages a double-double and undoubtedly will improve by leaps and bounds the next several years.

Hedo Turkoglu was added to the lineup via free agency, and suddenly the Magic are one of the deepest teams in the league. After a 21-win season in 2003-04, Orlando now is on the verge of being one of the East's elite teams for the foreseeable future. What a turnaround.

But while it was easy to project the improvement of the Heat and the Magic, the success of the Wizards has been totally unexpected.

Washington, which is 12-7 after Monday's loss to Miami, made a major trade of its own on draft day, acquiring Antawn Jamison from Dallas to fortify a weak frontcourt. Jamison has given coach Eddie Jordan the inside scoring to complement the backcourt of Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes. All of a sudden, the Wizards are the third highest-scoring team in the NBA, putting up 102 points per night.

Jamison, Hughes and Arenas were teammates at Golden State two seasons ago, but they didn't play particularly well together. All three have matured and are thriving in Jordan's up-tempo offense. Brendan Haywood has developed into a reliable center, giving Washington a much needed inside presence on the boards.

The irony for Miami, Orlando and Washington is that each team was excited to leave the Atlantic Division after last season to join the weak Southeast, where they figured to have a better chance for success. Little did they realize they would end up battling each other in the strongest division in the East.

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