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No One Here Will Be Cutting Down Nets

Times Staff Writer

Seeming to disappear before our eyes, the East, the conference of Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, has lost five NBA Finals in a row.

Nor is there any reason to believe next spring won’t make six, which would be the worst showing for any conference since the Celtic-dominated days when the West went 0-13 from 1958 to ’70.

Nor is there a new power rising in the East, or at least one you can see with the naked eye. Most of the best teams changed coaches over the summer, or general managers, or both, and are reorganizing.

That leaves the East pinning its hopes on ...

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The New Jersey Nets?

Yes, the gritty two-time defending conference champions, the only team in the conference that looks better.

Of course, that took some doing.

You may have missed this -- most of America did, according to the TV ratings -- but New Jersey actually took San Antonio to a Game 6, the East’s best showing since 2000.

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Not that the summer seemed like a victory parade. The team still can’t get an arena deal, has pulled out of its partnership with Yankee Entertainment Sports and is up for sale, amid reports it may be moving to Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island or a garage near you.

On the personnel front, two newspapers reported that Jason Kidd tried to get Coach Byron Scott fired before telling the Nets he’d come back. According to the New York Post, Kidd was so upset after the Game 6 loss to the Spurs, he told friends that his toddler, T.J., “could have coached better.”

Kenyon Martin, who is easily upset, went off anew when Net management refused to extend him a maximum contract offer and was all but apoplectic after management then spent $25 million to dump Dikembe Mutombo.

Nevertheless, Kidd not only re-signed, he talked Alonzo Mourning into joining him so they still look like the best in the East. Of course, that may only require 45 wins.

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Here’s a team-by-team look in predicted order of finish:

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NEW JERSEY

2002-03 record: 49-33, second.

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Offense: 95.4 (14). Defense: 90.1 (2).

Coming: Alonzo Mourning.

Going: Dikembe Mutombo.

Outlook: Even for the Nets, whose history has more intrigue than “Hamlet,” this was a disturbing off-season, with Jason Kidd trying to get Coach Byron Scott dumped as his price for re-signing. Team President Rod Thorn didn’t feel like cashiering Scott after two trips to the Finals, so now what they have is a shotgun marriage: Kidd and Scott, together again. Amazingly, with all these subplots, the Nets played great last season. Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson are comers. Mourning gives them a reason to hope, assuming he’s healthy, they get off to a good start, and Kidd doesn’t start giving off distress signals again.

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Prediction: Well, it could work.

1

NETS

Projected Starters

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G Jason Kidd

G Kerry Kittles

F Richard Jefferson

F Kenyon Martin

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C Alonzo Mourning

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INDIANA

2002-03 record: 48-34, third.

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Offense: 96.8 (T9). Defense: 93.3 (13).

Coming: Coach Rick Carlisle, Scot Pollard, Kenny Anderson.

Going: Coach Isiah Thomas, Brad Miller, Erick Strickland, Ron Mercer.

Outlook: The Pacers don’t have a history of intrigue, or didn’t until last summer when team President Donnie Walsh brought in Larry Bird, who offed Thomas, replacing him with Carlisle, who is one of Bird’s favorites but has had trouble getting along with everyone else. What Carlisle lacks in charm, he makes up for in his ability to coach. Jermaine O’Neal is pouting over Thomas’ firing. They’re still giving Ron Artest last chances, and instead of Miller at center, it’ll be journeyman Pollard.

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Prediction: Carlisle needs a lot of backing, but he has it with

2

PACERS

Projected Starters

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G Jamaal Tinsley

G Reggie Miller

F Ron Artest

F Jermaine O’Neal

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C Scot Pollard

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NEW ORLEANS

2002-03 record: 47-35, 5th.

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Offense: 93.8 (19). Defense: 91.8 (5).

Coming: Coach Tim Floyd, Darrell Armstrong, Sean Rooks.

Going: Coach Paul Silas, Kenny Anderson, Jerome Moiso.

