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The 2004-5 NBA Season Preview: EASTERN CONFERENCE

By Lleyton S. Duotang3

Enough of this ”West is Best, East is Least” talk.  While I can concede that the Western Conference may have overall better teams, I will say that the East’s elite teams – Detroit, Miami, and Indiana – match up more favorably than the West’s elite teams – San Antonio and Sacramento.  I did not mention Dallas, Houston, or Denver because they are still unproven with the additions of new players – you know, chemistry issues have to be sorted out first.  And if I was to choose the conference where this year’s champion will be from – its got to be the East.

Indeed the Pistons, Pacers, and Heats are all legitimate championship contenders.  Any team with Shaq on it has a good chance of winning the title, but they will ultimately fall prey to the deeper teams of either the Pacers or the Pistons.  I predict another Eastern Final showdown between the Pacers and the Pistons.  But I’ve got to give the edge to the Pistons who upgraded their championship team, while the Pacers are essentially fielding the same team. 

Past the East’s elite trios, is a crapshoot, where any of my forth to thirteenth ranked teams could intermittently change with one another.  There are only two constants: The Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks are going to suck ass in a big way.      

I’ve got the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic as my sleeper teams.  I think that both teams will be playing in a system well suited to their personnel.  The team’s that will underachieve or not meet expectations will be the New York Knicks, which will prove once again that Isiah Thomas is not a good basketball executive; and the Boston Celtics, which will prove that Paul Peirce is not a player to build around.

Here’s my Eastern Conference Rankings starting from the worst team to the best team. 


15.  Charlotte Bobcats (21-61)

Nobody expects too much from the NBA’s newest team, and I can promise this – they will deliver on that expectation.  So people are raising the question: Will they beat the NBA’s all-time futility mark – a woeful 9 wins and 73 losses by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers – I will emphatically say NO.  I may be optimistic with this prediction: The Bobcats will win at least 20 games this season. 

This team will have a chance to beat teams that stumble in, and take them lightly, which will be the majority of teams.  Bernie Bickerstaff is a mediocre coach at best, but he will provide his players opportunities to step up to see if they can prove themselves in the NBA with meaningful minutes.  And I do see some Bobcats shining through – the gem of the Bobcats, Emeka Okafor, is a no-flash, solid player.  He’s defense, rebounding, and shot-blocking skills are on par with the best big men in the game right now.  If he develops anything resembling an offensive repertoire, the Bobcats will surprise many people.  Another guy who I am really digging, is 7-1 Slovenian, Primoz Brezec, the steal of the expansion draft from the Pacers.  Brezec has performed well in the preseason, and should continue to do so in the regular season.  And the eternal Steve Smith, who has a game I deeply admired.  Although in his twilight, Smith can be a substantial contributor by adding a measure of discipline and control to this young squad, particularly in close games.  That is, if he is healthy….and that’s a big if.

14. Atlanta Hawks (25-57)  

Al Harrington and Antoine Walker both get their lifelong desire - to take every shot for the team.  Unfortunately, this may be the best chance for Atlanta to win the majority of their games.  Alls I can say is that new coach, Mike Woodson, Good Luck – Remember to relax, keep things in perspective, I mean…at least you’re not in Fallujah.        

Past these two ’more well-known’ names, the Hawks has the standard collection of has-bins and unprovens.  You’ve got Kenny Anderson, who apparently is still reliving his glory years in an older body, running the point.  This can equal bad-decisions, turnovers, and ill-advised shots.  John Barry, a player whom I really like for his tough attitude, is on the team.  Although, if I’m talking about John Barry in this season preview your chances can’t be that good.      

The Hawks drafted Stanford’s Josh Childress (6th overall) and high schooler, Josh Smith (17th overall) in this past NBA draft.  I see Childress the same way as I see former 11th pick Jared Jeffries or former 5th pick, Jonathon Bender – tall skinny dudes that were really good in college but aren’t strong enough to hack it in the NBA.  However, Josh Smith’s athletic ability is breathtaking.  While still raw right now, is going to be a stud with the proper direction and development.  Is this possible in Atlanta with two hotheads in Harrington and Walker?  Can anyone say J.R./Isiah Rider?          

