Things are shaping up nicely for the Eastern Conference. They lost the crown again, but the overall quality of the teams in the East keeps improving with the import of free agent and draftee talent. It's clear that the Spurs rule the NBA, but the Eastern Conference will give the West a run for it's money.
1. Indiana - The whole key to this team is Ron Artest. They've got good talent, especially up front. J'O'Neal is a beast and showed just how tough he is playing with a bad shoulder in the playoffs against the Celtics and the Pistons. Foster is a great reserve hard nosed player. The Abuser if finally coming into his own as a point guard, and they signed the euro star Sarunas Jasikevicius who is officially a rookie, but really is a seasoned veteran who played his college ball at Maryland and has been a pro ever since. The big question is Ron Artest. With him this team is great. They especially need him after Reggie Millers departure. Can he maintain his passionate play without boiling over? That's the biggest question in the East.
2. Detroit - The Pistons were a few breaks away from being back to back champions. The core is back and the role players may get a little more experience during the regular season now that curmudgeon Larry Brown is on the Knickerbockers bench. Flip Saunders is a good offensive coach and I think he'll do very well with this team. They are experienced and tight knit and don't really need a task master. Plus there's the dual motivation of showing they can do it without Larry Brown and the failure against the Spurs last year.
3. Miami- Unquestionably Shaq made this team leaps and bounds better last year. Plus, D Wade continues his growth into one of the NBAs best players, I expect only better things from him. The question mark with this team is how the new players will fit in with the rest. Antoine Walker, James Posey, and Jason Williams were all brought on board. Williams will be the starting point guard and actually has a decent assist to turnover ratio (~3-1 the past couple of seasons). He shouldn't have problems getting more assists on this team. To me, the biggest question is Antoine Walker. He wasn't too happy being a sixth man in Dallas and seemed to really feel comfortable being the hub of activity in Boston. Maybe he'll get hungry for a championship, and made the Diesel can keep him in line. Antoine has never had to play with someone of Shaq's stature, so that's probably the best hope.
4. Milwaukee Bucks - Talk about an offseason. They had the number one pick and drafted a very good college center in Bogut (the jury will be out on his actual production come season time). They resigned their franchise player Redd to a long term (and overly expensive deal), signed emerging wingman Bobby Simmons, and then just pulled off one of the bigger trades by getting Jamal Magloire for Desmond "the dunk artist" Mason. Great, great pick up. Milwaukee now has the bigs and the wings covered. If TJ Ford can regain the form that he showed before a troubling spinal injury, this team is going to make some noise.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers - Lebron James now has some running mates. Larry Hughes is the biggest addition, but the less heralded addition of of Donyell Marshall is going to be the big difference. Hughes played great in Washington last year (his contract year, no surprise) and that play should carry over as he has seemed to develop greater poise and maturity in Washington. I think Eddie Jordan had a lot to do with that. Damon Jones will shore up the point and the long distance bombing and Big Z has quitely played great in the post while staying totally healthy the last two years. Lebron stirs the pot and gets these guys into the playoffs where James learns the hard way that winning in the NBA takes time.
6. New Jersey Nets - This should be a fun fast breaking team. Kidd is healthy again as is Richard Jefferson. Vince Carter has refound his love for the game and played superbly well last season. It helps that he's no longer the alpha-dog, a role he was never suited for even going back to his college days. They are a little thin up front and will be relying heavily on Krstic, Collins, and (gulp!) Lamond Murray to anchor the power positions. But in the east, that's not the end of the world and when Jason Kidd is healthy and the Princeton offense is clicking, there's no need to get bogged down with big men on the post.
7. Chicago Bulls- Yes, they lost Eddy Curry. But the Bulls knew they could afford to lose him. He only got into shape in his contract year. He's a great post scorer, but is way too soft (5.6 rpg? That's pathetic for his size). The loss that might hurt a bit though is Antonio Davis. He provided a tough interior presence and brought a good veteran perspective to the team. Outside of that though, the Bulls young guns are ready and can play. Hinrich keeps getting better and if Chandler and Deng stay healthy, they should have the fire power to stay tough in the East.
