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ESPN.com - NBA - Ford: Eastern Conference preseason preview
By Chad Ford
Stop calling the Eastern Conference the Leastern. The Pistons are the reigning
NBA champions, and this year, the Eastern Conference's top two teams – Detroit
and Indiana – may be the best two teams in the NBA, period.
Remember when we used to claim that the Western Conference Finals was the real
NBA Finals? This season, the Eastern Conference Finals will be the series to
watch. The West has gotten weaker, while the Pistons (the champs) and Pacers
(the league leaders in wins last year) both got better. Add Shaquille O'Neal to
the mix in Miami, and the East is as buff as it's been this century.
Let's not get carried away either. After the Pistons, Pacers and Heat, pick any
team in the East that could qualify for the playoffs in the West. The Knicks?
Celtics? 76ers? Nets? Please.
This year in the East, there's the very good, the so-so and the ugly. The gap
between the second-best team and the fifth-best team is stunning. Short of the
Pistons, Pacers and Heat, it's a stretch to guarantee any other team will make
It's pretty safe to predict who will be the worst team in the league, however.
The Charlotte Bobcats' likely starting five has a combined 23 starts in their
NBA career. If they don't challenge the 76ers' record 73 losses … no one will.
NBA training camps start today. Over the course of the next few weeks, some of
our assumptions here will have to be changed, but if you want a sneak peak into
who looks good and who doesn't going into camp -- on paper at least -- Insider
provides a primer.
Key Additions: Antonio McDyess, Carlos Delfino, Derrick Coleman
Key Subtractions: Mehmet Okur, Corliss Williamson, Mike James
Skinny: The defending champs are bringing back virtually the entire team intact
– with one important addition. Pistons president Joe Dumars thinks that teams
may have slept a little on McDyess. His knee is reportedly 100 percent healthy,
and sources claim he's looked great in offseason workouts. If he can stay
healthy, McDyess gives the Pistons a proven low-post scorer, something they
really lacked last season. And don't forget about the team's two first-round
picks in 2003: Darko Milicic and Delfino. Word is that coach Larry Brown wants
to steepen Darko's learning curve, giving him 10-15 minutes a night this season.
Delfino, who played in the Euroleague Final Four last year and on the Olympic
gold-medal team, is experienced enough to step right in as Richard Hamilton's
replacement off the bench – another option the team sorely lacked this year. The
only question for the Pistons? With Brown coming off an emotional spring and a
brutal summer, will he stick around if the team gets off to a rocky start?
Key Additions: Stephen Jackson, David Harrison
Key Subtractions: Al Harrington
Skinny: The Pacers took a calculated risk this summer by swapping Harrington for
Jackson. Larry Bird realizes Reggie Miller is on the downside of his career and
wanted a big, athletic two guard whom Rick Carlisle could groom into the role.
Bird also believes that Jonathan Bender is ready to take over Harrington's sixth
man duties. Bender has more size, talent and versatility – but can he stay
healthy for 82 games? If Bender delivers, the Pacers will be tougher than they
were last year. And don't overlook the rookie Harrison, like 28 other NBA teams
did. The Pacers were so impressed with Harrison's play this summer that they
believe he'll see real minutes backing up Jeff Foster and Scot Pollard at center
Key Additions: Shaquille O'Neal, Christian Laettner
Key Subtractions: Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler, Rafer Alston
Skinny: Shaq changes everything. He's the most dominant big man in the East by a
mile. Dwyane Wade is coming off a heroic rookie playoff performance, and rookie
high-school phenom Dorell Wright turned heads in the summer. But realistically?
If Shaq and Kobe couldn't get it done with Karl Malone and Gary Payton, how are
Shaq and Wade supposed to run the gamut with their supporting cast? It looks
like a lot of '90s stars have decided to retire in Florida; Laettner, Eddie
Jones and Wesley Person will try their best just to stay in front of somebody.
But the truth is that the Heat are so thin they're one Shaq or Wade serious
injury away from the lottery.
