The NBA season promises to be one of the most interesting in recent memory.
In the West, the Lakers still reign supreme, with Dallas and Portland looking to catch them, The East looks wide open.
The Atlantic Division has at least six teams that can entertain legitimate thoughts of winning the division, while the Central looks a bit weaker, but still has some solid contenders like Toronto and Milwaukee.
Over the last few seasons the balance of power in the league has been in the West, but the advantage may shift back to the East this season. On paper, the top team in the Atlantic looks to be the Orlando Magic.
Orlando has, maybe, the two best players in the conference in Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, last year’s top rookie in Mike Miller (out 4-to-6 weeks with an foot injury) and plenty of depth up front with the additions of Patrick Ewing and Don Reid.
The Magic also added two more talented players in rookies in swingman Jeryl Sasser and center Steven Hunter. If Hill can finally stay healthy, the Magic may have enough talent to win the East.
Orlando will certainly be challenged. East champion Philadelphia should be tough again, despite personnel losses. The key is the health of Allen Iverson, though “The Answer” should have some more help this season with the addition of Cedric Henderson and the return from injury of last year’s top draft pick, Speedy Claxton.
The Sixers will also have center Dikembe Mutumbo for the full season, and added some big bodies in the draft.
Of course, the best rivalry in the Atlantic Division has been between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks. Both teams appear solid again.
The Heat lost point guard Tim Hardaway, but have Alonzo Mourning back in the fold this season. They should be an outstanding defensive team with Mourning, Eddie Jones, Brian Grant and newcomer Kendall Gill on the court. Miami also added some scoring with veteran forward LaPhonso Ellis coming off the bench.
The Knicks didn’t make any major moves, but looked to improve their team chemistry by adding a few significant role players. They dealt away Glen Rice and lost Larry Johnson to retirement, but added forwards Clarence Weatherspoon and Shandon Anderson, along with guard Howard Eisley. With the core of their team undisturbed by the moves, the Knicks could be the deepest team in the East.
Across the river, the New Jersey Nets also have an improved look. The Nets made the biggest trade of the off-season, acquiring Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury. In preseason games, Kidd has looked terrific and should make the Nets a much more competitive team, thanks to his defense and distribution abilities.
The Nets also improved their overall talent level by dealing the rights to Eddie Griffin on draft day for three first round picks. The first of those picks, Richard Jefferson, will see a lot of time in the backcourt with Kidd and a healthy Kerry Kittles. New Jersey finally has a live body at center, signing free agent Todd MacCullough away from the Sixers.
While New Jersey made the biggest trade of the off-season, the major news was easily the comeback of guard Michael Jordan to the NBA with the Wizards. That announcement overshadowed the fact that the Wizards used the first overall pick in the draft to take high schooler Kwame Brown.
The Wizards also added point guard Tyronn Lue and are expecting good things from shooting guard Richard Hamilton. Jordan will play small forward for the Wizards and could make them a playoff team.
Jordan has looked good in the preseason. He knows where to be at all times and may wind up the best shooter in the league.
Jordan will be aided by the new defensive rules, which will allow him to freelance on defense and wreak havoc on the opponent. He probably won’t average 30 points per game as in past seasons, but could pull down 10 rebounds per game.
The Celtics figure to round out the Atlantic. They also have some talent and could fight for that last playoff spot, with Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker leading the way, but they don’t have the quality of depth that the other squads in the division have.
The Central Division is much more top-heavy than the Atlantic. The Raptors and Bucks are the teams to beat, but the Hornets look like a solid playoff contender once again. Toronto added Hakeem Olajuwon to the mix along with rookie forward Michael Bradley but, more importantly, return all the important pieces from last year’s team. The club also re-signed Vince Carter for the long-term, proving the franchise is ready to win.
The Bucks didn’t make many moves over the off-season and still have a gaping hole at center that the acquisition of Greg Foster won’t fill.
What the Bucks do have is a number of top-flight perimeter players. Ray Allen is a big-time star, while Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell are also upper-echelon players. Forward Tim Thomas should also play a prominent role.
The Hornets should be the other contender in the Central. Charlotte is a bit deeper than Milwaukee but, besides Jamal Mashburn, does not have the star power of the Bucks.
The Pacers, Hawks and Pistons all have some interesting players to watch and each could contend with the fifth place team in the Atlantic for the eighth overall spot in the playoffs. The Bulls and Cavaliers are again looking at dreadful seasons and lottery picks.
EAST 1 Orlando Magic
2 Philadelphia 76ers
3 Miami Heat
4 New York Knicks
5 New Jersey Nets
6 Washington Wizards
7 Boston Celtics
1 Toronto Raptors
2 Milwaukee Bucks
3 Charlotte Hornets
4 Indiana Pacers
5 Atlanta Hawks
6 Detroit Pistons
7 Chicago Bulls
8 Cleveland Cavaliers