I must say that I do like Harrington’s game.  Despite his selfish need to be in the limelight by sacrificing his good supportive situation with the Pacers, he does play tough defense.  I can’t say the same about Walker.  Both are not your prototypical locker room leaders, and what lesson will you learn from their example?  This will inevitably lead to a long, tenuous season. 

13.  Chicago Bulls (30-52) 

If coach Scott Skiles has the foresight to utilize his bench more often, then the Bulls could end up doing a lot better than my proposed ranking.  Although still a relatively young team, you can’t argue with the potential of Chicago’s players.  Albeit the key word is potential.

The baby bulls, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, whom the Bulls have built their team around, are entering their 4th season, and thus should be more consistent.  I can see it from Curry but not from Chandler, who missed over half of last season due to injuries.  If healthy, Chandler can be the defensive force in the middle to offset his limited offensive skills.  The Bulls have a budding star in rookie Luol Deng, who was selected forth overall in this past NBA draft.  Deng is already equipped with NBA-ready skills, and will greatly contribute to the Bulls this season.  I really can’t say the same for the Bull’s third pick, Ben Gordon.  Although he is gifted with tremendous talent, I see Gordon’s development in the same light as the Bull’s pointman, Kirk Hinrich, who is entering his second season.  While both players will inevitably show flashes of brilliance (they’ll get plenty of playing time), their understanding of controlling the pace of a game is not fully realized yet, as I predict they will shell out as many turnovers as assists – meaning many losses in close games.          

If the Bulls are going to be successful, I truly think that Skiles will have to make defense their primary agenda.  The Bulls possess enough young bodies that are both strong and quick, particularly on the perimeter.  They’ll have the perfect example in Argentinean newcomer, Andres Nocioni.  I love this guy – he’s intense, team- and defense-oriented, overachieves, and hates to lose.  Although they have the talent to be a good defensive team, defense will probably be a liability for this squad.  I don’t see Skiles lasting too much longer as coach.   

12.  New York Knicks (32-50)

I don’t understand how many NBA analysts can pick the Knicks to be a playoff team.  Essentially the same team as last year, besides the addition of another offense-first guard, Jamal Crawford, the Knicks will not have the same sort of fluky success as they did last season. 

With Crawford, Stephon Marbury, and Allan Houston in the backcourt, the Knicks will should get plenty of offense from their guards, while alienating their big men in the process.  The Knicks big men – Kurt Thomas, Mike Sweetney, Nazr Mohammed, and Vin Baker, will have to overachieve again in order not to alienate their backcourt.  It’s a vicious cycle, one that will indelibly place general manager, Isiah Thomas and head coach, Lenny Wilkens, under fire during the season.      

11.  Milwaukee Bucks (33-49)

You’ve got to give respect to head coach, Terry Porter, for getting the most out of his players.  The Buck’s main demise is their talent – I really can’t think of another team past the expansion Charlotte Bobcats and maybe Atlanta that has less talent than the Bucks.  I understand that effective team play will trump individual talent as the Bucks proved last year by surprisingly making the playoffs, but I don’t foresee this happening this year, as opponents will know what to expect.

Michael Redd is a deadeye from anywhere near the three-point line and closer, but he will become the focus of opposing team’s defenses.  Past Redd, you’ve got Keith ”Consistent Underachiever” Van Horn and Toni ”Where’s Michael” Kukoc for offensive support – that can’t be good.  Their only interior presence is Joe Smith, and he’ll be overworked every single game.  Part of Milwaukee’s success last year was the play of rookie pointman, T.J. Ford, who played controlled basketball at a frenetic pace.  However, Ford bruised his spinal cord after falling on a drive to the basket in February and had surgery in May.  It is unknown when he will return to the lineup that so desperately needs him. 

10.  Boston Celtics (35-47)

Gary Payton must prove that last season was just an off-year in order for the Celtics to be successful.  At 35 years, I’m not fully convinced that he’ll recover.  You never know with the unpredictable Payton, but I’m sure he’ll have his own issues trying to man a team that also boasts strong personalities in Ricky Davis and Paul Pierce.

