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Eastern Conference Preview

November 01, 2005|MARK HEISLER

In predicted order of finish by MARK HEISLER

1. MIAMI

* 2004-05 record: 59-23, 1st in East.

* Offense: 101.5 (4).

* Defense: 95.0 (8).

* Going: Eddie Jones, Keyon Dooling, Rasual Butler, Steve Smith, Malik Allen.

* Coming: Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, James Posey, Andre Emmett, Jason Kapono, No. 1 pick Wayne Simien.

* Starters: G Williams (10.1 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 5.6 apg), G Dwyane Wade (24.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6.8 apg), F James Posey (8.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.8 apg), F Udonis Haslem (10.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.4 apg), C Shaquille O'Neal (22.9 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 2.7 apg).

* Outlook: It was quite a summer for O'Neal, who got a five-year, $100-million extension and all of his wishes granted -- but one. The Heat picked up Walker and Williams because O'Neal wanted them. O'Neal says Williams is "a hip-hop Scott Skiles." In Memphis, Williams was an $8.2 million-a-year player who wasn't on the floor at the end of games. One last whim is unfulfilled. Riley set off a furor by saying he'd help Coach Stan Van Gundy, but has stayed out of sight since; there may be no way to put the imp back in the bottle. Talent isn't a problem, but chemistry is. Meanwhile, O'Neal, who came in lean and mean last season -- and still had injury problems -- said it was time to bulk up. So now it's the Return of the Dirigible.

* Comment: Can O'Neal get in shape and unseat Van Gundy fast enough for Riley to save the day?

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2. DETROIT

* 2004-05 record: 54-28, 2nd in East.

* Offense: 93.3 (24).

* Defense: 89.5 (2).

* Going: Coach Larry Brown, Elden Campbell.

* Coming: Coach Flip Saunders, Dale Davis, Maurice Evans, No. 1 pick Jason Maxiell.

* Starters: G Chauncey Billups (16.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.8 apg), G Richard Hamilton (18.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.9 apg), F Tayshaun Prince (14.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.0 apg), F Rasheed Wallace (14.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.8 apg), C Ben Wallace (9.7 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 2.4 bpg).

* Outlook: Coach Brown's former teams typically suffer post-Larry fatigue. However, the Pistons were strong-willed enough to ignore the circus around him when he was there, so why should they fall apart now? Led by the backcourt of Billups and Hamilton, this is a tough, battle-tested team with five starters who average 28 years of age. Brown trusted only two reserves, Antonio McDyess and Lindsey Hunter, but Saunders is playing Darko Milicic and Carlos Delfino, whom Brown chained to the bench. And Milicic looked good in exhibitions when Saunders let him play facing the basket. "He's going to play with a lot more freedom and confidence," Billups said, "now that LB isn't screaming at him every second."

* Comment: After one title and two Finals appearances in two seasons, this is still the league's most underrated team.

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3. INDIANA

* 2004-05 record: 44-38, 6th in East.

* Offense: 93.0 (T25).

* Defense: 92.2 (5).

* Going: Reggie Miller, James Jones, Dale Davis.

* Coming: Sarunas Jasikevicius, No. 1 pick Danny Granger.

* Starters: G Jamaal Tinsley (15.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 6.4 apg), G Stephen Jackson (18.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.3 apg), F Ron Artest (24.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.1 apg), F Jermaine O'Neal (24.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.0 bpg), C Jeff Foster (7.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 0.7 apg).

* Outlook: Regrets, they had a few after Nov. 19, when they were 13-4 and followed Ron Artest into the Palace of Auburn Hills' stands in the brawl that, parenthetically, ended their title hopes. That made two consecutive seasons effectively ended by Artest. In 2004, they were eliminated after he drew a technical foul that put Detroit's Richard Hamilton on the line for the winning free throw. Great defenders who can average 20 points are rare, so they brought Artest back with a carefully constructed support system -- after which he announced he'd play like a "caged wild animal ... out of control." Now team officials concede they have no idea what he'll do and note happily the presence of the impressive Granger. For the first time since 1987, they won't have Miller. With Artest and Jackson, they'll miss Miller's leadership even more than his shooting.

* Comment: As Artest goes -- or when -- so go they.

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4. NEW JERSEY

* 2004-05 record: 42-40, 8th in East.

* Offense: 91.4 (29).

* Defense: 92.9 (6).

* Going: Brian Scalabrine, Ron Mercer.

* Coming: Marc Jackson, Jeff McInnis, Lamond Murray, Scott Padgett, Linton Johnson.

* Starters: G Jason Kidd (14.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 8.3 apg), G Vince Carter (24.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.2 apg), F Richard Jefferson (22.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 4.0 apg), F Jason Collins (6.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.3 apg), C Nenad Krstic (10.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 apg).

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