8. New York Knicks - Larry Brown always makes a positive impact when he first arrives. Then he poisons the well. Whatever. Adding Curry and Loren Woods, oops I mean Channing Frye, and Antonio Davis made for a nice offseason of player movement too. Hopefully Curry's heart proves no problem and he contributes this year. Marbury will probably chafe a little under Brown, but then again Larry got a lot out of Chauncey Billups where others failed so he and Stephon should get along okay. Jamal Crawford seems like the piece that doesn't fit, but given that they have some decent NBA talent, some good youth, and a great coach the Knicks should see the playoffs again.
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9. Boston - Pierce and Davis are going to have to carry the load. Luckily for them Blount looks like he refound his pulse and is a live body again and LaFrentz looks somewhat spry meaning he should have a productive year. But the rest of the roster is very young and hasn't proven a lick. The PG situation is horrendous. There's been lots of positive spin on Orien Green, but he's a second round pick who can't shoot. His defense is okay, but he doesn't handle full court pressure. Delonte West has never been a point guard and doesn't seem to be the most durable player (something he denies wholeheartedly). Both of them seem a little slow delivering the ball and orchestrating the offense, the mark of players not totally sure in their role. And Dickau looks like he wasn't ready for any sorts of expectations being placed on him. He has not looked very good in the preseason, especially on defense. And his offense doesn't even come close to making up for his attrocious defense. Do we really want to see Dickau checking Marbury, Hinrich, Mike James, Gilbert Arenas, or Jason Kidd? Too many points are going to role right over the kid, which is why Greene is getting a lot of starter buzz. This position is going to kill the Celtics. That and the fact that Pierce and Ricky are the only reliable scorers on this team.
10. Philly - Iverson is what he is. A guy with a ton of heart who can't play well within a team structure. He must have the ball in his hands to be effective and because of that his team suffers. Webber is physically done. I see no reason why he'll make it through a season. Iguodola is the lone bright spot on this team. They got a great player in him. He's the second coming of Pippen for sure. Cheeks will probably let Dalembert play a little more and the rest of the team knows their roles, especially long bomber Korver. They barely squeaked into the playoffs last year, and the rest of the East got way better while they mostly stood still.
11. Orlando - Grant hill is out for 6 weeks. What else is new? The continuing maturation of Dwight Howard into a first rate beast is going to keep these guys competitive, but then Francis will turn the ball over and they'll lose close games. But those two are the only talents on this lack luster roster.
12. Toronto - Charlie from UConn looks like the right pick. He should be good. Rafael hasn't worked out so much. He's just a side of beef clogging the lane. I feel bad for him, but hey, lots of lottery picks turn out to be big stiffs later on. At least he's gettin' paid before he gets handed his walking papers. Bosh seems like he's reached his NBA potential, though perhaps he would be better off if he wasn't forced to play center so much. Mike James brings some steadiness and leadership to the point, and Jalen Rose continues to produce hillarious quotes for the papers while cashing multi-million dollar checks.
13. Charlotte - If nothing else, attendance is going to go up. Sean May and Felton come off a national championship and remain in Carolina for their early pro carriers at least. Both should help the Bobcats win more games immeadiately. Emeka Okafor is the real deal down low. He works real hard and his game continues to grow with better range on his jumper. This was such a great pick by Charlotte. The rest of the team is still thin, but they'll be competitive again. They're still a few more years away from winning.
14. Atlanta - They had the number two pick in the draft and spent it on a guy who didn't even start on his team. They had better hope that Marvin Williams starts panning out soon. They invested a lot of money in an uproven young guard (now to be their point) in Joe Johnson. He's never been the center of attention, but he will be now. He'll also be turning the ball over, a lot. Josh Smith was a highlight reel filler and not much else. Maybe his game is growing. Not sure. And Al Harrington looks like a bust as a big money guy. He should have stayed with Indy for less money and been part of a powerhouse team. I'm thinking the Hawks are going to be trying to move Harrington to give Williams more PT. Another dip in the lottery is in this team's future.
That's how I see them falling. And yes I have the entire Central Division in the playoffs. They just seem like they all got a lot better or didn't lose anything over the offseason. Time will tell.