SOUTHEAST DIVISION: To say the Heat are the toast of the division would be akin to saying there’s a little bit of water on South Beach. You could put together an all-division squad of other players and still Miami would rate as double-digit favorites. There are gulfs and then there is Southeast Division separation.

 

NYQUIL (DON’T SLEEP): Can Rich Cho really make Charlotte fans rue the days of Michael Jordan? It’s a new chapter of Jordan rules, but precisely the game plan as the NBA’s most clutch performer relented this summer in relinquishing all franchise shot-calling responsibilities. Air’s apparent? Try a former engineer-turned-law student-turned NBA exec. Desperate times call for desperate measures and, in the wake of 7-59 season, things couldn’t be more crucial for the Bobcats. Cho flexed his anointed muscle by overriding G.O.A.T.’s plans of drafting Thomas Robinson, opting instead for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Score one for engineer.

 

1 PLUS 1 EQUALS 2 (THE INEVTIABLE): There’s little doubt that all roads to a 2013 crown run through South Beach. Only question is what route LeBron and Co. will take in arriving at pay dirt. Will we see a Heat team in the mold of Jordan’s 1995-96 Bulls, a squad (72-10) that approached every game as if it was their last?  Or, will we get a Miami team that only kicks into overdrive when challenge moves them? Either way, it’ll be quite the ride, and scrutiny cast on the three-headed monster that is the ‘Heatles’ won’t be any less spellbinding.

 

SLOW BURN (OH IT’S COMIN’): Hope springs eternal in the nation’s capital, where the fast and furious backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal could finally give Wiz fans cause for optimism. Joined by grizzled tag-team vets, Nene and Trevor Ariza, Washington takes aim at securing its first playoff spot since the turbulent days of Agent Zero. In their barely-legal aged tandem, the Wiz boast two of the game’s most polished new jacks, particularly Wall, who appears ordained for next level ascension.  The 6-4 speedster returns from knee injury sometime around the holidays. Then, it’s full steam ahead.

 

THE WACKNESS: Pat Riley is too slick for the NBA’s own good. How else can you explain how he manages to nab LeBron, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen in two of the last three off-seasons while Orlando, after months and months of advertising, is essentially only able to bag Arron Afflalo for DHoward?

 

ALL DIVISION SQUAD:

LeBron James, Heat, F: So let’s be clear: the game’s most versatile player has added Kareem’s unstoppable skyhook to his repertoire? Can you say back-to-back MVP?

Chris Bosh, Heat, C: Word on the street is Bosh has finally embraced the idea of manning the post, adding six-pounds of muscle. Winning is a panacea. LeBron James, Heat, F: Remember when LBJ was mercilessly mocked for his not one, not two, not three…” banter? Doesn’t sound so ridiculous now, huh?

Josh Smith, Hawks, F: A 2013 restricted free agent, the homegrown stud’s ATL days could be numbered. Either way, the multi-talented vet leaves nothing to chance.

John Wall, Wizards, G: Still only 22, the third-year guard is ready for superstardom. This is the year hype turns to reality.

Dwyane Wade, Heat, G: A pair of left knee surgeries over the last five years may have robbed Flash of some explosiveness. But resiliency and resolve have to count for something, right?

 

SOUTHEAST DIVISION MVP – Membership has its privileges. And after being baptized with the validation of first NBA titledom, King James seems destined for so much more. In a recent NBA.com survey, two of every three GMs predicted he will snare his fourth MVP award this season and 70 percent of evaluators forecasted Heat as repeat champs. So clear seems James’ mission, ESPN has dubbed him the "King of the Rings."  With Dwyane Wade recovering from knee surgery and Chris Bosh adjusting to a new position, the Heat figure to heavily rely on James early on. But if anyone can add to a 27, 8 and 6 per night workload, it’s The King. 

 

HOOD PLATINUM: How many ballers have enough juice to deny Jordan and lecture LeBron, all in a matter of days; and each time with his own benefit in mind?  DWade is so empowered. From manning up to taking sole custody of his two young boys to daring to revolutionize the sneaker industry, Wade is his own man. 

 

THE STANDINGS:

1. MIAMI: For would-be seekers of his crown, good news is LeBron James is no longer the same player he was at the end of last season’s defining run. The bad news is he’s no longer the same player. “Totally different,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told ESPN of his star’s preseason demeanor and commitment. “He has completely transformed himself as a basketball player. And, in the process, he has completely transformed us.” 

Translation? Expect LeBron to perform more along lines that purists might expect of a 6-8, 250 pound built-for-battle specimen of granite. Scary thing is, you also have to anticipate the versatile, baseline-to-baseline LeBron that, well, makes him LeBron James. Such an adjustment plays in lockstep with the Heat’s on-the-record pledge to make greater use of the small ball attack that earned the Big Three its first collective championship last season. Somehow, someway, all-time reigning sharpshooter Ray Allen has arrived, shoring up any trepidation that Miami might have in pushing their bold, brave new plan to the fullest.

Add to the equation, a healthier Dwyane Wade and a more at-peace Chris Bosh, and it’s fair to wonder if even the made-over Lakers have any chance of raining on South Beach’s parade. 

Projected Record: 62-20

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2. ATLANTA

Homegrown sparkplug Lou Williams joins DeShawn Stevenson (toughness), Anthony Morrow (sharpshooter) and Devin Harris (versatility) to give the Hawks their most potent reserves corps since the days of “Nique and Spud. All-stars Josh Smith and Al Horford provide stability and rookie John Jenkins’ stroke is every bit as sweet as the departed Joe Johnson's. 

Projected Record: 47-35

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3. WASHINGTON

It won’t be long before the backcourt of Wall and Beal is celebrated as one of the League’s most refined. Name a pair of young stars whose games are any more tailored for one another than the Wiz’s new dynamic tandem. Good luck to opposing PGs faced with keeping Wall out of the lane on the regular. Veteran front line of Nene and Emeka Okafor provide muscle. 

Projected Record: 43-39

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4. CHARLOTTE

In Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker, thoroughbreds whom guided squads to the last two NCAA titles, at least Cats have pedigree. Again, enigmatic forward Tyrus Thomas holds key. If Thomas can… you know the rest.

Projected Record: 30-52

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5. ORLANDO

When the GM is face of the franchise, enough said. The Magic hopes 30-year-old hotshot exec Rob Hennigan replicates what he contributed to in OKC. Problem is, neither Kevin Durant nor Russell Westbrook are walking through that door anytime soon. Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington are serviceable, just nowhere near the same star power.

Projected Record: 28-54

 

 

Around the league:

Don’t sleep on the Spurs, but take a nap on J-Lin and the Beard in the Southwest.

The Thunder will be fine without Harden, but small markets rule the Northwest which could see four playoff teams.

Derrick Rose is still the King of the point guard class in the Central, but the young guns are comin' for the crown.

Get ready for more Manhattan whining from the Atlantic, while the Celts and Nets steal the show.

The Lakers will reign supreme in the Pacific, and the league's biggest beta-male may be the MVP.