NBA Atlantic falling on hard times early

Nov 29, 2005 6:05 AM

The NBA season is a dozen games old for most teams and already we are seeing where the strengths and weaknesses lie around the league.

In the Eastern Conference, the Atlantic Division is weak as ever. Philadelphia leads at 7-7 with both New Jersey and Boston off to slower than expected starts. Larry Brown’s New York Knicks are also off to a slow start, while Toronto has the NBA’s worst record at 1-13. The Atlantic winner will struggle to finish at .500 and there could well be a team in the East that misses the playoffs despite a winning record.

That team could come from the Central, which shows signs of being the best division in the league. Last place Milwaukee is at .500 and division leading Detroit has the league’s best record at 10-2. Cleveland is also much improved and should end its lengthy playoff drought.

Miami remains atop the Southeast with just a 7-6 record, despite the continued absence of Shaquille O’Neal. Charlotte’s 5-9 mark may not be impressive, but the Bobcats are nearly one third of the way to their 18 wins of last season’s debut campaign. Look for the Cats to be a tough foe for all but the top teams in the league. Their improvement is legit.

San Antonio (10-3) and Dallas (9-3) each appears every bit as strong as last season. The Spurs have added depth this season, should ultimately pull away from the Mavericks and remain the team to beat in the West.

The biggest surprise remains the Los Angeles Clippers. If inexperience doesn’t get the best of them, the well-balanced Clippers will contend in the Pacific all season. Depending on the draw, they could even win a first round series. Golden State is also much improved and has their best opportunity in years to make the playoffs.

It’s still early but these first month developments bear watching. Often there is a lag time for the pointspreads to catch up with the dramatic changes that occur each season, although the teams will change.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Bobcats at Warriors (Fri): Both teams are young and improved and playing with great enthusiasm. Baron Davis has taken charge of the Warriors since he arrived in the middle of last season and Troy Murphy appears to be having his breakout season.

The Bobcats have a fine nucleus of talent, with University of Connecticut standout Emeka Okafur emerging as an All Star caliber player. Look for both teams to run the court and play an up tempo pace. OVER.

76ers at Spurs (Sat): The Spurs are a well-balanced and deep team that is favored to defend their NBA Title. Philadelphia has Allen Iverson and a supporting cast that can play well against most teams. Here they face the league’s elite team. The Spurs swept the two game series last season after Philly turned the trick a season earlier. San Antonio has more options on offense and a clearly superior defense. The Spurs also catch the Sixers off a game Friday night in Oklahoma City against the Hornets. The combination of tired legs and a tenacious defense could signal a repeat of last season’s blowout win on this court. SPURS.

Pacers at Sonics (Sun): Indiana completes a five game road trip that began with an upset of the Clippers this past Sunday. The 8-4 start has been overshadowed by the better starts of division foes Cleveland and Detroit, but the Pacers are one of the favorites to win the East now that Ron Artest is back on the roster. Seattle clearly misses ex-coach Nate McMillan. The Sonics overachieved last season and they have started the current campaign 5-8 with just a 3-3 record on their home court. Ray Allen is one of the league’s top players and has decent talent around him. But, the Pacers are fundamentally a better team. In a near pick ’em game look for Indiana to get a win against a team that swept the two game series a season ago. PACERS.

Last week: 1-1

Regular season: 5-6