Key Additions: Jamal Crawford, Jerome Williams
Key Subtractions: Dikembe Mutombo, Othella Harrington, Frank Williams
Skinny: The Knicks paid good money to get this high up in the rankings. For
$100-plus million, you better be able to win some games in the East. Had they
landed Erick Dampier, they would've been a force. Without him, they're all
perimeter with a super-soft core. To top things off, there are some in New York
that suggest Allan Houston's days as a superstar are over after last year's
serious injury. Still, a starting five of Stephon Marbury, Crawford, Tim Thomas,
Kurt Thomas and Nazr Mohammed – along with Penny Hardaway, Vin Baker and Jerome
Williams – should have enough cash to bribe somebody into laying down for them.
Skinny: No team has changed their roster or image more in the course of a
summer. Last year, the Magic had the league's worst record despite being the
home of one of the league's top-five stars. With T-Mac out and the Franchise in,
GM John Weisbrod is trying desperately to change the way the Magic play
basketball. Weisbrod has jettisoned off the softies and brought in players he
believes will play the right way. We'll see if it works. Francis, Cato,
Turkoglu, Battie and even rookie Dwight Howard have a history of underperforming
when the going gets tough. The Magic hope that a new team, different philosophy
and hungry head coach will get the team going in the right direction. But if
things start off rocky, watch out. Stevie can pout with the best of them. The
X-factor this year, like every year this decade, is Grant Hill. He's reportedly
healthy and playing his best basketball since he hurt his ankle. If it's true,
and he stays that way, the Magic have a great shot of making the playoffs. If
Hill is on crutches by November, it could be another long year in Orlando.
Key Additions: Eric Snow, Drew Gooden, Luke Jackson, Aleksandar Pavlovic
Key Subtractions: Carlos Boozer, Tony Battie, Eric Williams
Skinny: GM Jim Paxson made the dumbest move of the summer when he let Carlos
Boozer out of the last year of his deal with a wink-wink, below market value
contract extension promise that he knew he couldn't enforce. When Boozer bolted
for Utah, the sky looked like it was falling in Cleveland. But Paxson has
rebounded nicely. The team played much better when they traded for a real point
guard, Jeff McInnis, before the trade deadline. Snow's an upgrade from there and
a perfect mentor for LeBron James. Gooden is an adequate replacement for Boozer
if he can keep his head in the game. Both Jackson and Pavlovic have a shot at
being nice wing men for LeBron. But let's not kid ourselves. The Cavs' season
hinges on one guy. If LeBron continues to improve, he's going to carry the Cavs
to the playoffs on his back. He looked like the best player in the world when he
was on the floor for Team USA this summer. Paul Silas won't make the same
mistake Larry Brown did and leave LeBron on the bench waving towels.
Key Additions: Antawn Jamison
Key Subtractions: Jerry Stackhouse, Christian Laettner
Skinny: Injuries and new offense were too much for the Wizards to overcome last
season. But there's hope that former Nets offensive guru Eddie Jordan has the
tools he now needs to make the Wizards one of the hottest offenses in the league
this year. Jamison is a scoring machine who can play both inside and out. The
Wizards have longed for a guy who can score in the paint. Put him on the floor
with a healthy Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes in a contract year, and a reportedly
buffed-up Kwame Brown, and the Wizards may have just enough juice to get out and
run this year. There aren't many guarantees in the East this year, but with two
of the worst teams in the league in the Southeast Division with them, they
should be able to run up enough wins to have a good shot at a playoff seed.
Key Additions: Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni, Frank Williams, Eric
Key Subtractions: Jamal Crawford, Jerome Willams, Scottie Pippen (retirement)
Skinny: Why is GM John Paxson smiling after a disastrous rookie season heading
the Chicago Terri-bulls? One, Eddy Curry is off his Big Mac and Kool-Aid diet
and reported to camp in shape for the first time in his career. Two, both Curry
and Tyson Chandler – who were drafted straight out of high school together in
2001 – are in contract years, meaning that for the first time in four seasons,
their future isn't guaranteed in the millions. Third, he dumped several
perceived problems this summer and swapped them for two rookies, Ben Gordon and
Luol Deng, who have the requisite toughness and winning pedigree he's been
looking for on his team. Finally, he made himself a nice free-agent coup,
getting the best and toughest international player not in the NBA, Nocioni, to
agree to leave the Euroleague for the Bulls. What he has now is perhaps the most
talented, albeit youngest, squad the Bulls have had since MJ hung up his
sneakers. Of course, we've said that before with little to no results (we picked
the Bulls to finish sixth in the East last year). Why will this year be
different? A tougher coach, fewer egos, more winners and plenty of incentive to
play the right way. Forty wins this year and Paxson can finally sleep easy
knowing that his team still has plenty of room to grow. Anything less and either
Curry or Chandler will be wearing a new uniform next season – if not sooner.
