Eastern Conference capsules

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Can anyone beat the New Jersey Nets? Just wanted to see how that looked on paper. Yes, the Nets are the class of the conference. Yes, there must be hope for the Cubs. With the addition of Dikembe Mutombo at center and Rodney Rogers off the bench and with Kenyon Martin on the verge of stardom, the Nets are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

What's next, the Cubs winning?

So can anyone chase the Nets down? The Detroit Pistons are the NBA's Anaheim Angels. Quick, name a Pistons starter. Two? Gotcha! But they'll win a lot of games playing defense and playing unselfishly.

Don't count out the Philadelphia 76ers either. It would be easy after a season of injuries led to an early playoff exit. But if Allen Iverson goes to practice and Larry Brown remembers he is there, they could make a run.

From there it is a lot of ifs. If the Pacers can make a trade for a point guard (Gary Payton?) … if the Magic can magically rebound the ball … if the Hornets can keep Jamal Mashburn healthy (and stay off of Bourbon Street) … if the Celtics can again get the magic from Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker … if Vince Carter plays like Michael Jordan … if Michael Jordan plays like Vince Carter ...

Yes, it's an iffy conference.

(In predicted order of finish)

Central Division

Detroit Pistons

Last season: 50-32, lost to Celtics 4-1 in conference semifinals.

Probably not built to go far in the playoffs without a true star, but they should win a lot of games, as they did last season, surprising everyone. They defend harder than most with the versatile Cliff Robinson, and they have the league's best rebounder in Ben Wallace. They gave up on their best scorer, Jerry Stackhouse, but believe they can get enough from Richard Hamilton and free agent Chauncey Billups. Their go-to guy is sixth man Corliss Williamson, who heads up a second unit that could beat the team's starters.

Indiana Pacers

Last season: 42-40, lost to Nets 3-2 in first round.

They have all the pieces, assuming Ron Artest doesn't go to pieces. The problem is a rash of early injuries, with questions about Reggie Miller's ankle and Artest's bothersome finger. Brad Miller has emerged as a top center in the East … what? And Miller still makes the big shot, especially in the playoffs. They've got depth, with Ron Mercer in an ideal backup position and tough Jeff Foster. If they can pull off a deal for Gary Payton, they can jump the Eastern competition and go to the Finals. For now, Jamaal Tinsley has to realize everyone else should be shooting.

Milwaukee Bucks

Last season: 41-41, missed playoffs.

So you think you had a bad few months? George Karl's lament goes on. Not long ago he was thought of as one of the elite coaches in the game. But in a six-week stretch, his Bucks failed to make the playoffs and his USA Basketball team suffered three losses at the world championships, leaving Karl more depressed than usual. The Bucks blamed their failure on Glenn Robinson and traded him, but divisive Anthony Mason remains. And he might play center at 6 feet 8 inches. Toni Kukoc will help, but he could break down. Tim Thomas gets his chance to start, but can he endure a full season? Re-signing Michael Redd didn't solve their interior problems.

Atlanta Hawks

Last season: 33-49, missed playoffs.

It all depends on Theo Ratliff, who hasn't played in a year and a half but has looked good thus far. With defensive liabilities Glenn Robinson and Shareef Abdur-Rahim at forward, Ratliff will have to cover a lot of defensive ground. Jason Terry is supposed to be a point guard, but really isn't. And just who is Ira Newble, the starting shooting guard? They lost DerMarr Johnson for the season in an auto accident. They will score, and they need Ratliff to do all the defending. But they can make a move.

New Orleans Hornets

Last season: 44-38, lost to Nets 4-1 in conference semifinals.

Now comes the big test: Can NBA players live in New Orleans and get any sleep? Already there are worrisome signs. Jamal Mashburn, who missed the playoffs with a mysterious virus, sat out the exhibition season, while Baron Davis played through back spasms. Elden Campbell opted for knee surgery, but they want to start Jamaal Magloire anyway. Courtney Alexander tries to move David Wesley out of shooting guard. Rumors persist that coach Paul Silas may leave.

Toronto Raptors

Last season: 42-40, lost to Pistons 3-2 in first round.

So Vince Carter is taking names. May as well jot down some of his teammates, who responded after he went out for the season and saved Lenny Wilkens' job. For a while. Carter says he will be tougher and attack opponents and the basket, which he didn't do very often last season. Financial considerations made them unload Keon Clark, Dell Curry and Chris Childs, and the Hakeem Olajuwon gamble flopped. Antonio Davis probably will return to center and Jerome Williams to the starting lineup. They will be fighting to make the playoffs again.

