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Oct. 24, 2005

2005-2006 NBA Eastern conference preview

by Ethan Kuhnhenn, Online Managing Editor
It's only a week until the NBA begins the 2005-2006 basketball season and for the past 6 months teams have been making moves to get the upper hand in their respective divisions. Remember last year? If you've learned one thing, it's to never completely trust any predictions (Everyone scoffed at the thought of the Wizards making the playoffs). If that means taking these picks with a grain of salt, so be it. Still, teams have changed and talent has shifted from division to division. In order to inform and maybe spark some controversy we have compiled an analysis of all 15 Eastern conference teams, their projected record and rank. Enjoy.

Southeast Division:

Miami Heat: Everything has changed for a once dormant Miami Heat franchise. In only two years, the team has reversed its losing ways and last year, emerged as the team to beat in the East. Long gone are the days when franchises notched Miami as an easy win on their schedule. With the speedy Dwayne Wade at point guard and Shaq, the most dominant player in the NBA, at center, the Heat have been and will remain the best team in the East. While the Heat may have lost one of its best shooters in Eddie Jones during the off-season, General Manager Pat Riley bolstered an already powerful lineup with the additions of veteran guards Jason Williams and Gary Payton, and forwards Antoine Walker and James Posey. With added depth the Heat should be able to make a record-breaking playoff run this season. Look for them to edge out Cleveland or Washington as the Eastern Conference champions.

Record: 60-22
Rank: 1st in Southeast Division

Washington Wizards: The Wizards are looking to expand on last year's success after posting a 45-37 record and battling out a tough first round playoff series against the Bulls to reach the second round for the first time since 1982. With the acquisitions of talented former teammates Caron Butler (forward) and Chucky Atkins (guard), the Wizards should continue to be a major contender in the East. Look for the Wizards to improve on their defense, but still maintain their fast-paced offense with all-star Gilbert Arenas at the helm.

Record: 50-32
Rank: 2nd in Southeast Division

Orlando Magic: During the off-season, the Magic focused mostly on reshuffling their coaching and management staff and made no major moves to change the structure of a team that posted a mediocre 36-46 record. The coaching staff was entirely revamped after the Magic released head coach Johnny Davis last season. Look for new head coach Brian Hill to work on developing the raw talent of big-man Dwight Howard. A major problem with the Magic last season was their inability to work a successful inside-out tandem with Steve Francis, Grant Hill and Howard. Bottom line, the Magic will improve if Francis gives up the ball and Howard matures.

Record: 39-41
Rank: 3rd in Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks: Something needs to change when an established franchise finishes second to a first year expansion team. After six straight losing seasons, including a league worst 13-69 record last year, the Hawks realized that change was necessary and took the plunge, splurging $70 million in a signing frenzy that brought Joe Johnson from Phoenix as part of a 5 year contract. Johnson, the 6-7 forward/guard who led the surging Suns with 47% three-point shooting should anchor this young Hawks team and set them off in a new direction. Marvin Williams and Salim Stoudemire, two promising draft picks that will complement a fairly small lineup, will assist Johnson. Still, don't expect the Hawks to rebound from consecutive losing seasons like the Heat, Wizards and Bulls did in the past three years; the Hawks will improve from 13-69 but be surprised if they don't post their 7th straight losing season.

Record: 29-53
Rank: 4th in Southeast Division

Charlotte Bobcats: The only team in the Southeast that won't improve from last year is the dismal Charlotte Bobcats. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the Bobcats are looking to the future and mostly secured first and second round draft picks for seasons ahead during the off-season. Still, if anybody can regress from an 18-64 record, it's the Bobcat's. Jason Kapono-less and itching for a leader to emerge from the ranks of the franchise's young and unknown players, the Bobcats main goal this year is to work on creating an identity for themselves and developing a team that will be known for stingy play.

Record: 15-67
Rank: 5th in Southeast Division

Atlantic Division:

New Jersey Nets: The Nets may very well be the best team in the Atlantic division. With three all-stars in the line-up, including one of the league's top-five point-guards in Jason Kidd, the Nets know that they can give the Miami Heat a run for their money in the race for the Eastern Conference title. Now, all the Nets do is stay healthy. With Kidd finally available to play at full strength, it will be interesting to see what he can do with Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter, players who are both capable of scoring 30+ points on a given night. Look for the Nets to improve their points per game (91.4 ppg last year, second to last in the NBA) considerably with Carter, Jefferson and the newly acquired Marc Jackson ready to play the fast style of offense that led the Nets to consecutive Eastern Conference Championships in the 01-02 and 02-03 seasons.

Record: 49-33
Rank: 1st in the Atlantic Division

Philadelphia 76ers: Last year, Sixers fans got a glimpse of what the Philly team was capable of. Sporadic flashes of brilliance from big-man Samuel Dalembert and guard Willie Green could mean that this is the breakout season for a young and hungry squad. With a new coaching staff (Mo Cheeks at the helm) the Sixers should have what it takes to play with the top-tier teams in the East. The key is the Webber, Iverson tandem and playing the type of defense that at least made their 43-39 record respectable. Bottom line: If Webber can play the up-tempo style that Iverson and Dalembert have made standard, then Mo Cheeks will put the pieces together and the Sixers will make the playoffs.

Record: 45-37
Rank: 2nd in the Atlantic Division

New York Knicks: The Knicks made two major moves during the off-season: first, hiring coach Larry Brown and second, trading for center Eddy Curry in a controversial deal that sent Mike Sweetney and Tim Thomas to the Bulls. In Larry Brown, the Knicks have found a coach whose teams have posted winning records in 28 out of 32 seasons. If anybody can reverse the Knicks losing ways and get the most out of a team full of all-stars and potential all-stars, it's Larry Brown. Eddy Curry should also continue to develop during the 05-06 season and emerge as one of the East's premier centers (an offensive-minded Ben Wallace perhaps?). Marbury will continue to be Marbury, but it won't be just a one-man show like last year now that he has Curry and the hot-handed Quentin Richardson to pass to. Bottom line, the Knicks will emerge as either the second or third best team in the Atlantic but won't make it passed the first round of the playoffs.

