Lynne Sladky, Associated Press
Center Shaquille O'Neal may have to carry the load for Miami until guard Dwyane Wade returns.

The NBA went from four divisions — two in each conference — to six divisions — with three per conference — prior to the 2004-05 season. With fewer teams per division, it's now just a matter of time before a division champion finishes with a .500 mark or worse.

In fact, it just might be this year. And if it is, it could very well be the Southeast Division.

The Miami Heat won the Southeast a year ago with just a 44-38 mark — just three wins above .500. All the other teams were .500 or worse. Three of the teams made the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference, but the Southeast Division was a combined 0-12 in postseason games.

With the best player in the Southeast — Miami guard Dwyane Wade — out for at least the first few weeks of the season while recovering from knee and shoulder surgeries, the Heat may get off to a poor start.

That doesn't mean Miami will panic, of course. Their division is mediocre, at best. And as long as the playoff-tested Heat can get healthy by the postseason, they could do some damage in the Eastern Conference.

If the Heat should go cold for too much of the season, the Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic could step up and claim the division title. As for Atlanta and Charlotte, well, let's just say that those young teams are likely to still be building for the future this season.


2006-07 RECORD: 44-38

DIVISION FINISH: first, lost to Chicago 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs

COACH: Pat Riley, 11th season with the Heat

TOP ROOKIE: G Daequan Cook

KEY ADDITIONS: G-F Ricky Davis, G Smush Parker, G Penny Hardaway, C Mark Blount

KEY LOSSES: F James Posey, F Antoine Walker, F Jason Kapono, C Michael Doleac, F Wayne Simien

STRENGTHS: G Dwyane Wade (27.4 ppg, 7.5 apg) willed the Heat to the NBA title in 2006, but had an injury-plagued season last year. If he gets back to full strength, the Heat will be tough to beat in the East. C Shaquille O'Neal (17.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) isn't the dominating player he once was, but he's still a force. He's backed up by another ancient center, Alonzo Mourning. F Udonis Haslem (10.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg) goes to the boards hard, while PG Jason Williams (10.9 ppg, 5.3 apg) is a solid contributor.

CONCERNS: Losing Kapono and Posey to free agency will hurt. Miami lacks the depth to be a consistent winner if Wade and/or O'Neal aren't playing due to nagging injuries. Also, the Heat have struggled to a winless preseason.


2006-07 RECORD: 41-41

DIVISION FINISH: second, lost to Cleveland 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs

COACH: Eddie Jordan, fifth season

TOP ROOKIE: G Nick Young


KEY LOSSES: F Jarvis Hayes

STRENGTHS: As long as their trio of All-Stars — PG Gilbert Arenas and forwards Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison — are healthy, the Wizards can score on anyone. Arenas averaged 28.5 ppg before a season-ending knee injury. Butler (19.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg) also missed the playoffs due to injury, leaving just Jamison (19.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg) during the 4-0 loss to the Cavs. Ex-Jazzman DeShawn Stevenson (11.2 ppg) is a solid contributor.

CONCERNS: The Wizards are not a strong defensive team and they got more recent bad news when center Etan Thomas had to undergo open-heart surgery. With Thomas out, Washington has just one true center on the roster in Brendan Haywood.


2006-07 RECORD: 40-42

DIVISION FINISH: third, lost to Detroit 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs

COACH: Stan Van Gundy, first season with the Magic


KEY ADDITIONS: F Rashard Lewis, C Adonal Foyle

KEY LOSSES: F Grant Hill, F Darko Milicic

STRENGTHS: F-C Dwight Howard (17.6 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 1.9 bpg) is young and only getting better. Decent supporting cast includes G Jameer Nelson (13.0 ppg, 4.3 apg) and F Hedo Turkoglu (13.3 ppg). The trade with Seattle for F Rashard Lewis (22.4, 6.6 rpg) gives Van Gundy another much-needed scoring threat.

CONCERNS: Hill, the long-time face of the franchise, is gone to Phoenix. Lewis has had some ankle problems during the preseason. Orlando is turnover prone and needs to take better care of the basket ball.


2006-07 RECORD: 30-52

DIVISION FINISH: last, missed playoffs

COACH: Mike Woodson, fourth year

TOP ROOKIES: F Al Horford, G Acie Law IV



STRENGTHS: Young team is paced by G Joe Johnson (25 ppg) and forwards Josh Smith (16.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and Marvin Williams (13.1 ppg). Landed the No. 3 pick in the draft in Horford, a key member of the two-time NCAA champion Florida team. Law is a pass-first guard who looks to be the point guard of the future.

CONCERNS: Johnson had a season-ending leg injury last season and the Hawks need him healthy if they are going to continue to make the climb into respectability. Having a lot of young, high draft picks bodes well for the future, but the present building process still figures to be rocky.


2006-07 RECORD: 33-49

DIVISION FINISH: fourth, missed playoffs

COACH: Sam Vincent, first year

TOP ROOKIE: F Jared Dudley

KEY ADDITION: G Jason Richardson

KEY LOSS: G Brevin Knight

STRENGTHS: Athletic and young core group of players led by PG Raymond Felton (14.0 ppg, 7.0 apg) and Emeka Okafor (14.4 ppg, 11.3 rpg). Richardson (16.0 ppg for Golden State) has been around the block a few times. F Gerald Wallace (18.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg) is a good all-around player.

CONCERNS: The Bobcats lack depth and the season-ending injury to Sean May already has the team of to a bad start. F Adam Morrison struggled in his rookie season last year.