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10-31-2004, 09:46 AM
"Eastern Conference preview

October 31, 2004

Atlantic Division

1. Philadelphia 76ers

Last season: 33-49, did not make the playoffs

Coach: Jim O'Brien (first year)

What's new: Brian Skinner, Kedrick Brown, Kevin Ollie, Corliss Williamson. Is any of this exciting you? O'Brien was the best addition. Maybe he can find the "Big Dog" in Glenn Robinson again, but he's already had to bench the former Purdue star.

What's lost: Eric Snow's departure just means Allen Iverson will have the ball more, if he is healthy. Iverson missed 34 games last year.

Why they'll finish first: Nobody in this division stands out, and Iverson and O'Brien seem to have struck a relationship that the All-Star never had with Larry Brown.

2. Boston Celtics

Last season: 36-46, lost 4-0 to Pacers in first round

Coach: Doc Rivers (first year)

What's new: Rivers is in and now the bench and front office are in agreement. Raef LaFrentz is back. Gary Payton takes the reins. Al Jefferson and rookie guards Delonte West and Tony Allen will blend in quickly.

What's lost: Chucky Atkins went to the Lakers in the Payton deal, giving Boston a huge defensive upgrade.

Why they'll finish second: Thirty-six wins put the Celtics in the playoffs last season. Paul Pierce shot 40 percent amid turmoil and now his team is overhauled again.

3. New York Knicks

Last season: 39-43, lost 4-0 to Nets in first round

Coach: Lenny Wilkens (second year)

What's new: Isiah Thomas traded for Jamal Crawford, leaving the Knicks with four pre-Thomas players. Crawford is not accurate but can score, and he'll need to when Allan Houston is hurt.

What's lost: Dikembe Mutombo is gone via the Crawford trade, but Nazr Mohammed and Vin Baker had already made him disappear.

Why they'll finish third: New York does not look much better but should improve to a winning record now that the roster has a chance to mesh.

4. New Jersey Nets

Last season: 47-35, lost 4-3 to Pistons in conference semifinals

Coach: Lawrence Frank (second year)

What's new: New tightwad owner Bruce Ratner has sapped all hope of the former East king. Newark's own Eric Williams was a nice signing if you ignore what the Nets let go.

What's lost: Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles are mammoth losses, given away for almost nothing. What's lost in Jason Kidd via microfracture surgery is just as damning.

Why they'll finish fourth: With Kidd gone for a while, the losses and empty seats will pile up as the Nets battle the Raptors for the bottom spot.

5. Toronto Raptors

Last season: 33-49, did not make the playoffs

Coach: Sam Mitchell (first year)

What's new: Rafer Alston returns after busting out in Miami for an upgrade over Alvin Williams at point guard. Draftee center Rafael Araujo could wind up letting skinny Chris Bosh go to power forward.

What's lost: Kevin O'Neill's firing might mean a defensive drop. No players left once the Raptors matched New Orleans' offer to Morris Peterson after his worst season.

Why they'll finish fifth: The Raptors can win, shown in a 25-25 mark before last year's run of injuries. They could also be a disaster if they crumble and fans turn on Vince Carter again.

Central Division

1. Detroit Pistons

Last season: 54-28, beat Lakers 4-1 in NBA Finals

Coach: Larry Brown (second year)

What's new: Detroit gets even better with Antonio McDyess, who looks healthy and even explosive. He is a bench upgrade over Corliss Williamson.

What's lost: Williamson's departure freed up room to re-sign Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince in 2006. Detroit did not match Utah's offer to Mehmet Okur so it could retain Rasheed Wallace.

Why they'll finish first: They'll have Rasheed Wallace for the entire season, and if Richard Hamilton can stay cool with his role, Detroit looks poised for an encore performance.

2. Indiana Pacers

Last season: 61-21, lost 4-2 to Pistons in conference finals

Coach: Rick Carlisle (second year)

What's new: Stephen Jackson, Atlanta's leading scorer last year, gives Indiana a clutch shooter at the perfect time, when it appears Reggie Miller is playing his final season.

What's lost: Indiana gave up Al Harrington to get Jackson, but Harrington wasn't going to start ahead of Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest. The door is open for Jonathan Bender.