Record: 41-41
Rank: 3rd in the Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics: A mediocre team in a mediocre division means that, believe it or not, the Boston Celtics may make the playoffs for a second-straight time—and without Antoine Walker and Gary Payton! While the Celtics were definitely struck a blow during the off-season after losing their two all-star veterans, bean-town fans shouldn't be too discouraged. They still have Pierce, they still have Ricky Davis (why is he on the bench again?) and they have two promising prospects in Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes and oh yeah—they're in the weakest division in the NBA. Bottom line, Boston's going to have to work hard and find a third-leading scorer, either in Dickau, Jefferson or Gomes, in order to reach the playoffs.

Record: 37-45
Rank: 4th in the Atlantic Division

Toronto: At best, the Raptors are the same second-to-last place team they were last year; at worst, they are the cellar-dwellers in a mediocre division. Every team in the Atlantic, aside from Boston and Toronto, has improved during the off-season, and at least Boston has some semblance of cohesion. The Raptors only hope this season rests in the development of Chris Bosh and in the maturity of 7th overall pick Charlie Villanueva. After losing Vince Carter last season and Donyell Marshall and Rafer Allston during the off-season, the Raptors have seriously regressed from a team that at least had talent, to a team that will struggle to finish with a better record than the Bobcats this season.

Record: 20-62
Rank: 5th in the Atlantic Division

Central Division

Indian Pacers: In a division where all five teams are capable of reaching the playoffs, Indiana should emerge at the top of the pack, dominating teams with depth, defense and the unstoppable Jermaine O'Neal. Rick Carlisle's Pacers made few moves during the off-season, the highlight of which was signing Euroleague all-star Sarunas Jasikevicius. With Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson prepared to play, this resilient Pacers team should have all the necessary firepower to contend for the Eastern Championship. The key is for all the pieces to fit together, with guards Jamaal Tinsley and Jasikevicus working cohesively and forwards Jackson, Artest and O'Neal not fighting for shots. Bottom line: The Pacers will fight for the Central Division title and will waltz through the first and second round of the playoffs.

Record: 50-32
Rank: 1st in Central Division

Detroit Pistons: The main question posed to Piston's fans is whether Larry Brown's departure will have an effect on a team that thrived under their coaches "defense-oriented" style of play. The answer is probably yes, but Larry Brown leaving will not have as much of an impact as many people think it will. Basically, last years squad, the one that forced a game 7 in the NBA finals last season, is still here. Detroit won't be lighting up the scoreboard with its balanced shooting and maybe won't be as structured defensively as they were when Larry brown was in town, but the Pistons still have fire, intensity and a squad of veterans that want a few more rings on their fingers. Bottom line: The Pistons will struggle to edge out Indiana as the Central Division leader, but they'll make to at least the second round come playoff time.

Record: 47-35
Rank: 2nd in the Central Division

Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland isn't "just one of those turnaround teams," the Cav's are going places. In the past two seasons the Cavs have shown potential as a top-tier team in the East, anchored by all-stars Lebron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. This year, Cleveland made major moves to provide depth and versatility to a team that would be devastated if either Lebron or Ilgauskas were injured. By acquiring the stellar Larry Hughes from Washington, and dependable shooting from Toronto's Donyell Marshall, the Cavs have transformed a two-man team with role players to a team of players who each have the capacity to score 30+ points a game. Defensively, Cleveland's 11th ranked defense doesn't really need to improve, and should get better with the acquisition of Hughes, who led the league in steals per game last season. Bottom Line: Cleveland's fight with Indiana and Detroit for the Central Division title will come down to the wire, but either way, Cleveland will make the playoffs and sneak into the second round.

Record: 44-38
Rank: 3rd in the Central Division

Chicago Bulls: The Bulls showed flashes of brilliance last year, earning a reputation as a gritty defense oriented team that shared the ball and was not anchored by one individual all-star. Even scoring, two brilliant guards in Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon and a developing big man in Eddy Curry were all what made the Bull's turnaround and subsequent playoff appearance possible. This year, the team is without Eddy Curry. The lack of a dependable center could prove to be a problem for second year coach Scott Skiles, even though many Bulls fans praised management for their decision regarding Curry's medical problems. The addition of Michael Thomas and Tim Thomas to the lineup provides this feisty Bulls team with some veteran experience, a second low-post option and a vast potential in Michael Sweetney. Still, the Bulls are in the hardest division and the lack of size on the roster could come back to haunt Skiles.

Record: 41-41
Rank: 4th in the Central Division

Milwaukee Bucks: Milwaukee is looking a lot brighter this year than they were midway through last season, without TJ Ford and praying that Michael Redd would remain with the below-par team. As the season inches closer and closer, the Bucks are showing a lot more potential than they have in seasons past. For one thing, TJ Ford is back and should slowly work his way up to full strength during the first few months of the season. Milwaukee also resigned Michael Redd, their team leader and leading scorer last year with close to 23 ppg. Redd should shine this year now that he has Ford to work with and an inside presence with first overall draft pick Andrew Bogut at center. During the off-season, the Bucks also acquired swingman Bobby Simmons who had a breakout season with the Clippers last year, averaging 16 ppg. Bottom Line: If the Bucks were in the Atlantic or Southeast divisions, they would have an easier time making the playoffs. With so much talent in the Central, the Bucks will have a hard time sneaking in.

Record: 37-45
Rank: 5th in the Central Divison




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