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For the first time in NBA history, a division champion is likely going to be a No. 8 seed when the playoffs begin.

Not only has that been impossible throughout the first decades of play since division-winners had been guaranteed a top-four seed regardless of record under the previous system, but generally, if you win a division, you’re not hoping you can finish above .500 at the 70-game mark.

The Southeast Division is a breathtakingly ugly monster.

Through gross mismanagement, Miami, Orlando, Washington, Charlotte and Atlanta have fallen into the league’s bottom-third.

The Heat have proven winners running things with Pat Riley at the helm and his esteemed staff ranking among the league’s most respected front offices. But the inability to keep LeBron James from returning to Cleveland and the misfortune of losing Chris Bosh to early retirement due to blood clots set the franchise back after a decade of prosperity.

It didn’t help that they made some questionable decisions in tying up money in the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters, complicating their ability to get free agents. The Heat were in the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes and will again attempt to use their status as a destination city to lure talent down the road. This makes Miami most likely to rebound.

The Magic have had a terrible run since not getting enough back for Dwight Howard, suffering through botched draft picks and awful trades. The previous administration traded its best draft pick, guard Victor Oladipo, before giving him a chance to mature. The current regime knows what they’re doing, but will need young prospects like Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba to start producing over the next few years to truly turn the corner. They haven’t had a winning season since Howard’s request to be traded was granted in the 2012 offseason.

The Wizards lost John Wall to a ruptured Achilles tendon expected to keep him out until 2020, but they were drowning in mediocrity even before January’s injury to their star. His $170 million contract extension made him virtually untradeable even before the tear that threatens to limit his effectiveness going forward. Bradley Beal has stepped up and was an All-Star this season, but the organization had to deal Otto Porter just to gain some financial flexibility over the next few seasons. Washington hasn’t reached a conference finals since 1979 and doesn’t figure to see one anytime soon.

Michael Jordan hasn’t had much success since purchasing the Hornets, who have only had three winning seasons since returning to the NBA as the Bobcats back in 2005. Jordan has put a number of general managers in place who haven’t been able to build a consistent winner, struggling mightily with the draft.

Since selecting Kemba Walker, who faces the decision of hanging around for another five years or departing via free agency this offseason, Charlotte has whiffed on lottery picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh, Frank Kaminsky and Malik Monk. Only Vonleh is no longer with the franchise, yet none of those guys qualify as a quality NBA starter.

The Hawks are bringing up the rear this season but might be best-equipped to improve quickly since 2018 draft picks Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman all look like keepers and ’17 lottery pick John Collins is a budding All-Star. They handed Young the keys and were willing to live with the mistakes in exchange for him acquiring experience, which bodes well for Atlanta’s future.

As for the present, the Heat look like the best bet to emerge from a pack of sub-.500 teams since head coach Erik Spoelstra appears to have decided on an effective rotation now that he’s working with a healthy roster. Promising center Bam Adebayo has teamed with Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Derrick Jones, Jr. to make the team’s unheralded group of starters one of the league’s stingiest defensive units over the past few weeks, while Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Whiteside anchor a bench mob that has effectively changed games.

The Magic have also impressed on the defensive end over the past few weeks. But their collective youth has bred inconsistency and led to losses against the Bulls, Cavs and Grizzlies, teams that are already looking forward to next season. Those setbacks will wind up costing Orlando its shot at winning the Southeast and ending a six-year playoff drought.

The Hornets and Wizards remain in the mix, but their schedules over the next few weeks look too tough to navigate successfully enough to catch the Heat.

Expect Miami to wind up playing sacrificial lamb as the No. 8 seed facing loaded Milwaukee or Toronto in a first-round series where the Heat will be lucky to win a game.

As for this week’s plays, here are two games to consider, both involving the Heat:

Heat at Bucks (Friday): Miami’s improved depth and solid defense should keep it in the game with the East’s best team. And you’ll get a bunch of points as well. HEAT

Heat at Wizards (Saturday): The second of a road back-to-back normally is death for the team that is traveling. But there is incentive for the visitors as a win in Washington, D.C. Beating the Wizards outright will go a long way in locking up the division. HEAT

Last week: 1-1

Season: 25-24

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About the Author
Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national writer for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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