Divisions in the NBA have always meant less than they do in leagues like the NFL or MLB, and after the league office's decision to remove the automatic playoff qualification for division winners these groupings of teams mean even less. However, division rivals are still guaranteed four games against each other, meaning that the teams in the Hawks' division are still more important than most other teams in the Eastern Conference.
With that in mind, previewing the teams in the Southeast can give some insight into some of the Hawks' primary competition this season.
The Hornets were one of four teams in the East to finish with 48 wins, but tiebreakers forced them into sixth place in the conference despite having a record good enough to tie for third. Like Atlanta, Charlotte went through several hot and cold streaks last year, both winning and losing seven consecutive games at different points in the season. The Hornets were still a strong team despite these inconsistencies though, finishing eleventh in the NBA in points per game and ninth in points allowed per game. Charlotte finished their season by losing to Miami in a seven-game first round exit, unable to hold a 3-2 lead in the series.
This summer, the Hornets focused more on keeping their team together rather than adding big-name free agents. To that end, although they signed Roy Hibbert to a one-year deal, Charlotte's most significant offseason moves were holding on to Marvin Williams and Nicolas Batum. While the Hornets probably won't make a big jump from where they finished last year, keeping most of the roster intact should allow them to put together another good season with a likely playoff appearance. If Charlotte can play at a more consistent level for the whole season, they could end up being a dangerous playoff opponent.
Although Miami also won 48 games last year, their outlook for 2016-17 is much murkier (and ultimately much darker) than Charlotte's. This uncertainty is somewhat disappointing for the Heat, particularly as they were one win away from reaching the conference finals at the end of last season.
Dwayne Wade's departure defined the narrative of Miami's offseason, and the contentious way that he left certainly upset many fans. Although it is easy to simply focus on Wade's absence for 2016-17, the Heat will also be without veterans Luol Deng and Joe Johnson, moving the focus to younger players like Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow. Whiteside and Winslow are both good players, but it's difficult to see them carrying the Heat by themselves, especially if Chris Bosh is unable to play again. The Heat are an interesting team this year, but it's hard to see them winning 48 games again. Expect to see them take a step back.
Orlando struggled last season, and made matters worse in many experts' eyes when they traded Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Damontas Sabonis for one year of Serge Ibaka from the Thunder. Saying that the Thunder got the better end of this deal seems almost superfluous at this point, but at least Ibaka is a proven commodity who should add a lot to the Magic.
Outside of this trade, it's difficult to see Orlando's path to success this year. Frank Vogel is a good coach, and signing him was a good move, but the Magic don't have enough talent to fully utilize Vogel's potential. This problem is further compounded by the logjam in the backcourt, with Ibaka, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Bismack Biyombo all battling for minutes. Orlando's offseason was more confusing than disastrous, but the moves they made don't set them up for more success this year than they achieved in 2015-16. It's difficult to see this team meaningfully improve on their 35 wins from last year.
Washington struggled to a 10th place, 41-41 finish last year, plagued by both injuries and a defense that ranked 21st in the league in points per game. Perhaps even more disappointingly, the team failed to even get a meeting with Kevin Durant in the offseason. While Durant's spurning of the Wizards wasn't a surprise given the other teams vying for his attention, it was certainly a blow to the plans that Washington had been cultivating for some time now. The Wizards opted to fill this void with role players after they missed out on Al Horford, choosing to continue to build around John Wall and Bradley Beal.
The biggest improvement that the Wizards can hope to make this year is simply staying healthy. Wall and Beal are a lot of fun to watch when they're both active, and Beal's new extension guarantees that these two will be the faces of the franchise for the next few years. Beal's health has to be a big question mark for this season though, and this team's ceiling probably isn't much higher than a mid-level playoff team even with a healthy Beal. Any team with a young core like this is fun to watch though, and Washington should be able to outplay last year's 41 wins without too much good luck.
Although the Southeast probably won't boast three 48-game winners this season, it should still be a relatively tight division once again. Atlanta, Charlotte, or Washington could easily wind up being the best team, and all three seem like safer bets to finish in first than Miami or Orlando. Injuries (of a lack of them) could easily derail this projection, and midseason trades could have a huge impact as well. However, at this point in the year, the above ranking seems like the most accurate projection. The bottom line is that this division should be both competitive and interesting, as there are multiple reasons to watch any one of these five teams.