Outlook: Silas, who ridiculed his bosses in the newspapers, was so upset when they fired him, he went to owner George Shinn’s house, knocked on the door -- with a TV crew behind him, filming away -- and demanded an explanation as Shinn cowered. This is still one of the East’s biggest, deepest rosters. However, although they have never fallen out of contention, as soon as anyone gets excited about them they fall back.

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Prediction: Floyd went bonkers in Chicago, where he had an impossible task; this is possible, if he’s good enough.

3

HORNETS

Projected Starters

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G Baron Davis

G David Wesley

F Jamal Mashburn

F P.J. Brown

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C Jamaal Magloire

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DETROIT

2002-03 record: 50-32, first.

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Offense: 91.4 (T25). Defense: 87.7 (1).

Coming: Coach Larry Brown, No. 1 pick Darko Milicic, Elden Campbell, Bob Sura, Lindsey Hunter, Darvin Ham.

Going: Coach Rick Carlisle, Cliff Robinson, Michael Curry, Jon Barry.

Outlook: Carlisle took the Pistons to back-to-back 50-win seasons, but was fired, reportedly because owner Bill Davidson and his right-hand man, Tom Wilson, couldn’t stand his dour personality. Of course, Brown is used to tearing his teams down and rebuilding according to his own vision, so it may not be long before he’s telling his boss, Joe Dumars, that these kids they like so much can’t play.

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Prediction: How do you reconcile a future-is-now veterans’ coach with a building-for-the-future organization? We’ll see.

4

PISTONS

Projected Starters

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G Chauncey Billups

G Richard Hamilton

F Tayshaun Prince

F Ben Wallace

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C Elden Campbell

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PHILADELPHIA

2002-03 record: 48-34, 4th.

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Offense: 96.8 (T9). Defense: 94.5 (15).

Coming: Coach Randy Ayers, Glenn Robinson, Marc Jackson.

Going: Coach Larry Brown, Keith Van Horn, Brian Skinner.

Outlook: Teams typically unravel as soon as Brown leaves, so the pressure’s on his successor. However, Ayers spent six seasons under Brown and doesn’t have to put in a new system. Allen Iverson’s four-year, $76-million extension has him in a positive mood. The question mark is Robinson. He’s the No. 2 scorer they always needed, but he’s one-dimensional, doesn’t defend and has never been popular with teammates.

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Prediction: With luck, health and chemistry, they could go up. Without them, they could drop.

5

76ERS

Projected Starters

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G Eric Snow

G Allen Iverson

F Glenn Robinson

F Kenny Thomas

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C Derrick Coleman

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BOSTON

2002-03 record: 44-38, 6th.

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Offense: 92.7 (22). Defense: 93.1 (12).

Coming: General Manager Danny Ainge, Raef Lafrentz, Jiri Welsch, Chris Mills.

Going: General Manager Chris Wallace, Antoine Walker, Tony Delk.

Outlook: So much for the Celtics’ four-point era. Walker, big, talented and stubborn, led the league in three-point attempts at 7.5 a game -- a full 2.6 ahead of No. 2 Ray Allen -- while making 32%, which was No. 79. Asked once why he took so many three-pointers, Walker answered, “Because there are no fours.” Ainge took care of that by dumping Walker. The Celtics just became bigger and smarter and Paul Pierce just became a good bet to score 30 a game.

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Prediction: They are not an elite team but have taken a step on the way back.

6

CELTICS

Projected Starters

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G Marcus Banks

G Paul Pierce

F Eric Williams

F Tony Battie

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C Raef LaFrentz

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ORLANDO

2002-03 record: 42-40, 8th.

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Offense: 98.5 (6). Defense: 98.4 (24).

Coming: Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue.

Going: Darrell Armstrong, Chris Whitney, Jacque Vaughn.

Outlook: The Grant Hill era is unofficially over as he plans his latest comeback and the team plans to get his money off its cap in 2005, when there will be a big free-agent class. Of course, Tracy McGrady can be one of the free agents, so the Magic has until then to convince him there’s still a future in Orlando. It had better hurry. The Magic didn’t defend or rebound, and on offense just went to McGrady. After Orlando blew a 3-1 lead over the Pistons in the first round, management apologized to fans.

