Wizards v. East contenders: Atlanta Hawks

Wizards v. East contenders: Atlanta Hawks
July 23, 2014, 3:30 pm
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At this moment, i.e. before the Cavaliers do or do not pair Kevin Love with LeBron James, here's what we know for sure about the heavy favorites in the upcoming Eastern Conference race: There aren't any.

Miami and Indiana dominated the 2013-14 regular season from the start. They were also the last two teams standing in the East. Then the Heat lost you know who while wacky Lance Stephenson left the mystifying Pacers for a contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

For now, that leaves no clear first tier, but a deep middle group which includes Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Indiana and perhaps New York and Detroit. 

The Cavaliers and Bulls could emerge as clear frontrunners depending on which team lands Love from Minnesota, the health of Chicago's Derrick Rose and the adjustment to NBA life for Cleveland rookie Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick.

Neither of those teams play in the Southeast division, but four potential if not likely playoff teams do, including the Wizards. Over the next few weeks we'll gauge how Washington matches up with each team in the East.

Atlanta Hawks

Last season: 38-44, lost to Indiana in first round of playoffs

Key additions: Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore (free agents); Adriean Payne, Walter Tavares, Lamar Patterson (draft picks)

Key losses: Cartier Martin (DET)

Notable remaining free agents: Shelvin Mack, Mike Scott

Summary: The return of Al Horford, who missed most of last season due to a pectoral injury, counts as big news for the upcoming season. Still, more was expected from the Hawks in free agency, especially after the team cleared cap space by shipping Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueria to Toronto. With rising coaching star Mike Budenholzer, they might have been the clear divisional favorite with the addition of a notable starter. Regardless, Atlanta shouldn't be battling for its playoff life as was the case last season. Horford combined with Paul Millsap gives Atlanta a strong interior combo to go with Jeff Teague's point guard skills and Kyle Korver's shooting prowess. Sefolosha and Bazemore are defensive energy types that lack flash but offer legitimate help.

Who's better: The Wizards took 3 of 4 in the series last season with the only loss coming in overtime. We'll see if that's a trend or aberration, but it's worth noting that Atlanta had won 18 of 20 dating back to March 2008. The starting big men battle is a push, but Washington has the backcourt edge with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Then again, Teague improved significantly last season, Korver often proves problematic against the Wizards and the Sefolosha/Bazemore additions boost Atlanta's athleticism. Give Washington the edge overall, but expect a battle every game.

[RELATED: Wake-up call: Wizards want to lighten load on starters -- like Spurs]