Story to watch: It was fun while it lasted. Then the Hawks had to get on with the rest of their lives. The jubilation of making the playoffs and pushing the heavily favored Celtics to seven games gave way to Josh Childress signing in Greece, a protracted negotiation to re-sign best player Josh Smith, and Smith and coach Mike Woodson clashing before the end of preseason. It was inevitable at some point. But October? In other places, this would be a disappointing followup. In Atlanta, it's the threat of the Hawks becoming irrelevant again, and that doesn't take much doing there. A good season from Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams and Acie Law and the Hawks still have got something. A bad 2008-09 is a double setback.
Player to watch: Gilbert Arenas. "Agent Zero," "Hibachi," blogger extraordinaire, scorer supreme, prone to going off the reservation, new owner of a six-year, $111-million contract. And injured. Injured a lot. He's working on his third knee operation, with only the fate of the Wizards hanging in the balance. If making it back by December is considered the best-case scenario, you can imagine the other possibilities for someone with a history.
Coach to watch: Larry Brown. It's a bad sign when the most compelling part of a team is the new coach, but they're the Bobcats and he's Brown and just try getting around the truth. Save the regrettable-for-all pass through Madison Square Garden, he makes teams better, sometimes as the closer for veteran clubs and sometimes developing young talent on teams struggling for direction. Charlotte: struggling for direction. They almost certainly will find one this season, however temporary.
Newcomer to watch: Michael Beasley. In a division lacking an arriving impact veteran -- Mickael Pietrus? Juan Dixon? -- the Heat rookie has a chance to be a difference maker at that level. For one thing, his versatile inside-outside game may be that good, even for someone with one season at Kansas State. For another, his transition as the heralded No. 2 pick will come with Dwyane Wade and Shawn Marion running interference. Beasley should be able to score from several spots on the floor and rebound. That's impact for any experience level.
Rookie to watch: Beasley. Beyond that, JaVale McGee. The Nevada product was the No. 18 pick by the Wizards, not a spot where it's fair to expect a major payoff, and the son of former Monarch Pam McGee has a lot of project in him anyway. But if the power forward-center makes any contribution on defense or the boards and Arenas comes back healthy, Washington is on the move.
By the numbers: Even with Dwight Howard leading the league in rebounding, the Magic finished 22nd by percentage. ... No one from the Southeast was in the top 12 in scoring. ... Gerald Wallace of the Bobcats and Caron Butler of the Wizards were the only players in the league to average at least 19 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. ... Miami's 15 wins were the fewest since its first season of existence, 1988-89.
Predicted order of finish (with 2007-08 record):
- Orlando Magic (52-30)
- Washington Wizards (43-39)
- Miami Heat (15-67)
- Atlanta Hawks (37-45)
- Charlotte Bobcats (32-50)