NBA Eastern conference preview

Nov. 1, 2006, midnight | By Andrew Kung, Nitin Sukumar | 17 years, 7 months ago

Signing Big Ben has elevated Chicago to the NBA elite

Chicago snatched the upper hand over rival Detroit by signing four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace. With a talented core of young athletes, the Bulls already have their eyes set on championship rings, but Miami is hungry for more glory and Cleveland and Toronto are on the rise. Here's a look at the Eastern Conference's squads, ranked within their divisions.

Atlantic Division

1. New Jersey Nets
2005-2006 Record: 49-33

In a weak division, the New Jersey Nets will have little trouble repeating the title. Despite a solid draft that landed two UConn products in point guard Marcus Williams and big man Josh Boone, the Nets had a relatively quiet offseason. Still, with the talented threesome of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, the Nets look poised to capture the Atlantic with ease. Nenad Krstic was a silent star for the Nets last year, and his progression may push the team even further.

2. Toronto Raptors
2005-2006 Record: 27-55

The Raptors hope that adding overseas stars Jorge Garbajosa, Anthony Parker and the number one draft pick Andrea Bargnani will lift the team out of mediocrity. All-star Chris Bosh is emerging as one of the best power forwards in the league, averaging 22 points and 9 rebounds with a shooter's touch. T.J. Ford, acquired in a deal with Milwaukee for Charlie Villanueva, has the energy needed to run the new Suns-style offense in Toronto. These new additions should more than help make up for the losses of point guard Mike James and Villanueva.

3. Boston Celtics
2005-2006 Record: 33-49

The Celtics blew smoke this offseason, with rumors abound of deals involving Allen Iverson, but nothing came to fruition. This season, Boston's hopes bank on another career year from Paul Pierce, who averaged a career-high 26.8 points per game, as well as the playmaking of dynamic youngsters such as point guard Sebastian Telfair, highly touted swingman Gerald Green and big men Kendrick Perkins, Ryan Gomes and Al Jefferson. If the raw talent can successfully jell with Pierce's ego, the Celtics can make a push, but the team looks too green for a serious run.

4. New York Knicks
2005-2006 Record: 23-59

If Isaiah Thomas can put the troubles of last year behind him, the Knicks have a chance to win at least 40 games. Too bad he'll likely end up losing his job after attempting to clean up the mess he made as general manager. Thomas needs to establish good chemistry in his starting line up so that we don't see the countless (and unsuccessful) changes implemented by Larry Brown last year. Newly acquired forward Jared Jeffries will add the defensive edge to the overpaid collection of jump shooters. The Knicks are deep at the guard positions with Quentin Richardson, Nate Robinson and Jamal Crawford backing Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis, but the frontcourt of Eddy Curry and Channing Frye is lacking. A winning record is not out of the question for the Knickerbockers, but their success hinges greatly on the development of their big men and the egos of their big contracts.

5. Philadelphia 76ers
2005-2006 Record: 38-44

A.I. and Chris Webber still run the 76ers, but that isn't what they need to win. Andre Iguodala is underutilized, bogged down by the 20+ shots a night put up by both Webber and Iverson. Iggy is an athletic freak capable of big numbers on both ends of the floor, as evidenced by his monstrous 30-point performance in last year's All-Star rookie-sophomore game. Still, so long as Webber and A.I. hog all the looks without the development of role players like Iguodala, Willie Green and Kyle Korver, the Sixers will continue to flounder.

Central Division

1. Chicago Bulls
2005-2006 Record: 41-41

The Bulls were clear winners this offseason, enticing colossal center Ben Wallace away from the division rival Pistons with a lavish $60 million deal. Although Chicago severely overpaid for Big Ben's services, his addition will propel the Bulls to a serious championship run. Scot Skiles' squad is amazingly deep, with a guard rotation featuring the likes of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon, as well as swingmen Luol Deng, and Andres Nocioni. Hinrich's solid play at this summer's World Championships will boost his confidence as a floor general. Dealing Tyson Chandler for P.J. Brown was a good move, freeing up future cap space and acquiring a strong veteran presence. While Chicago may not relive the glory days of Jordan's dominance, the Bulls pack an impressive roster and are the odds-on favorite in a tough Central.

2. Detroit Pistons
2005-2006 Record: 64-18

Last season the Pistons topped the league in wins, garnering stretches of absolute dominance and seeming invincibility, but fell in the Conference finals to the eventual champion Heat. Duplicating last year's success will be very difficult, as Ben Wallace and his afro bolted the Motor City for big bucks in Chicago. Detroit will sorely miss Big Ben's defense, rebounding and intensity in the middle, and the signing of Nazr Mohammed will do little to assuage the loss. On the other hand, Wallace contributed absolutely nothing on the other end, a complete liability offensively. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton will be more comfortable in coach Flip Saunder's offensive schemes, and look poised to increase production while Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince will continue to be productive players and Flip Murray and Carlos Delfino will be decent off the bench. Although their string of dominance may be over, Detroit will continue to be a hard matchup for any team.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers
2005-2006 Record: 50-32

The Cavs live and die with the fortunes of one man. Luckily for Cleveland, that one man is LeBron James, arguably the best player in the league and still improving exponentially from year to year. The ceiling is limitless for King James. Last season, his ridiculous regular season numbers and postseason performance astounded the world, as he single handedly carried Cleveland to the second round of the playoffs, where they played Detroit valiantly before falling in seven games. If guard Larry Hughes and center Zydrunas Ilgauskas can contribute to the continued development of The King, the Cavs will be an exciting team to watch and will pose a major threat to the East's elite.

