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Brunner} Who Will Be Top Teams In East This Season?
Q. The Pacers are one of the best teams in the East, but who in the East is going to give them the most trouble? Obviously, the defending champs (Heat) and the Pistons always give us trouble, but what other teams are going to give us in trouble? Are there going to be any surprise teams? (From Tom in Anderson, Ind.)
A. There appears to be more overall competitive depth in the East this season, which basically means reaching the playoffs will be more difficult. Counterbalancing that is the lack of a dominant team capable of intimidating all opposition during the postseason. This promises to be a very, very interesting season in the East because the balancing of power is beginning to shift.
Though Miami is the defending champion and has the formidable triumvirate of Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and Pat Riley, there's a real threat of complacency. Not only did the team remain intact but it leans on aging veterans (Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning) who may not play with the same team-focused drive now that they've won their long-sought rings. I suspect this is a team headed for a fall, although on talent alone Miami should finish in the top four.
Detroit, which had been dominant until last season, lost quite a bit of its character when Ben Wallace signed with Chicago. Much can be made of how Nazr Mohammed is bigger and taller and capable of replacing Wallace's statistics but it's just not possible to replace his overall presence. Big Ben was the heart and soul of that team. The Pistons also have ridden their starters hard for several years with little support from the bench and that could catch up with them.
The door is open, then, for someone to rise to the top. Most of the projected contenders are talented but flawed. Cleveland has a great player and depth of talent but has a mismatched lineup of thoroughbreds (James, Larry Hughes) and plowhorses (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Eric Snow). New Jersey has a superb starting five but the Nets' depth remains very much in question. Washington can score but not much else.
So who, then? Adding Wallace could make Chicago the team to beat. The Bulls have a strong core of talented young players that have been seasoned together, now complemented with strong veterans (including P.J. Brown) who fill important roles. The Bulls will have to deal with something new: the pressure brought by expectations. If they can handle that, they could become the East's elite.
Several other teams have been largely overlooked but I believe will factor into the playoff race, particularly Milwaukee and Orlando. Most experts are discounting Boston and Toronto but both could contend deep into the season. In fact, the only teams without much in the way of postseason hopes are the Knicks, Hawks and Bobcats – and all three will be much tougher outs than they were a year ago.
I disagree with two points. I don't think Chicago will stand out like everyone is proclaiming. Who's going to score in the post for them? I think they will have to trade for a post player to be a threat.
And I said long ago when Isiah was kicked down to coach that he would have the Knicks in the playoffs.