March 18, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) and Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard (12) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Miami Heat: How the Heat's Road to the NBA Finals Improves Within their Division

On-and-off, the Miami Heat had been tormented by Dwight Howard for the past few years.

Ever since losing Shaquille O’Neal, the Heat haven’t had a center to rely on to limit Howard. From Jermaine O’Neal to Dexter Pittman, the Heat would have success against Howard it seemed every other game. Sometimes Howard would struggle to gain a double-double, yet other times it was as if he couldn’t miss a shot near the basket and could shut down the lane without fouling; it was the perks of being the league’s top center.

The Heat had to deal with that four times per year since 2004. Even though they may just have to end up facing Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers in a star-studded NBA Finals, they can at least thank the good people above that Howard is no longer in their division ,and that the team will no longer have to scramble over which center would be defending Dwight that night.

A possible postseason visit in the Eastern Conference playoffs wouldn’t have been fun, either. Although the Heat showed great success against the likes of Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert and Kendrick Perkins in last year’s playoffs, Dwight is the league’s most unstoppable player next to LeBron James and can change the outcome of games based on his presence alone. He could devastate all of the Heat’s centers if he in the right rhythm for seven games and the Heat can’t get him into foul trouble.

Now that is no longer a worry, at least until the NBA Finals, but that’s a long way away and it’s better not to begin making predictions, yet. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt, it’s not like every single person who knew anything about the NBA had the 2012 Finals being a matchup between the Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder.

So, no, nobody is going to accuse you of being a little overzealous if you already predict a Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat NBA Finals matchup, because the only teams capable of stopping that from happening are the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Before we get to that point, however, we should take a look at the state of the Southeast Division following the departure of Dwight Howard.

Well, for one, the division is awful outside of the Heat and Atlanta Hawks. Even the Hawks have suffered a regression with the loss of Joe Johnson, but can still at least boast Josh Smith and a healthy Al Horford. The rest of the division, on the other hand, doesn’t have a chance of making the postseason which is only going to make the Heat’s job a whole lot easier when they end up playing 16 division games.

The Heat’s four division foes have hardly put up much resistance since the acquisition of the ‘Big Three’, but we take a look at each team following their offseasons and how they stack up against Miami.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks may have been fortunate when it came to planning for the future in their dismissal of the rest of the $90 million they would have owed Joe Johnson, but it’s not as if they ended up getting much out of it in terms of talent.

In their trading of Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets, the Hawks received Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams and Johan Petro.

Throw out Stevenson and Williams because you won’t see either of them, but Morrow as one of the league’s premier three-point shooters should help, as will Petro, whose size will be a need for a Hawks team that doesn’t have much depth outside of Horford and Smith. Petro will help aid Zaza Pachulia at the five, a position that became exposed following the injury of Horford last year.

Even though they lost Johnson, the Hawks can still boast some consistent three-point shooting in the likes of Morrow, Louis Williams, Kyle Korver and rookie John Jenkins, who was one of NCAA’s best perimeter shooters last year.

The Hawks will easily be the second best team in the Southeast, but will be a 6-8 seed at best by the end of the year.

Washington Wizards

Don’t look now, but the Washington Wizards actually don’t look that bad.

They’re probably not going to make the postseason, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if they’re contending for a postseason spot late in season.

The Wizards went over a major overhaul that started off with trading the insanity that was Rashard Lewis’ contract. In return, they got Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza from the New Orleans Hornets to help fill two key needs in the starting lineup. Ariza adds in a much needed defensive-specialist, who can at least try to defend LeBron, and Okafor returns back to the Southeast after spending the first six years of his career with the Charlotte Bobcats.

Okafor has long been considered one of the league’s top defensive centers and shot-blockers.

Joining those two will be the powerful Nene Hilario, rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal and an All-Star in the making in point guard John Wall, who has dealt with the Wizards antics for far too long. The Wizards have a lot of young talent on their team, also in the form of Jan Vesely, Jordan Crawford, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker, and they’ll need those young players to step up to the next level if they want to begin progressing and taking advantage of a weakened division.

Charlotte Bobcats

They certainly won’t be as horrible as the travesty we saw last year, but they’ll at least have young talent that will make them somewhat respectable.

The Charlotte Bobcats had a solid draft taking an excellent athlete in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a stellar perimeter defender in Jeffery Taylor and even made a few moves in free agency, with the acquisitions of Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and Brendan Haywood.

Still, the team isn’t that good and won’t be a threat for a long time in an Eastern Conference that’s only improved. They can only hope that Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo and Gerald Henderson improve with age, as well as hoping for a breakout season from their lottery pick.

Orlando Magic

The Bobcats can be happy for one thing: they may not end up at the bottom of the division this upcoming season because of how bad the Orlando Magic appear to be.

This team didn’t want Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol for a reason. They’ve immediately gone past the “Maybe we have a chance” phase and have gone straight to rebuilding. Rather than being a borderline postseason team with either of those two players, the Magic saved their money, picked up some role players and acquired the necessary draft picks to potentially become a better team within the next few years.

Overall, they acquired four picks, three in the first-round. Along with those picks came rookie Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington and Josh McRoberts. Afflalo has been excellent since leaving Detroit and Harkless and Vucevic have a lot of potential, but I can’t say much else for McRoberts or Harrington, who actually had an excellent season last year with Denver.

The Magic also acquired two players in the draft: Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn. Those are two players who can provide some help down low, especially in the rebounding department where Dwight Howard just left behind a gargantuan vacancy.

This team will be pretty bad for the next few seasons, but they earned my respect for getting rid of the immature nightmare that was Dwight Howard.

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