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Eastern Conference Preview

in predicted order of finish by Mark Heisler

October 29, 2006|Mark Heisler

1. DETROIT

* 2005-06 record: 64-18, No. 1.

* Outlook: Remember when they were 39-6 after two Finals appearances, got upset at having only four All-Stars and agreed they were worthy to be considered one of the best teams of all time? They then unraveled in the playoffs, turning on Coach Flip Saunders for not being Larry Brown. Then the Pistons decided not to give Ben Wallace that maximum payday, refused to even increase their four-year $48-million offer and let him go to Chicago. Nazr Mohammed isn't the same thing. As usual, they're sure the latest league directive -- against harassing referees, which Rasheed Wallace named "the Sheed rule" -- is directed at them. And after uncorking their doubts about Saunders, it won't be easy to get the imp back in the bottle.

* Bottom line: Nevertheless, they're still solid and it won't take greatness to win the East.

*

2. CHICAGO

* 2005-06 record: 41-41, No. 7.

* Outlook: If you're looking for the Heat, keep reading. If effort and defense were enough, you could pencil the Bulls in now, because no one works harder than this gung-ho young team, driven by the will and mouth of Coach Scott Skiles. Ben Wallace gives them one more all-

heart player in place of confused Tyson Chandler. With 37-year-old P.J. Brown, who can still block shots, an already formidable defense gets more teeth. However, neither Wallace nor Brown helps on offense. Rookie Tyrus Thomas is spectacular but mistake-prone, so Skiles won't play him. Guard Ben Gordon, a reserve for half the season, led them at 16.9 points. No one averaged 5.0 free throws

a game, which was half as many as Kobe Bryant.

* Bottom line: They may not be ready to beat elite teams in the playoffs, but there's a long time between now and then.

3. MIAMI

* 2005-06 record: 52-30, No. 2.

* Outlook: Here they are. This isn't just the NBA's defending champion but its marquee team, so if (when?) it goes down, it will be with a thud heard around the league. Pat Riley used to challenge players, as when he guaranteed the Lakers would repeat in 1988, but he had Magic Johnson then. Now Riley is reconciling himself to letting Shaquille O'Neal ease through the season. At 34, coming off a career-low 20 points a game, O'Neal's old explosion is a thing of the past. O'Neal and Dwyane Wade combined to play 198 minutes in the preseason. Wade, coming off his summer with the U.S. team, said he felt as if he had already played 60 games. Jason Williams' knee problems mean 38-year-old Gary Payton will open the season as the starter.

* Bottom line: Check back for the playoffs, but that's a long way off.

4. NEW JERSEY

* 2005-06 record: 49-33, No. 3.

* Outlook: Let's try it again, with a little more feeling. Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson looked explosive on paper, but the

Nets were No. 24 in scoring. This prompted defense-oriented Coach Lawrence Frank to speed things up while he still had the chance. Kidd is slowing down at 35, but Jefferson is coming at 26. Carter is still the game's most spectacular player (check out the dunk on the DirecTV ads),

if a long way from its hardest-nosed.Center Nenad Krstic is a factor on offense with a nice touch. The bench was a disaster but looked better

in the preseason, led by last season's lost No. 1 pick, Antoine Wright, Bostjan Nachbar and rookies Marcus Williams and Hassan Adams.

* Bottom line: In the woeful Atlantic, they could start the season Jan. 1 and still beat out the Knicks, Celtics, 76ers and Raptors.

5. CLEVELAND

* 2005-06 record: 50-32, No. 4.

* Outlook: LeBron James gave fans a bad week, dropping out of sight, then signing a three-year extension instead of four. At least their nightmare of losing him was pushed back to 2010. At 21, James finished second in the MVP voting, but he's coming off a long summer with the U.S. team. The Cavaliers sat him out of two exhibitions as fans booed. The real problem is they can't give him much more help. Their money is now tied up in Larry Hughes ($12 million a year), their consolation prize after Michael Redd turned them down; Zydrunas Ilgauskas ($10 million), whose average dropped four points in the playoffs; disappointing Donyell Marshall ($6 million); and talkative Damon Jones ($4 million.)

* Bottom line: They're just along for the ride as James makes a push to become the youngest MVP ever.

6. INDIANA

* 2005-06 record: 41-41, No. 6.

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