The Washington Wizards could easily get caught up in the rhetoric, fall into the trap that they are in the weakest of the NBA's six divisions -- the Southeast, the Least of the East. They could sit back and assume that the NBA's realignment has provided them an opportunity to end seven straight lottery seasons and win the franchise's first division title since 1979, when the Bullets won the inaugural Atlantic Division crown.
"We're kind of starting from scratch. People can say it's easier [to win]," Wizards guard Larry Hughes said of the new division, "but we can't, because we've struggled, too."
Larry Hughes does not subscribe to the belief that Washington has it easy playing in the new Southeast division.
(Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
2003-04: 25-57, 6th in Atlantic Division.
Coach: Eddie Jordan (58-121, .324).
Key additions: 6-foot-9 F Antawn Jamison, 6-4 G Anthony Peeler, 6-9 F Samaki Walker, 6-8 F Michael Ruffin.
Key losses: G-F Jerry Stackhouse, F Christian Laettner.
They'll make the playoffs if: They can get healthy, cut back on their turnovers and make a commitment to playing defense; G Gilbert Arenas buys into the Princeton offense and begins to trust his teammates; F Kwame Brown returns from his foot injury and makes a dramatic leap toward living up to his status as a No. 1 overall pick. Their young players need to grow up and learn how to win together. Key for the team is Jamison being the low-post threat the Wizards expect him to be, taking some of the pressure off Brendan Haywood and Brown.
-- Michael Lee
The Wizards left behind former geographic and division rivals Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and Boston to join a division with other struggling franchises like the Atlanta Hawks (a team that hasn't been to the playoffs or had a winning record since 1999), the Orlando Magic (a team that posted the worst record in the NBA last season), and the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. The Miami Heat is the only team in the division that made the playoffs last season, with a grand total of 42 wins. Of course, the Heat added some guy named Shaquille O'Neal in the middle.
"I don't look at it like, well it's a weak division, we can make the playoffs," Brendan Haywood said. "We have to look at it more that no matter what division we're in, if we play the right way, we can make the playoffs. You can't depend on teams losing to make the playoffs."
And there is no need for the Wizards to get ahead of themselves, although there is a greater sense of optimism with the acquisition of Antawn Jamison in a draft-day deal last summer. The other teams in the division, however, were just as -- if not more -- busy in the offseason in an effort to improve.
The Heat and Magic both made major moves. The Hawks got Antoine Walker and Al Harrington in separate deals. And while the Bobcats will struggle, Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld said, "I think the Southeast Division is not as weak as people thought it would've been."
Coach Eddie Jordan doesn't know what to expect from the new Southeast Division. "I can tell you about Southeast D.C.," Jordan, a native of Washington, said with a laugh. "It's all so new to us."
Under the new set-up in the Eastern Conference, the teams that have the best records in the Southeast, Northeast and Central will earn an automatic playoff berth. So, a division winner could have the ninth-best record in the East and leave one of the best eight teams on the outside looking in.
"You know if you win your division, you're going to be first, second third in the East," Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said. "You don't know if it's going to be one of those freaky things, where a team actually wins the division but has only got 20 wins -- which could happen. That's the weird thing."
The Wizards will play an 82-game schedule that is similar to the one they played with a four-division league. They will face their division rivals four times a year, other Eastern Conference teams three or four times and Western Conference opponents twice. "So it really doesn't make that much of a difference," Grunfeld said. "It really isn't that significant because it's a new division."
"We look at the Eastern Conference first, not necessarily the division," Jordan said. "I don't see it being a huge factor in how you play and how you approach games and how you approach opponents. If we win all our games in the division, it doesn't mean we're going to win the division. You've still got to win against Indiana, Detroit, New York and Boston. You've got to win as many games as you can win. I don't care if it's Atlanta in December or Memphis in November, it's a game we want to win."