I do like the Celtic’s frontcourt, which is large enough to beat up on the majority of Eastern Conference teams.  If Raef LaFrentz is fully recuperated from his knee surgery that limited him to only 17 games last year, then the Celtics could potentially be the surprising team of the East.  Based on my ranking, you can see that I will remain pessimistic until I see him play a string of consecutive games. 

What the Celtics have in their favor is a nucleus of young players that will factor prominently in the team’s future success.  Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Marcus Banks, Jiri Welsch, and Tony Allen are all gifted players that could contribute this season, but probably won’t under coach Doc Rivers’ plan.  But keep an eye out for Jefferson, an athletic big man who has drawn comparisons to Moses Malone. 

9.  New Jersey Nets (35-47)

With the departure of Kenyon Martin, so goes the Nets’ playoff hopes.  Martin’s impact on this team cannot be understated.  If Jason Kidd was the engine for this team, Martin was the fuel.  His intensity, great defense, and finishing to Kidd’s assists, were what made the Nets the Eastern Conference standard the past few years.  Without him, the Nets will fall to the realm of mediocrity.   

What do the Nets have?  They have a disgruntled and injured Jason Kidd who doesn’t know when he will return to the Net’s lineup; you have the return of Alonzo Mourning, who I’ll commend on his remarkable comeback from a kidney transplant, but at best, is a backup center and a former shell of his fierce self; you have a young and optimistic Richard Jefferson who on the heels of signing a lucrative contract extension, does not know what he’s really getting himself into (probably for the best), and you have Jason Collins (career 6 points, 5 rebounds a game) in the starting lineup for K-Mart.  Overall, it leads to a long and miserable season for Net fans. 

To their credit, the Nets have promising Lawrence Frank and his talented staff as coach, and their always Jason Kidd – meaning that they’ll win their share of games which they should’ve lossed.  

8.  Philadelphia 76ers (38-44)

Another year, and the Sixers seem to be spread even more thinly.  I believe that the Sixers made a huge mistake for trading away Eric Snow to Cleveland – much to Cleveland’s benefit.  Snow’s impact on the team, much like his personality and game, was calming and unassuming, but those were just a veneer to his tough and steady interior.  Although not as talented, Snow reminded me a lot of Joe Dumars.  I argue that Philadelphia’s image was influenced by Eric Snow just as much as their superstar, Allen Iverson.    

With Snow gone, it is now up to Iverson to score and run the team.  Never really up to the challenge before, Iverson has shown maturity following the Olympics, by accepting this challenge of making his teammates around him better.  We will see how long it takes before Iverson tires of his teammates ineptitude of finishing of plays.  But make no mistake, for Philadelphia to make the playoffs, Iverson will have to be demonstrate that he can distribute the ball.      

One player that may help Iverson more than he thinks, is rookie Andre Iguodala (taken 9th overall this past NBA draft).  Iguodala has been so impressive in the preseason that he will start in place of former all-star Glenn Robinson, and in effect, makes Robinson expendable in the process.  In fact, many analysts see Iguodala as the preseason choice for Rookie of the Year.   

7.  Washington Wizards (40-42)

The trade for Antawn Jamison will go down as one of the best in franchise history.  Although he has received plenty of accolades, I still think that Jamison is underrated in the league.  Jamison will now get the chance to be the man in Washington, and there is no reason for me to believe that he won’t deliver – he always has. 

What I see as the Wizard’s major obstacle is their talented guard duo of Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes.  If they learn that Jamison is their primary offensive option, then they will be successful; if they don’t, which they probably won’t since they have troubles accepting a limited role; then you’ll see what you’ve seen the last couple of years.  Both will score their 15-18 points a game but also will be responsible for at least 10 turnovers, and having an atrocious field goal percentage.  Left out the mix is Jarvis Hayes, who I really like – Hayes should be the secondary offensive option after Jamison, but tell that to Arenas and Hughes. 

To the Wizard’s credit, their big men, Brendan Haywood, Kwame Brown, and Etan Thomas, are good and doing the dirty interior work, and do not require the ball too much.          