Key Additions: Nenad Krstic, Eric Williams, Ron Mercer, Jacque Vaughn
Key Subtractions: Kenyon Martin, Kerry Kittles, Rodney Rogers
Skinny: Don't blame GM Rod Thorn for the literal dismantling of a team that
played in the Finals two of the past three seasons. New owner Bruce Ratner,
focused only on the bottom line, shipped Martin to Denver when his asking price
became too high and then shipped Kittles to the Clippers to get even further
under the cap. Their replacements, Williams and Mercer, don't really inspire
confidence. Factor in that Jason Kidd will miss training camp and the start of
the regular season rehabbing from offseason knee surgery; Richard Jefferson, the
one guy Ratner was willing to pay, looked awful in the Olympics; and Alonzo
Mourning's comeback has serious questions, and the Nets could be in for one of
the biggest free falls of the season. If Kidd demands a trade (it's probably
only a matter of time) … it will only get uglier. As much as we love Jefferson,
he isn't MJ and can't challenge the NBA to a 1-on-5 contest.
Key Additions: Mike James, Maurice Williams, Zaza Pachulia
Key Subtractions: Brian Skinner, Damon Jones
Skinny: The Bucks were the East's Cinderella team last season, so why are they
stuck all the way down here without any significant changes to their roster? Two
things stand out. One, the future of T.J. Ford is very much in doubt. Ford was
the motor in the Bucks' upbeat offense last season. When he went down with a
serious back injury, the Bucks stumbled. GM Larry Harris's two major free agent
additions, James and Williams, are the best indication yet that the Bucks aren't
confident that Ford will return this season. James and Williams are decent
replacements, but neither player gives the Bucks what Ford did. Second, the
Bucks lost some toughness up front when they let Skinner go. They'll try to
replace that with second-year international big man Pachulia, who showed a lot
of promise this summer but doesn't have the experience or grittiness that
Skinner had. The bottom line is that the Bucks are stuck in the toughest
division, by far, in the East. Detroit and Indiana are elite teams. Cleveland
and Chicago continue to improve. The playoffs are still a good possibility in
Milwaukee, but it's going to be a difficult feat to recreate.
Key Additions: Corliss Williamson, Andre Iguodala, Brian Skinner, Kevin Ollie
Key Subtractions: Eric Snow, Derrick Coleman, Greg Buckner
Skinny: The Sixers have a new head coach, Jim O'Brien, a new offensive and
defensive philosophy and a happy Allen Iverson. So what's wrong? O'Brien is
really going to be relying heavily on four young players to produce this year.
Whenever we hear that, the red flags start popping up. GM Billy King traded away
Snow after O'Brien said he'd prefer to play Iverson at the point and young
players like Willie Green, John Salmons and the rookie Iguodala at the two. All
three are talented, all three have looked good in the summer league, but they're
also very unproven. Snow was the rock that counterbalanced Iverson's huge mood
swings. As much as we like these guys, I'm not sure they're ready for that just
yet. The one young player we do have more confidence in is big man Samuel
Dalembert. Toward the end of last season, he looked like he was ready to turn
himself into a big-time center. If he does, the Sixers front line will be very
strong, especially with the addition of Williamson and Skinner. If he struggles,
as young players sometimes do after coming off breakout years, the Sixers could
be in trouble. The Sixers are the toughest team in the league to get a handle
on. They've got the coaching and the talent to be very good. But there are huge
question marks. And if Iverson's body breaks down after taking a pretty good
pounding in the Olympics (there's a definite trend here pointing in that
direction), things will go downhill very fast.