Why they'll finish second: Nagging injuries could slow the Pacers early. But this team isn't looking at winning 61 games again or winning the division. It's all about getting through Detroit and Miami to the NBA Finals.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

Last season: 41-41, lost 4-1 to Pistons in first round

Coach: Terry Porter (second year)

What's new: The quiet signing of Mike James, a poor man's Porter, is bigger now that T.J. Ford is still on the shelf after a May spinal fusion.

What's lost: Starting center Brian Skinner went to Philadelphia and key reserve Damon Jones signed with Miami. After Washington matched an offer to Etan Thomas, the Bucks' best center might be Dan Gadzuric.

Why they'll finish third: Michael Redd might score 25 points a night. A playoff spot and Joe Smith's credible play won't be surprises this time.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

Last season: 35-47, did not make the playoffs

Coach: Paul Silas (second year)

What's new: Trading Tony Battie for Drew Gooden was a nice recovery move that should not have been necessary. Eric Snow and rookie Luke Jackson are role additions to help LeBron James.

What's lost: Whether you blame Carlos Boozer or not, Cleveland should never have put itself in the position to let him get away to Utah.

Why they'll finish fourth: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and James are two of the best at their spots, but the Cavs need improvement from Dajuan Wagner and DeSagana Diop.

5. Chicago Bulls

Last season: 23-59, did not make the playoffs

Coach: Scott Skiles (second year)

What's new: Hope lies in lottery picks Ben Gordon and Luol Deng. Early returns on Gordon, the third overall pick, are shaky. Wing Andres Nocioni from Argentina is a huge hit.

What's lost: Jamal Crawford, a restricted free agent, was dealt in a move that creates future cap room and turns the team over to Kirk Hinrich.

Why they'll finish fifth: Anchoring itself to Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler still has Chicago at the depth of sea coral.

Southeast Division

1. Miami Heat

Last season: 42-40, lost 4-2 to Pacers in conference semifinals

Coach: Stan Van Gundy (second year)

What's new: There's a new big man: Michael Doleac. OK, Shaquille O'Neal's arrival shook the NBA world and gave the East a third contender. He could do wonders for Eddie Jones' looks at the basket.

What's lost: To get Shaq, Miami lost Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler while keeping the key to the Diesel (Dwyane Wade). Those losses and Rafer Alston's departure prompted picking up Keyon Dooling and Damon Jones.

Why they'll finish first: Miami might not lose within the awful Southeast Division, helping its postseason chances. And this team, specifically O'Neal, was built for the postseason.

2. Washington Wizards

Last season: 25-57, did not make the playoffs

Coach: Eddie Jordan (second year)

What's new: This team somehow became Golden State East with Antawn Jamison's addition to join former Warriors teammates Larry Hughes and Gilbert Arenas. Not sure that's a good thing.

What's lost: Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner were traded for Jamison. Neither played much last year.

Why they'll finish second: Being in the Southeast Division will make the Wizards feel better about themselves. But they'll realize their place in the pecking order every time they step outside the division.

3. Orlando Magic

Last season: 21-61, did not make the playoffs

Coach: Johnny Davis (second year)

What's new: The Magic blew it up with a blockbuster Tracy McGrady trade that led to an all-new starting lineup.

What's lost: What wasn't? Only Andrew DeClercq is back. A fresh roster gives a chance to Davis, who has a 40-111 mark as a head coach.

Why they'll finish third: It looks like Houston East, which isn't good enough to win in this conference. With Yao Ming in the middle, Houston missed the playoffs.

4. Atlanta Hawks

Last season: 28-54, did not make the playoffs

Coach: Mike Woodson (first year)

What's new: Be careful what you wish for in the NBA. Al Harrington and Antoine Walker wanted out of winning programs and now will be mired in Atlanta's annual funk. Cap space drew no interest.

What's lost: Trading Jason Terry for Walker left the Hawks scrambling for a point guard. Hello, 14th-year general Kenny Anderson. Goodbye, improvement.

Why they'll finish fourth: It will be bad, but Mike Woodson was a good coaching hire, Harrington should blossom and there is still cap room for next summer.

5. Charlotte Bobcats

Last season: expansion team in 2004-05

Coach: Bernie Bickerstaff (first year)

What's new: This expansion team was set up like someone furnishing a new home via yard sales. Primoz Brezec, unseen in three years in Indiana, could be the scoring leader, but beware of Eddie House.

What's lost: All hope.

Why they'll finish fifth: Charlotte has a basketball team again, but it might be years before it gets another good one. If Bickerstaff can guide these guys to 20 wins, the folks in Charlotte should throw a parade."