With the 2021-22 season upon us, Basketball Insiders will be breaking down and offering power rankings of each team in every division in the league. First up to bat, the Southeast Division led by the Miami HEAT, trying to have a bounce-back season and the Atlanta Hawks, trying to disprove their doubters about last season’s magical run. Let’s take a look at how each team stacks up.
1. Miami HEAT
The HEAT made arguably the biggest splash in free agency, acquiring six-time All-Star Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade deal that sent aging icon Goran Dragić and disappointing first-rounder Precious Achiuwa to Toronto. Lowry instantly makes Miami more formidable, giving the team an offensively-oriented point guard it hasn’t had since Tim Hardaway had the reins of the point guard position. While Dragić was fantastic for Miami, he didn’t quite get the ball around as much as Lowry does.
Lowry is 35 years old, but seeing how Chris Paul elevated the Phoenix Suns last season should indicate how timeless his game should be. Last season, Lowry averaged 17.2 points, 7.3 assists and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 39.6 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. The offense will be opened up in Miami and Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and company will feast because of it.
From there the team added veteran forwards Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker, and though those two may not make a huge impact in the regular season, the duo offers playoff stability for the HEAT come playoff time.
If that wasn’t enough, it seems as if the HEAT have found their next diamonds in the rough, re-signing Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Omer Yurtseven to team-friendly deals and a chance to produce in backup roles. All three players look to have significant upside and Vincent and Strus in particular seem poised to take on huge roles after dominant summers.
Lastly, the team re-signed former All-Star and Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo to an extremely team-friendly deal, giving the franchise his bird rights next offseason, meaning they can exceed the cap to sign him. If Oladipo looks like even a fraction of his former self once he heals from offseason surgery, the HEAT instantly become one of the most formidable teams in the Eastern Conference.
Tristan’s prediction: 48-34, No. 3-No. 6 seed range
2. Atlanta Hawks
Fresh off a surprising Eastern Conference Finals run after knocking off the Philadelphia 76ers, Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks will try to make lightning strike twice. The Hawks had a solid offseason, with their trade for Delon Wright standing out in particular. Wright had a strong season last year, emerging as a solid backup guard after averaging 10.2 points, 4.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 stocks per game.
Atlanta also signed Gorgui Dieng as injury insurance after losing sophomore center Onyeka Okongwu to a significant injury that will sideline him for a large chunk of the regular season.
Outside of that, the Hawks ran it back, re-upping with John Collins, who stood out in the playoffs, as well as Lou Williams and Solomon Hill. In the draft, the Hawks got two players that had first-round grades in Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper, the latter of which surprisingly ended up on a two-way deal.
While the Hawks certainly fortified their roster, we saw last season with Miami that running back most of the same team from a surprising run doesn’t always work out. It will be an uphill battle for Atlanta to reclaim their spot in the Eastern Conference Finals in a revamped conference. Look for Atlanta to end up in the four to seven seed range.
Tristan’s prediction: 45-37, No. 4-No. 7 seed range
3. Charlotte Hornets
In April of last season, the Hornets were 27-24 and had a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference amid LaMelo Ball’s rookie season. And then, the team lost Gordon Hayward and Ball to injury for extended periods of time. There’s no doubt that Charlotte has the talent to be a playoff team and it upgraded its roster in every possible way this offseason.
Firstly, the Hornets trotted out Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo last season, two centers that didn’t fit with their playstyle, with the latter of the two remaining unsigned. To replace him, the Hornets took on Mason Plumlee from the Detroit Pistons AND moved up 20 spots in the draft. Plumlee isn’t a great player but he does the little things that matter and even notched a couple triple-doubles last season in Detroit. He is a vast improvement in the middle.
In the aforementioned draft, Charlotte walked in with one first-round pick and managed to walk away with three players that had first-round grades from varying scouts in James Bouknight, who has looked like an outright star in the preseason, along with Kai Jones and JT Thor. The team also managed to snag an impressive defensive spectacle in Scottie Lewis and brought 2018 second-round pick Arnoldas Kulboka over from overseas.
The Hornets then wrapped up their offseason by signing Kelly Oubre Jr., a legitimate bucket who provides some insurance if Hayward goes down again, and Ish Smith, a competent backup point guard and improvement over what they had last season.
Charlotte absolutely slaughtered the offseason and has the talent to be a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference. It remains to be seen if they can stay healthy, but Ball should make a huge leap, as should their other younger players like Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington.
Tristan’s prediction: 44-38, No. 5-No. 10 seed range
4. Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards had a busy offseason in their attempts to continually satisfy franchise icon Bradley Beal ahead of his impending free agency. The big story of the offseason was the massive five-team trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers. In return, the Wizards got Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell from the Lakers, Aaron Holiday and Isaiah Todd from the Indiana Pacers and Spencer Dinwiddie from the Brooklyn Nets.
There is no doubt that the Wizards improved their depth giving new head-coach hire Wes Unseld Jr. 15 legitimate rotation options. However, there are several questions pertaining to the makeup of the roster and its ability to win games down the stretch. For one, Dinwiddie was an excellent addition and he averaged over 20 points per game in his last healthy season. However, it’s impossible to know whether he will be fully healthy when the season comes around and if he is, if his three-point shot will be improved.
Further, with Beal unvaccinated, there is a significant possibility that the star will miss games due to vaccine requirements in other cities. For now, the Wizards seemed poised to max out as a play-in team.
Tristan’s prediction: 38-44, No. 7-No. 12 seed range
5. Orlando Magic
The Magic aren’t going to be good this season but they will be incredibly fun to watch. The Magic had two first-round picks to play around with after sending Nikola Vucevic to the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline and spent them wisely, snagging Jalen Suggs fifth overall and Franz Wagner later in the lottery.
This season will be all about seeing these young players grow. As of now, it seems as if the Magic are going to let their young guards duke it out for playing time. Between Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton and Suggs, the point guard position is clogged and this season will feature plenty of experimentation when it comes to those four in particular.
Orlando will also spend the season sifting through some of its other young players like Jonathan Isaac, Chuma Okeke, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. Expect veterans like Gary Harris and Terrence Ross to be on the move as the season continues, with Orlando aiming for another top selection in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Tristan’s prediction: 23-59, No. 14-No. 15 seed range
Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next edition of our divisional breakdown, where we will be looking at the Atlantic Division.