Southeast Division Preview: Can Lowry lead Heat back to Finals?

Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry (7) defends against Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) during the first half of a pre-season NBA basketball game, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in Miami. (Marta Lavandier/AP)

The NBA is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 30 teams in the lead-up to tipoff on Tuesday.

Today, we look at best- and worst-case scenarios for the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021–22 standings.)

Miami Heat

2020–21 finish: 40-32, second in the Southeast, lost in the first round.

Major additions: Kyle Lowry, Markieff Morris, Victor Oladipo, P.J. Tucker.

Major subtractions: Precious Achiuwa, Goran Dragic.

Best-case scenario: With the additions of championship-calibre veterans who aren’t that far removed from what was likely the peak of their abilities in Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker, it’s clear the Heat are gunning for tops in the Eastern Conference and are looking to complete the business of winning a title they left unfinished a couple of seasons ago. The addition of Lowry – still a top-end two-way point guard – to the core of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson looks like a perfect fit on paper as Lowry’s tough mindset perfectly aligns with the vaunted “Heat culture.”

Worst-case scenario: As strong as the Heat look like they could be, that’s more viewing it all through the lens of the post-season, specifically. This is a veteran-laden team with key players who may not be fully healthy through all 82 games, meaning Miami could be susceptible to a lower seed than its talent suggests it should likely get.

2021–22 season prediction: 48-34, fourth in the East.

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Atlanta Hawks

2020–21 finish: 41-31, first in the Southeast, lost in the conference finals.

Major additions: Gorgui Dieng, Lou Williams, Delon Wright.

Major subtractions: N/A.

Best-case scenario: After a relatively surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks now need to keep that momentum they’ve built up and establish themselves as a legitimate power in the East this season, and there’s no reason to think they can’t be just that. The leadership of Nate McMillan at the helm mid-season seemed to unlock the tremendous talent this Atlanta team boasts, led by emerging superstar Trae Young, gifted young bigs John Collins and Clint Capela, deadeye shooters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari and now the addition of three-time sixth man of the year Lou Williams to add even more firepower coming off the bench.

Worst-case scenario: The Hawks look like they’re good enough that this won’t happen to them, but you can’t discount the possibility that last season was more an anomaly than a true sign that this is a club that’s ready to take that next step as a legitimate force. If that proves to be true, then the moves the Hawks made this off-season – in particular bringing in the veteran Williams – won’t look like an overly smart decision.

2021–22 season prediction: 45-37, fifth in the East.

Charlotte Hornets

2020–21 finish: 33-39, fourth in the Southeast, lost in the first play-in game.

Major additions: James Bouknight (R), Kelly Oubre Jr., Mason Plumlee.

Major subtractions: Devonte’ Graham.

Best-case scenario: The Hornets are a potentially very exciting up-and-coming team because it looks like they have a legitimate emerging star in last season’s rookie of the year LaMelo Ball. Ball on his own raises the ceiling of what this Hornets team can do as he already is among the game’s best playmakers and is a strong defender. Ball appeared to revive Gordon Hayward’s career last season and his talent should unlock the nascent skills in newcomer Kelly Oubre Jr. and should serve to do wonders for dynamic rookie guard James Bouknight. The Hornets just need to keep building on what was a pretty successful season before, and look to make a push into the playoffs proper.

Worst-case scenario: The Hornets can’t afford to take a step backwards this season. Ball appears to be too good to not start trying to win some ball games in earnest. Last season, Charlotte made the play-in tournament and that needs to be the very baseline for the Hornets this season.

2021–22 season prediction: 41-41, ninth in the East.

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Washington Wizards

2020–21 finish: 34-38, third in the Southeast, lost in the first round.

Major additions: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Spencer Dinwiddie, Montrezl Harrell, Corey Kispert (R), Kyle Kuzma.

Major subtractions: Robin Lopez, Russell Westbrook.

Best-case scenario: For the Wizards it’s going to be all about proving to superstar guard Bradley Beal that this is a situation worth sticking around in, or otherwise look to facilitate a trade to get pieces back they can start to rebuild with. Beal has a player option for next season that he’ll likely opt out of and the chatter around his future will be swirling all season long around Washington, so it would be in the Wizards’ best interest to win some games and try to make the post-season to try to dispel some of that noise, at least until the off-season, that is.

Worst-case scenario: Unfortunately for Washington, things could start off pretty ugly as it’s unclear if Beal (knee) will be available to start the season, and the same goes for newcomer Spencer Dinwiddie (surgery recover) and Rui Hachimura (personal matter). The worst thing that could happen to Washington would be if Beal gets so frustrated that he demands a trade mid-season, forcing the Wizards into an untenable situation around the trade deadline where they likely won’t get back a return they’d actually want. It’ll be tough, but the Wizards need to try to win games.

2021–22 season prediction: 34-48, 12th in the East.

Orlando Magic

2020–21 finish: 21-51, fifth in the Southeast, didn’t qualify for the post-season.

Major additions: Robin Lopez, Jalen Suggs (R), Franz Wagner (R).

Major subtractions: N/A.

Best-case scenario: The Magic embarked on a fire sale at the trade deadline last season, trading away both Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic in the hopes that they can bottom out and land a franchise cornerstone to jumpstart yet another rebuild in Disney World. The plan worked as they ended up with the No. 5 overall pick and used it to select Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, as well as Franz Wagner with the No. 8 selection. Those two rookies are just two players, though, and the Magic look like they’ve got a long way to go before they’ll compete for anything. So the best thing they could do this season would be to give Wagner and Suggs, in particular, a ton of reps and, once again play for ping pong balls. Even if exposing a talent like Suggs to a losing environment might be dangerous for his long-term growth, the Magic simply don’t have enough on the roster to be remotely competitive this season.

Worst-case scenario: The Magic have already got off to a rather inauspicious start to their 2021-22 campaign. Markelle Fultz won’t be ready to start the season with a knee injury and Jonathan Isaac, who’s coming off an ACL injury and may also not be ready to begin the season, has expressed hesitancy to take the COVID-19 vaccine, opening up a whole other can of worms regarding whether he can play in certain markets. That’s turmoil the Magic likely don’t want a prized asset like Suggs to be entering and it could impact his growth early on.

2021–22 season prediction: 23-59, 15th in the East.

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