NBA 2005-06 Eastern Conference Preview

Prior to last season, the NBA’s Eastern Conference was viewed as dominantly weaker than its Western counterpart. Then last season, Shaquille O’Neal was sent packing to Miami and the tide slowly began to turn. Franchises such as the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards experienced resurgence which sent them to the playoffs. Now, the 2005-06 NBA season is slowly approaching and teams are preparing to open training camps in October, which Eastern teams are ready to take that next step? And which are just plain terrible? You’ll see in this exclusive look at the NBA Eastern
Conference.

First, we’ll go through each of the 15 teams and look at what’s ahead for them. The order will be in reverse, from perceived worst to first. By the end you should be able to get a good taste of what’s expected and then you can compare your own thoughts with my mock standings for each of the three division, the Atlantic, Central and Southeast.

15. Atlanta Hawks

Last Year’s Record : 13-69

The Hawks have been the exclusive joke of the Eastern Conference for as long as I can remember and things are not about to change. The off-season saw a dirty legal battle that led to one owner being forced out. It looks like the Hawks have no sense of direction after loading up on talented wingmen but the problem is just that, they’re overloaded with wingmen. Their projected starting point guard will either by Tyronn Lue or moving the newly acquired (and $80 Million+ richer) Joe Johnson.

They drafted Marvin Williams with the second overall selection in the draft, even with point guard studs like Chris Paul and Deron Williams on the board. As it looks now, Williams will only play sparingly. Hawk watchers should have fun in watching slam dunk king Josh Smith develop. In his upcoming sophomore season, he should be able to work on his game so that he’s not only known as a dunker. Something to look out for is second round draft pick, Salim Stoudamire. He’s was praised as being the best pure shooter in the draft and will help the Hawks in that regard. But, they’ll lack that pure disher and a real big man. On the bright side, they should receive another high draft pick and hopefully then, they’ll use it in a place of dire need.

14. Charlotte Bobcats

Last Year’s Record : 18-64

The Bobcats did not have a terrible year last year in context. They played competitively throughout the year and Emeka Okafor received the Rookie of the Year award. The franchise has done a lot well so far, including not spending big bucks on a single player. Instead, they’ve been building through the draft. They used their two first round draft picks on local stars from North Carolina, guard Raymond Felton and forward Sean May.

Point guard Brevin Knight returns and will start. He showed a lot of character and leadership on the court a year ago and should continue to do the same as he will help mentor Felton. The prospect of a front court made up of NCAA National Champions, Okafor and May in the future is a great one for the team. Both have good to great rebounding skills and crafty hands around the basket.

They should improve on last year’s record but don’t expect much more. Even though the team is chock full of talent, the team is too young to compete for a playoff spot. On the bright side, with the Hawks in the same division, the Cats won’t have to worry about finishing in the cellar.

13. Toronto Raptors

Last Year’s Record : 33-49

After trading Vince Carter in the middle of the season a year ago and receiving nothing in return, GM Rob Babcock put his head at the top of the firing heap. His draft started out with a twist when the team chose Charlie Villanueva with the seventh overall selection. Nine picks later they received a pretty good all-around player in forward Joey Graham. Graham is expected to play more than Villanueva early on and should have no problems in doing so.

Without a doubt, the face of the franchise is the lengthy and athletic Chris Bosh. He’s not too far away from being a top player in the league and should be able to near a double-double average as far as points and rebounds go. Veterans such as Jalen Rose and Morris Peterson will both be key if the Raptors don’t want to fail this season. Each can shoot but Peterson is the gritty type of player who knows defense well. A problem for Toronto is in their starting point guard, Rafer Alston. Last season, he butted heads with team management on countless occasions and only after failed attempts at finding a replacement, is returning. His sloppy overall play will help bring the Raptors down.

The Raptors, like many teams, are slowly turning their roster into a youth movement. For that reason, among others, they shouldn’t achieve much so soon. However, with a good core of guys such as Bosh, Graham and company, the future isn’t as dim as it was a year ago.

12. Milwaukee Bucks

Last Year’s Record : 30-52

The Bucks are fresh off of a tremendous off-season which saw them select the big center Andrew Bogut first overall and re-sign Michael Redd, keeping him away from Lebron in Cleveland. The Bucks have a talented core and can definitely improve on last year’s mild season. TJ Ford is said to be healthy again and will come off the bench and back-up Maurice Williams. Also on the bench will be Desmond Mason who is a terrific player. That depth will be key for Milwaukee.

The future will see great things for the Bucks but right now, it’s a time of learning. First off, Bogut will experience heavy doubters concerning his first overall selection. If he’s anything like he was at Utah in college, the Bucks will have found a diamond mine. If anyone should be happy, it’s Michael Redd. A great guard, he undoubtedly decided to stay in Milwaukee thanks to a big man in Bogut. The Bucks will be an interesting team to watch and if it weren’t for a tough division in the Central, perhaps could contend for a low playoff seed.