6.  Orlando Magic (42-42)

The Magic will be the surprise team of the Eastern Conference, along with the Toronto Raptors, this season.  I think that general manager, John Weisbrod, made the right move of totally revamping the whole team.  Gone are 4 starters, including leading scorer, Tracy McGrady, and in are 9 new players including Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and first overall draft pick, Dwight Howard. 

Weisbrod was involved in a bitter dispute with McGrady, whom he accused as being representative of the Magic’s 61-loss season.  McGrady was consequently traded to Houston for their starting backcourt of Francis and Mobley.  The trade should be a win-win situation for both teams as the trade has already ignited the competitive fire all players involved.  Francis should particularly benefit as he now becomes the undisputed floor leader of a young Magic team that will play under coach, Johnnie Davis’s up-tempo game.  Francis was derailed last year from becoming one of the game’s best point guards last year under Jeff Van Gundy’s slow half-court oriented offensive system. 

The Magic have reason for optimism this year with the return of Grant Hill, who appears to be as healthy as he’s been since arriving in Orlando four years ago.  Pat Garrity is back healthy after playing in only two games last season.  The absence of Garrity, and his 3-point marksmanship, was responsible for the Magic’s lackluster season as much as the team’s lack of depth.  Dwight Howard will be a force in this league for years to come.  He was unquestionably the best player available in the 2004 draft, and should be able to contribute right away.  He’s going to get better with each passing game, and is my pick to win the Rookie of the Year.     

5.  Toronto Raptors (44-38)

The Raptors are my pick to be the surprise team of the Eastern Conference.  Good riddance to former coach, Kevin O’Neill and his ineffective defensive and offensive systems that did not capitalize on the Raptor’s strength – speed, agility, and a bevy of adequate scorers. 

Precocious new coach, Sam Mitchell, only 2 years removed from playing the NBA, has already put his stamp on his team with the approval of his team.  The Raptors new up-tempo offense should be well suited to established scorers, Vince Carter, Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall, Morris Peterson, and Lamond Murray.  They have acquired the right guy in streetball legend, Rafer ’Skip To My Lou’ Alston, to be the new floor general. 

While their offense capability is unquestioned, their defense will make or break the team’s season.  The team’s weakness lies in their lack of interior presence.  Chris Bosh, whom I really really like, played admirably at center last season but ended the season beaten up – how could you not when you’re consistently giving up 50 pounds to the opposition.  If newcomer Loren Woods can realize his potential, than the Raptors need not worry about that.  As for the Raptors new draft pick, Brazilian Rafael Araujo (8th overall) you can put him in the category of Raptors Wasted Draft Choices along with Michael Bradley (17th overall in 2001) and Aleksandar Radojevic (12th overall in 1999).   

4.  Cleveland Cavaliers (45-37)

With a season under his belt, look for Lebron James to get even better.  At 20 years of age, this manchild is a beast that will lead Cleveland to the promise land this year – by that I mean past the opening round of playoffs.  Hey, that’s pretty damn good considering the Cav’s history.  I must admit that I was a Lebron skeptic with all the hype and hoopla surrounding his entrance in the league.  But, the kid won me over, not because of his astounding talent and versatility, but because of his basketball intelligence.  You could see it during the Cav’s late season rally last season.  Lebron was learning to dominate in this league by controlling the tempo and pace of a game.  He adapted his game to each opponent, doing what was necessary to maintain and keep a lead, whether it was playing tough defense against the opponent’s best perimeter player, leading a run-and-gun game, or slowing down to play a half-court game knowing that Zydranus Ilgauskas would be the key to victory.       

Lebron and Ilgauskas are the cornerstones of this franchise.  And although Ilgauskas has been injury-free for the last two seasons, I can’t help but feel that he’s going to go down at any moment with his reconstructed ankles.  That was why Carlos Boozer was so precious, he did the rebounding for both Ilgauskas and himself.  The loss of Carlos Boozer and his accompanying rebounding and tough defense will be dearly missed, despite whether Cav fans will admit it or not.  That is why Drew Gooden is the x-factor for the Cav’s success.  Although I think that he is more talented than Boozer, he is joining his third team in three seasons, and has gained a reputation as having a poor work ethic and a bad attitude.  The main question is his heart and desire.  He was brought in to rebound, and if he focuses on that, which I think he will under the guidance of coach Paul Silas, the Cavs will be alright.   