Key Additions: Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta, Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, Delonte
Key Subtractions: Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, Jumaine Jones
Skinny: Danny Ainge has burned Jim O'Brien's Celtics to the ground and within a
span of less than 18 months, turned the Celtics into an unusual mix of veterans
(Paul Pierce, Mark Blount and Payton) combined with a plethora of young players
(Jiri Welsch, Marcus Banks, Kendrick Perkins, Jefferson, Allen and West). How a
team like that will mesh under new head coach Doc Rivers is really anyone's
guess. They probably don't belong in either the "On the Rise" or "Slipping"
category. If we had a "Who Knows", they'd be at the top of the list. The
potential problems seem to outweigh the upside . . this year at least. . . which
is why the Celtics ended up here. Five players on the roster have one or less
years of experience in the league. Two of the big guys they'll rely on (Perkins
and Jefferson) never played a game of college basketball. Pierce, Welsch, Blount
and Raef LaFrentz (if he can ever stay healthy) are all capable of putting
together a nice run. But several of the veterans on the roster, read Payton and
Ricky Davis, have a history of causing problems if things don't go their way.
The Celtics are the wild card in the East. If things come together for Doc, they
could be a surprise contender. If they go poorly, it could get very, very ugly.
Skinny: Want to know why Vince Carter wants out of Toronto and a slew of higher
profile GMs turned down the job in Toronto before ownership finally settled on
Rob Babcock? The Raptors are capped out and have few assets to make the enormous
changes this team really needs to make. Babcock did the best he could this
summer: drafting a center that could step in and play immediately and adding a
point guard coming off a successful playoff run. But everything depends on
Carter. At this point, that's scary. Nowithstanding his history of injuries when
the going gets tough, is his heart really in it this year? (Has it really ever
been?) The future in Toronto is power forward Chris Bosh, who reportedly has
bulked up this summer in an effort to help the Raptors out in the middle. If
everything goes right in Toronto – Carter stays healthy, Bosh can play center,
Alston plays well at the point, Marshall has a repeat of last season – the
Raptors have the talent and depth to be a playoff team. But since when has
everything went right in Toronto?
Key Additions: Antoine Walker, Al Harrington, Josh Childress, Peja Drobnjak
Key Subtractions: Jason Terry, Stephen Jackson, Bob Sura, Alan Henderson
Skinny: The Hawks blew up their roster last February when they traded two
staples, Theo Ratliff and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, for what ended up to be a load of
expiring contracts. They finished the process this summer: swapping Terry for
Walker, who just happens to have an expiring contract of his own, and refusing
to spend their money in free agency. If fiscal responsibility won you basketball
games, the Hawks would be atop the East right now. As it stands, they should be
decent. Walker and Harrington will give them a nice one-two scoring punch on the
front line. Walker is highly motivated. He's coming off the worst season of his
career into a contract year. Harrington is finally getting his first chance to
be a full-time starter and has much to prove. But center and the backcourt are
huge question marks. Tony Delk and Kenny Anderson are manning the point, a
position neither has played well in years. Rookie Josh Childress has a promising
future, but he'll be drinking from a fire hydrant in Year One. Drobnjak was the
starting center for the Clippers last season. We all know how that went. The
Hawks are heading in the right direction, but it's going to be a slow slog.
Skinny: GM and head coach Bernie Bickerstaff used to coach the Harlem
Globetrotters. But after seeing the roster he put together for the Bobcats'
inaugural season, you wonder if it wasn't the Washington Generals that he's
trying to invoke. Okafor was a great pickup in the draft – a solid, respectable
big man to build the team around. The expansion draft yielded several young,
promising but highly unproven players, and the trade for Ely will help shore up
the front line. But without a solid starting point guard (Jason Hart and Brevin
Knight will share the responsibility) and only one solid perimeter shooter
(Kapono), where will the points come from? Bickerstaff has put together a young
athletic team that will play hard every night, turn in some highlight reel plays
and be capable of playing sound defense. However, if they win more than 10 games
this season, it will be a miracle.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts
And life itself, rushing over me
Life itself, the wind in black elms,
Life itself in your heart and in your eyes, I can't make it without you
......and Indiana can somehow more afford to lose JO?
Compared to the Heat losing Shaq or Wade? Yup.
Be a bit tougher without Harrington but they can spread the floor and slash. Even without JO the Pacers are a 40-45 win team. I wouldn't say that about Miami without Shaq (not so sure about missing Wade).