11. Orlando Magic

Last Year’s Record : 36-46

The Magic are an interesting squad. They have a couple of young players, one of which is their franchise in Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Add in veterans Grant Hill and Steve Francis and they don’t look all that bad on paper. However, the Francis effect will be major. As long as Nelson is the starter, Francis shouldn’t continue to hog the ball as was the case in Houston with Yao Ming. Howard is a tremendous player and did wonders in his rookie year last season.

The lack of a strong big man will hurt the Magic. Tony Battie and Kelvin Cato will battle for the starting center gig but neither puts any fright into opposing teams. As Howard and Nelson continue to develop, the Magic should improve. However, both are in their sophomore seasons so it will be a slow process. Outside of Miami, the Southeast division isn’t exactly tough so a playoff spot isn’t out of the question.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

Last Year’s Record : 43-39

The Sixers have another new coach, this time it’s Maurice Cheeks who has a good rapport with Allen Iverson. The team is full of young players with potential. They re-signed big man Samuel Dalembert and were able to sign free-agent center Steven Hunter away from the Suns. Both are big but are pretty skinny. They’re development will be key for the Sixers to challenge teams in the Atlantic. However Chris Webber is still on the team and whether or not he can successfully co-exist with Iverson is perhaps the most important factor in any success the team may have.

Kyle Korver was re-signed. He’s a fan favorite and possess a terrific outside shot. When it’s all said and done though, the Sixers will go as far as Iverson takes them. Last year, he had an outstanding year alongside the young players. Philly will contend for a playoff spot and depending on how well players like Dalembert, Hunter and Korver play, could contend for a division crown.

9. Boston Celtics

Last Year’s Record : 45-37

The Celtics had a great draft this off-season when they were able to land Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes and Will Bynum. How Green dropped to their 19th pick is still surprising. GM Danny Ainge traded Antoine Walker to Miami in an attempt to focus on the youthfulness of Boston.

Last season the team played pretty well even with a roster full of young talents. This season, the likes of Al Jefferson, Delonte West and Tony Allen will continue to develop. Boston’s group of young players should all someday realize their potential and whenever that happens, it will be outstanding. Right now though, it’s all about Paul Pierce who was
rumored during most of the off-season to be traded. Still, the team is talented and could surprise some down the stretch.

8. New York Knicks

Last Year’s Record : 33-49

Perhaps the biggest move the Knicks have made has not been a free agent signing or draft day trade but rather a coach. That’s right, Larry Brown has now realized his own dream job and it will be a lot of work. The Knicks have been known for their horrid defensive play in recent years, something that Brown will undoubtedly work his hardest to correct.

For the first time in years, Kurt Thomas will not suit up in a Knicks uniform. In his place, Channing Frye, Jerome James, Quentin Richardson, Nate Robertson and David Lee will all be in the Garden. Stephon Marbury will be followed as much as anyone in the league to see how he works with his new head coach. Other key players for the Knicks will be
Jamal Crawford, a shoot ’em up type of player, Tim Thomas in his contract year and Michael Sweetney who has been involved in numerous trade rumors.

Through it all, the Knicks should improve with Brown at the helm. Now, GM Isiah Thomas has no excuses and if the Knicks continue to play down to their opponents, he’ll be on the chopping block. Whether or not the planned improvement is enough to get them into the playoffs, that remains to be seen.

7. Washington Wizards

Last Year’s Record : 45-37

The Wizards had a pretty good off-season and coming off of a suprising playoff birth season, they should have no trouble in returning. They lost Larry Hughes, Kwame Brown and Juan Dixon to a mixture of free-agency and trades. However, they were able to acquire Antonio Daniels and Caron Butler, both of whom are pegged into the starting line-up.

The returning group of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood should only improve as the core of a talented line-up. Caron Butler has been thrown around from Miami to Los Angeles and now to Washington in the past three years. Still, Butler is just about ready to turn the untapped potential into stats and wins for the Wizards.

The Wizards drafted high school center Andray Blatche who just last week was a victim of an attempted carjacking and was shot. His condition is listed as stable so right now basketball is the furthest thing from his mind.

6. Cleveland Cavaliers

Last Year’s Record : 42-40

Lebron James’ Cavaliers went through an off-season of activity. They wanted a pure shooter and signed Larry Hughes. They kept center Zydrunas Ilgauskus and signed Donyell Marshall away from Toronto. The Cavs are a much more talented team now then they’ve ever been in recent years. The question is whether or not Hughes is the answer the team was looking for.

Lebron cannot win it all by himself, as has been proven the past couple of years. New head coach Mike Brown is a good hire as he’s a teacher of solid and tough basics. As opposed to last year when the team just fell apart at the end of the season, they should now contend for a middle of the road playoff seed. Then…and only then will the real Lebron James be able to play on the scene of champions.