3.  Miami Heat (50-32)

With the addition of Shaquille O’Neal, the Heat has moved up from the East’s jurisdiction of mediocre-but-potentially-playoff-bound teams to one of the NBA’s elite teams.  Although their regular season record may not show it, their presence will be most felt in the playoffs, when Shaq will actually play like he cares, making the Heat the most dangerous team during this time.

If the Olympics and preseason was any indication, Shaq’s new sidekick, Dwayne Wade, will have a breakout season.  Man this kid is awesome, he was awesome at Marquette, he was awesome for the Heat last playoffs, and he’s going to be awesome this year.  Just think, he’ll have even more room to operate with his lightening-quick speed and agility with Shaq in the middle causing his usual distraction.

The one knock on the Heat is their depth.  This is essentially a two-player team, so if either Shaq or Wade goes down to injuries, then this team is in trouble.  The team already knows this, so don’t expect heavy minutes from Shaq during the regular season, and Wade has been remarkably durable, despite the breakneck pace he plays the game with, throughout his college and short pro career.  

2.  Indiana Pacers (53-29)

The Pacers, who led the league last season with 61 wins, are back with essentially the same team – swap Al Harrington with Stephen Jackson, who are both pretty much the same players.  With a year under the belt, the Pacers have more stability knowing that Jamaal Tinsley will be running the point, also, Johnathon Bender, Austin Croshere, and Jackson will more than make up for Harrington’s bench production.  I didn’t even mention Scot Pollard, who would be a starting center for most NBA teams.   

Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest make up one of the best, if not the best, tandem in the NBA – taking in account overall offense and defense.  If you’re going to get past Artest on the perimeter, which generally means that he’s on the bench, than you’ll have to beat O’Neal, who is probably the second best help defender in the league after Utah’s Andrei Kirilenko.  You may not like Artest the person, but how can you not like Artest the player.  He has gotten better every year since he entered the league 6 years ago, and there’s no reason to think that he’s not going to get better this year.  Already the most feared perimeter defender in the game, Artest will be looking to improve his offensive game, which he will.  Last season, it seemed if Artest wasn’t scoring, he was fouled while scoring.  He’ll shoulder a bigger burden from O’Neal, and don’t be surprised if he becomes the go-too guy when playoffs rolled around.     

I’ve got to put in a mention for Jeff ”Pretty Fly for a White Guy” Foster who is slated to be the team’s starting center.  Though not the most gifted athlete on the team, Foster deserves all the success that he’ll receive.  Always playing within the Pacer’s team concept, Foster is a rebounding machine, lightening a load that was to heavy for O’Neal to bear. 

1.  Detroit Pistons (60-22)

The Pistons seem like they have Lady Luck as their President of Basketball Operations – oh wait, that’s Joe Dumars.  I’ve got to give credit to Dumars, while luck has undoubtedly been on his side, he has engineered a team that won the championship because of his meticulous approach in knowing what components the team needs, and his savvy dealings in obtaining those components.  Like a finely-oiled piece of Japanese, maybe German, machinery, the Pistons should continue on their success of last season.  Could they get any better?  To which I reply, Is Joe Dumars in charge? 

The starting lineup remains in place, and all still in their prime, but gone are benchers Corliss Williamson and Mehmet Okur; in are former all-stars Antonio McDyess, Derek Coleman, and Argentinean upstart, Carlos Delfino.  Their bench, which proved so pivotal in their success last year, has been significantly upgraded.  That doesn’t even include Darko Milicic (2003 NBA Draft 2nd overall pick after Lebron and before Carmelo), who should be relegated to the same role as last season – highly touted cheerleader.  Watch out for McDyess, who has been feeling as healthy as he’s been in the last few years – he could very well turn out to be the best offseason acquisition – and with the luck Dumars has had, probably will be.