Bulls

Last season: 21-61, missed playoffs.

It's a baby step, which is expected with so many NBA babies, but they should not be in last place. They have a core with Jay Williams, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, so there may be a future. Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall will have to carry them. They are short up front and deep in guards and perimeter players. Thirty wins might not look great anywhere else, but it's nearly a 50 percent improvement in Chicago.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Last season: 29-53, missed playoffs.

Don't believe them when they say they are not trying to lose. It's all about being bad enough to luck into Ohio prep star LeBron James in the draft. Which is why you have John Lucas as coach. Darius Miles could produce, but there's little around him with DaJuan Wagner ill, Andre Miller traded and Lamond Murray and Wesley Person gone.

Atlantic Division

New Jersey Nets

Last season: 52-30, swept by Lakers in NBA Finals.

They made moves to improve, adding Rodney Rogers and trading for Dikembe Mutombo. What they need most is for Jason Kidd to re-sign after this season. Moving Richard Jefferson into Keith Van Horn's small-forward spot will help defensively, and Kenyon Martin will look to replace Van Horn's offense and pull his shirt back to show his heart a record number of times. The defense should improve, though Mutombo could make Jose Canseco look graceful trying to catch Kidd's passes.

Philadelphia 76ers

Last season: 43-39, lost to Celtics 3-2 in first round.

Larry Brown is such a great coach that he will make up for the mistakes of his general manager, Larry Brown. Can Van Horn's Mormon morality fit with Allen Iverson's civil disobedience? Can Todd MacCullough even look graceful? Last season was a mess of injuries with regulars Iverson, Eric Snow and Aaron McKie missing at least 20 games in the hangover from a near-championship season. And those darn practices. We're talking practice here! Derrick Coleman opens the season hurt, which may help.

Orlando Magic

Last season: 44-38, lost to Hornets 3-1 in first round.

So what does Grant Hill have left? It is hard to remember how great he was after almost two seasons out. But if Hill begins to regain his game and Horace Grant doesn't break down, the Magic, with Hill and Tracy McGrady, can replace the Celtics as the best two-man team in the East. They question is: Can they rebound enough with Grant and Pat Garrity on the front line?

Boston Celtics

Last season: 49-33, lost to Nets 4-2 in Eastern Conference finals.

They are going to miss Kenny Anderson. Has that ever been written before? Their personnel moves were curious, in particular picking up the lethargic Vin Baker, letting Rodney Rogers go and trading Anderson. Tony Delk, the only leftover from the Joe Johnson deal with Phoenix, is not a true point guard, which leaves Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce handling the ball and shooting all the time. That cannot be a good thing, as USA Basketball discovered with Pierce in the world championships.

Washington Wizards

Last season: 37-45, missed playoffs.

Michael Jordan off the bench? Larry Hughes at point guard? Jerry Stackhouse reunited with Christian Laettner? Charles Oakley reunited with Doug Collins? Somebody walked though a mirror. Hard to believe this is going to stay together, or that Jordan will. Everyone says he will cut his minutes, but Jordan isn't that patient. Stackhouse is in his free-agent season. They were close to the playoffs with lesser talent last season until Jordan was hurt, and who knows in the weak Eastern Conference?

New York Knicks

Last season: 30-52, missed playoffs.

It is just like the early '90s again with the Bulls and Knicks battling it out, but this time for 30 wins. At least the Bulls are headed upward. The Antonio McDyess injury was a major setback, and it's anyone's guess what Latrell Sprewell has in store next, though everyone will have to temper criticism because he is suing critical media now. No point guard, too many shooting guards and no center. Are they lining up for those $1,400 courtside seats yet?

Miami Heat

Last season: 36-46, missed playoffs.

The lineup, with youngsters Caron Butler and Malik Allen getting big minutes at forward, suggests rebuilding, but Pat Riley doesn't rebuild. He was out of the playoffs for the first time in 20 years last season. But he has Eddie Jones and Brian Grant, and no one drives players day to day like Riley. It's doubtful Alonzo Mourning will ever play again, and Miami is talking about adding free agents after the season. But it has to get rid of Grant or Jones. The New York-Miami rivalry is now a battle for the Atlantic basement.

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