It's way too early in the process to make a strong a judgment of the Southeast Division landscape, but here's where it looks like we stand today, in my wholly premature preview of the division.
1 -- The Orlando Magic are still the best team in the division. Say what you will about Dwight Howard's offense, it's still pretty good, and his defense is elite (just stop blocking shots into the seats, dude). If they let Matt Barnes go and try to replace him with J.J. Redick, I think they'll miss him, but not much. They should still very much want to move Vince Carter and, possibly, Marcin Gortat for power forward help, moving Rashard Lewis to more of a wing role. Carter will almost certainly be bought out after this season, so it's basically an expiring contract. Gortat, on the other hand, is good enough to start for a lot of teams, so the Magic would do well to convert him into someone who can upgrade their starting lineup.
2 -- The Miami Heat have a long way to go, but already they're making moves to get their starting lineup in order. Their top three is incredible, of course, but there's still the little problem of finding a complementary big for Chris Bosh and whether or not they're going to stick with Mario Chalmers at point guard. Udonis Haslem may return, but Bosh has made a big deal about not wanting to play "center" and LeBron James has seemed to resist playing power forward and guarding those big men. If they end up with Joel Anthony and Chalmers as the fourth and fifth starters, and a big man rotation of Bosh, Anthony, Haslem, and another body I can't see them favored over the Magic in a seven game series. Furthermore, there are several teams in the West that will give them hell because Bosh doesn't play defense.
3 -- The Atlanta Hawks were dark horse title contenders for much of last season, remember. They return their starters, plus Jamal Crawford, and will probably be in the same boat this year, stuck in the second tier. Unfortunately for them, Joe Johnson is probably really close to career decline, and it wouldn't be crazy to see it happen this season.
4 -- The Charlotte Bobcats could easily be ahead of the Hawks by the time the season starts, but right now, with the projected starters and bench players in place, they're not quite there. You know all the questions. Can D.J. Augustin hold down a starting point guard job? Can Tyson Chandler and Gerald Wallace stay healthy? Will Stephen Jackson continue to play nice with everyone? How much run will Gerald Henderson and Derrick Brown get?
Here's the big thing that didn't really sink in with me until this morning, though: the Miami Thrice combination has pushed two teams out of playoff contention, as of now. While the Bobcats were one of three teams vying for two playoff spots at the bottom of the conference last year, the preseason outlook is pretty clear. Cleveland will be awful. Toronto will probably be worse than last year. Miami was already a playoff team. So, in the Eastern Conference, Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta, and Miami are in, and I figure the Bobcats are the next best team, which would give them the seven-seed, since they're closer to the Hawks and Bucks than they are to the rebuilt Knicks, healthy and maturing Nets, et cetera.
I'm calling it right now: the Bobcats are going to make the playoffs this year. So much would have to go badly for them not to make it.
5 -- The Washington Wizards are still a mess. Though I love Kirk Hinrich and believe Yi Jianlian can be productive, those guys are "just" starters who haven't been fully appreciated; they're hardly franchise-altering players. Unless John Wall is transcendent, they'll be gunning for the top draft pick again.