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Prediction: Hill’s injuries annually blow up Doc Rivers’ plans. Now without Hill, the coach had better get the Magic organized again.

7

MAGIC

Projected Starters

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G Tyronn Lue

G Tracy McGrady

F Drew Gooden

F Juwan Howard

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C Andrew DeClercq

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TORONTO

2002-03 record: 24-58. 14th.

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Offense: 90.9 (27). Defense: 96.8 (19).

Coming: Coach Kevin O’Neill, No. 1 pick Chris Bosh, Stanley Roberts, Michael Curry, Jerome Moiso.

Going: Coach Lenny Wilkens, Lindsey Hunter.

Outlook: Vince Carter, who used to say he wasn’t the next Michael Jordan, has proven that much. Last season, he missed 39 games and wasn’t impressive before he got hurt as the Raptors crashed to the bottom of the East. This is still a playoff team if Carter gets his head on straight. On the plus side, Bosh was impressive in exhibitions. On the minus side, Antonio Davis, their second most important player, wants out.

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Prediction: As Carter (shudder) goes, they go.

8

RAPTORS

Projected Starters

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G Alvin Williams

G Vince Carter

F Morris Peterson

F Jerome Moiso

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C Antonio Davis

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CHICAGO

2002-03 record: 30-52, 12th.

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Offense: 95 (16). Defense: 100.1 (26).

Coming: Scottie Pippen, Kendall Gill.

Going: Fred Hoiberg, Dalibor Bagaric.

Outlook: It’s a new, warm, fuzzy era with General Manager John Paxson taking over for prickly Jerry Krause. Paxson arrived in the nick of time because their young team was about to explode. Jay Williams was a disappointment before totaling his career in a motorcycle accident, the young guys were at Coach Bill Cartwright’s throat, and Krause was in his usual don’t-bother-me-with-your-little-problems mode. Paxson brought Pippen home, a good move since Pippen showed in Portland he can provide direction and teams don’t come much more clueless than this one. Prediction: The future may not be quite yet.

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9

BULLS

Projected Starters

G Jamal Crawford

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G Jalen Rose

F Scottie Pippen

F Tyson Chandler

C Eddy Curry

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NEW YORK

2002-03 record: 37-45, 10th.

Offense: 95.9 (11). Defense: 97.2 (20).

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Coming: Dikembe Mutombo, Keith Van Horn.

Going: Latrell Sprewell.

Outlook: They’re still just trying to maintain the illusion they’re competitive so they can keep milking their $1-million-a-game Madison Square Garden cash cow while trying to figure out what to do next. They’ve been stuck at this point since Pat Riley left as coach

Prediction: It’s playoffs or bust for Coach Don Chaney. In any case, it’s just another step on the road to nowhere.

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10

KNICKS

Projected Starters

G Howard Eisley

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G Allan Houston

F Keith Van Horn

F Kurt Thomas

C Dikembe Mutumbo

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MIAMI

2002-03 record: 25-57, 13th.

Offense: 85.6 (28). Defense: 90.6 (4).

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Coming: Coach Stan Van Gundy, Lamar Odom, Dwyane Wade, Samaki Walker, John Wallace, Loren Woods, Bimbo Coles.

Going: Coach Pat Riley, Mike James, Anthony Carter, Alonzo Mourning, Eddie House, Travis Best.

Outlook: If the team can recover from the bombshell Riley dropped on it when he walked away four days before the season, you’d have to like its chances. On the other hand, that’s not the way it figures to go. The Heat looked like it could be a playoff contender. Now it finds itself under Stan Van Gundy, who was 135-92 as a head coach at Wisconsin and Massachusetts Lowell.

Prediction: If this works, everyone named Van Gundy will get hired by an NBA team.