5. New Jersey Nets

Last Year’s Record : 42-40

The Nets are able to boast the most talented guard tandem in the NBA with Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. Small forward Richard Jefferson will start the season healthy and he’ll add more dimensions to the Nets play. Although the front court is made up of a couple of young players, both Jason Collins and Nenad Krstic are seven footers. Krstic had a breakout season last year in his rookie year and should only improve.

The Nets drafted guard Antoine Wright in the middle of the first round in an attempt to solve their shooting problems. He hasn’t done well in the Summer League but should do well enough once the season starts.

Jeff McInnis has been added to the bench to back-up Jason Kidd and although Kidd plays a lot of minutes, McInnis’ presence will be important. Cliff Robinson is also on what has been turned into a strong bench for the Nets. However, they remain a below-average defensive team. Still, they can run and score with the best of them.

4. Chicago Bulls

Last Year’s Record : 47-35

The Bulls are continuing in the strangest story in sports, trying to get center Eddy Curry to undergo DNA tests to find out just how serious his health problems are. As far as on the court issues, the Bulls brought back everyone who was eligible for free agency. Tyson Chandler, Chris Duhon and Othella Harrington are all returning.

However, if the Curry issue is not settled, the team will be in big trouble in their front court. Everything else is pretty much settled with Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich in the backcourt. If Curry isn’t playing, the Bulls are a weaker team, no if’s and’s or but’s about it. Unless the big man is in there, the team will struggle going up against other teams who can just match up against the talented guards.

Whether or not Tyson Chandler could carry the burden of being the “go-to” big man on the team remains to be seen. He has enough worries staying healthy. But through all that, the Bulls have a lot of talent and should grow on last year’s success.

3. Detroit Pistons

Last Year’s Record : 54-28

While the Pistons didn’t lose any key players, they did lose their Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. New coach, Flip Saunders will have the pressure of the world on his shoulders as he tries to keep the Pistons atop the Eastern Conference. This coaching move is the only reason I see the Pistons unable to win their division.

The team will have a bad taste in their mouths following a NBA Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs. This won’t ring good for opposing teams, a Pistons team with something to prove. They’re all be back for more, Billups-Hamilton-Prince and the Wallace Boys. The most interesting thing following the Pistons will be the Darko Milicic experiment. With Larry Brown long gone now, can Milicic show some reasons why he was selected second in the draft some years ago, sandwiched between LeBron James and Carmello Anthony?

2. Indiana Pacers

Last Year’s Record : 44-38

After the horrifying and infamous brawl last season between the Pacers and Pistons and Detroit’s “fans,” the team from Indiana was doomed. Even after a second round playoff trip, the Pacers are now looking towards this new season to show the world they’re the best. This is going to be the first time in a LOOONG time that Reggie Miller won’t be playing but Ron Artest will return.

There’s no doubting how talented the Pacers are, up and down their line-up. Added to the fact is a good draft in which they were able to select Danny Granger late in the first. A big correlation for the Pacers success is the health of point guard Jamaal Tinsley. When he’s able to stay healthy, the team will play much better.

I’m looking for the Pacers to return to form this season and lead the way back to dominance in the Central Division. The challenge will be in playing Detroit and Miami as Indiana will have to step it up big time to contend and better their two toughest opponents.

1. Miami Heat

Last Year’s Record : 59-23

Since being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat have made as many acquisitions as anyone else. Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, James Posey and rookie Wayne Simien are all new to the team. The losses of Eddie Jones and Damon Jones aren’t expected to be felt much.

The starting line-up has been improved as has the depth for the Stan Van Gundy-led club. For the time being, we can only imagine the kind of scoring a line-up made up of Williams-Wade-Walker-Haslem-Shaq can do. Speaking of which, Dwayne Wade will continue to increase his name recognition alongside Shaq and don’t be surprised if Wade turns into the best player in the league.

Depth for the Heat is as good as anyone else. Payton, Alonzo Mourning, James Posey, Wayne Simien all will receive a good number of minutes and should contribute well. Last year, the Heat won 59 games. Needless to say, expectations are even greater.

PROJECTED STANDINGS

Atlantic Division

1. New Jersey Nets 50-32 (3 seed)
2. New York Knicks 43-39 (7 seed)
3. Boston Celtics 42-40
4. Philadelphia 76ers 38-42
5. Toronto Raptors 25-57

Central Division

1. Indiana Pacers 54-28 (2 seed)
2. Detroit Pistons 50-32 (4 seed)
3. Cleveland Cavaliers 44-38 (6 seed)
4. Chicago Bulls 42-40 (8 seed)
5. Milwaukee Bucks 32-50

Southeast Division

1. Miami Heat 64-18 (1 seed)
2. Washington Wizards 46-36 (5 seed)
3. Orlando Magic 35-47
4. Charlotte Bobcats 22-60
5. Atlanta Hawks 14-68

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