4. Indiana Pacers
2005-2006 Record: 41-41

Swingman Stephen Jackson's legal woes have again brought shame and ridicule to the Indiana franchise, after the Ron Artest debacle just two years ago. The success of the Pacers is highly dependent upon the health of star power forward Jermaine O'Neal, who has averaged just 48 games played the past two years. Forward Al Harrington, reacquired in a sign-and-trade with Atlanta, will be a valuable asset, and offseason pickup swingman Marquis Daniels and second year forward Danny Granger look to contribute as well. Point guard Jamaal Tinsley has been up and down his entire career, but if he can put together some semblance of consistency, the Pacers would benefit dramatically. In what may be the toughest division in the entire league, the Pacers have the talent to be a serious contender if they can overcome Jackson's affinity for strip clubs and guns and JO's groin, shoulder, ankle or any other body part ripe for tweaking.

5. Milwaukee Bucks
2005-2006 Record: 40-42

Injuries have marred the Milwaukee Bucks even before the season has begun. Franchise
center Andrew Bogut is out with a leg sprain while a bum heel has sidelined swingman Bobby Simmons. This summer, the Bucks dealt point guard T.J. Ford to the Raptors for Charlie Villanueva, and are banking on some combination of Mo Williams, Steve Blake and Charlie Bell to replace him at the point. Villanueva showed potential last year in Toronto averaging 13 points on 46% shooting, and he looks to improve on those numbers, poised to play 30+ minutes with the team's injuries. Shooting guard Michael Redd is still the team centerpiece, though. Redd averaged a career-high 25.4 points per game last year after fresh off signing a max deal. Milwaukee's playoff aspirations depend on the leadership of Redd and the health and emergent play of their younger players. If the Bucks can overcome their injury woes and play consistently, they can again sneak into the playoffs as a low seed.

Southeast Division

1. Miami Heat
2005-2006 Record: 52-30

The defending champion Miami Heat is the still unquestionably the team to beat in the East. Pat Riley's veteran bunch was extremely successful last season, with geezers Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton playing integral roles too. And let's not forget Shaquille O'Neal, who may be the most dominant big man in the history of the game, and Dwyane Wade, whose postseason heroics at such an early stage of his career have analysts grasping at his ceiling. With an older team, the wear and tear of an entire season becomes an issue, and Wade has already griped about his nicks, but so long as Flash and Diesel stay healthy, Miami looks to be the odds-on favorite to again take the East.

2. Washington Wizards
2005-2006 Record: 42-40

The hometown Washington Wizards look to rebound after a heartbreaking playoff loss to Cleveland in the first round of last year's playoffs. After being defeated by the devastating late-game antics of LeBron James, the Wizards again tried to shore up on D, adding defensive minded guard DeShawn Stevenson and forward Darius Songaila. The loss of rangy forward Jared Jeffries to free agency will sting, but the addition of Songaila and the return of Jarvis Hayes from injury will pick up the slack. The offense will once again be thrilling, centering around Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, the highest scoring trio in the league. Hopefully, the improved defense and offensive firepower will be enough to power the Wiz to deeper playoff run. Washington has not been able to keep up with the league's elite just yet, having gone winless in matchups the last two years against Miami. While the Wizards may not be able to keep up with the Heats of the world, they should once again be an exciting team to watch.

3. Orlando Magic
2005-2006 Record: 36-46

Plagued by bad luck ever since Shaq left town almost a decade ago, the Orlando Magic have the personnel this year to emerge from the annals of the East. Point guard Jameer Nelson is finally healthy and looks to improve on last year's solid numbers, while power forward phenom Dwight Howard, who led the league in rebounding last year, seems poised to take his game to the next level. Detroit castoff Darko Milicic exploded at the Worlds and may finally live up to the hype after three disappointing years. J.J. Redick will not see the same success on the pro level, but his outside touch will help open up Howard and Milicic down low. A healthy Grant Hill and Hedo Turkoglu will go a long way, but it will be up to Nelson and Howard to carry the Magic if they hope for a winning record and a shot at the playoffs.

4. Atlanta Hawks
2005-2006 Record: 26-56

After a decade of lottery picks, the Atlanta Hawks hope to finally field a competitive team in a weak Eastern conference. The tempo set by offseason pickup point guard Speedy Claxton and the continued development of high draft picks Josh Smith, Josh Childress and Marvin Williams will be key to possible success, although Williams will be out for four to six weeks with a fractured wrist. Inside presence continues to be an issue, as Zaza Pachulia and Lorenzen Wright leave much to be desired and rookie Shelden Williams can only do so much off the bat. If the Hawks can convert their immense talent into moderate production, casting off the league's laughingstock label is within the realm of possibility.

5. Charlotte Bobcats
2005-2006 Record: 26-56

Expansion teams rarely see success early, and the Charlotte Bobcats, in their third year of existence, seem to be no exception. Even the addition of the legendary Michael Jordan to the front office and the drafting of Gonzaga stud Adam Morrison seem to be insufficient to lift Bernie Bickerstaff's squad from the basement of the Southeast. Franchise big man Emeka Okafor and talented swingman Gerald Wallace are coming off injury plagued years. Both have the potential to have breakout years if they can combat injuries and inconsistency. Charlotte is on the right track by stockpiling promising young players like Morrison, Okafor, Raymond Felton and Sean May, but barring any miracles, 06-07 looks to be yet another "rebuilding" year for Bob Johnson's Bobcats.

Andrew Kung. Andrew Kung is a rising Magnet junior who is psyched for a year of Chips Online. He has lived in New York, Michigan, and New Mexico prior to his current residence in Maryland. As a cynical sports fan, he is not often disappointed, but not … More »

Nitin Sukumar. Nitin's middle name is Antonio Gates. More »

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