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11

HEAT

Projected Starters

G Dwyane Wade

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G Eddie Jones

F Caron Butler

F Lamar Odom

C Brian Grant

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WASHINGTON

2002-03 record: 37-45, 9th.

Offense: 91.5 (24). Defense: 92.5 (T10).

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Coming: Coach Eddie Jordan, Gilbert Arenas.

Going: Coach Doug Collins, Michael Jordan, Tyronn Lue, Bryon Russell.

Outlook: Eddie Jordan was the Laker veteran who mentored Magic Johnson, who mentored Byron Scott, who then became Jordan’s boss, after which Jason Kidd tried to get Scott fired so Jordan could succeed him. Now Jordan has his own team to run. He has installed the Princeton offense, but it hasn’t been easy for the players. The Wizards have some, but Arenas is struggling with the offense, Jerry Stackhouse just had knee surgery and Kwame Brown and Jared Jeffries are unproven.

Prediction: Jordan might have bailed on New Jersey a little too early.

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12

WIZARDS

Projected Starters

G Gilbert Arenas

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G Larry Hughes

F Jared Jeffries

F Kwame Brown

C Brendan Haywood

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ATLANTA

2002-03 record: 35-47, 11th.

Offense: 94.1 (18). Defense: 97.6 (21).

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Coming: Stephen Jackson, Jacque Vaughn, Lee Nailon.

Going: General Manager Pete Babcock, Glenn Robinson.

Outlook: It was nice to get back to Atlanta for the All-Star game. Otherwise, everyone would have forgotten the Hawks were in the league. Deserted by their fans, the Hawks put it all on the line last season, bringing in Robinson to play alongside Shareef Abdur-Rahim, seemingly to make them playoff contenders. Instead, they proved they’re the NBA version of Murphy’s Law: For the Hawks, whatever can go wrong, does.

Prediction: At least they won’t be disappointing this season. Everyone already knows they’re not going anywhere.

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13

HAWKS

Projected Starters

G Jason Terry

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G Dion Glover

F Stephen Jackson

F Sharif Abdur-Rahim

C Theo Ratliff

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MILWAUKEE

2002-03 record: 42-40, 7th.

Offense: 99.5 (5). Defense: 99.2 (25).

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Coming: Coach Terry Porter, No. 1 pick T.J. Ford, Brian Skinner, Erick Strickland.

Going: Coach George Karl, Gary Payton, Sam Cassell, Anthony Mason.

Outlook: And then there were none. After running his mouth on his Big Three of Glenn Robinson, Cassell and Ray Allen, Karl began trading them. Finally, they were going or gone and there he was -- with a $14-million, two-year extension about to kick in. Talk about bad timing. Karl was finally fired. He’ll be on ABC this season, though they won’t be doing any games from Milwaukee, where all they have to remember him by is a smoking crater.

Prediction: They’re for sale too. Anyone want a money-losing rebuilding project in a small, snowy city?

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14

BUCKS

Projected Starters

G T.J. Ford

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G Michael Redd

F Tim Thomas

F Joe Smith

C Dan Gadzuric

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CLEVELAND

2002-03 record: 17-65, 15th.

Offense: 91.4 (T25). Defense: 101 (28).

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Coming: Coach Paul Silas, No. 1 pick LeBron James, Kevin Ollie, Ira Newble.

Going: Coach Keith Smart, Milt Palacio, Jumaine Jones.

Outlook: After years of seeing the truly needy left drooling while the truly lucky, like San Antonio and Houston, drew phenoms like Tim Duncan and Yao Ming, the Cavaliers hit the jackpot, stripping down to rebuild and enhancing their shot at James. Of course, after James barely averaged double figures and shot 33% in the exhibition season, it’s clear they’ll have to wait for him. There are some other nice pieces here but, like James, this franchise has a long way to go.

Prediction: It’ll be next season, at least, before James affects the fabric of the East.

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15

CAVALIERS

Projected Starters

G Kevin Ollie

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G LeBron James

F Ricky Davis

F Carlos Boozer

C Zydrunas Ilgauskas

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