The NBA preseason is in full swing and the first official jump ball is Oct. 29.
The Lakers have won three straight championships and are looking to become the first team to win four in a row since the 1959-66 Celtics, who captured eight straight.
The Eastern Conference hasn’t had a champion since 1998, Michael Jordan’s last season in Chicago. Here’s my countdown of the best teams in the East.
(15) Cleveland: Opted to improve on a 29-53 record by trading their best player, G Andre Miller. Coach John Lucas has a lot of teaching to do. Plenty of guards, so again look for the run-and-gun (48-33 OVER). New faces include 6-foot-9 SF Darius Miles (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) from the Clippers and Memphis rookie G Dajuan Wagner. Lucas has to mesh these newcomers with veterans Lamond Murray, Wesley Person and Ricky Davis. OVER looks good again.
(14) Chicago: Continuing to stockpile through the draft. Baby-faced with Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, Marcus Fizer (12 ppg) and first-round pick Jay (formerly Jason) Williams of Duke. G Jalen Rose (20 ppg) is the only consistent player. and SF Donyell Marshall was signed as a free agent (14.8 ppg with Utah). The one gem might be Bill Cartwright, who did a terrific job as coach.
(13) New York: Ex-coach Jeff Van Gundy got out at the right time. Traded away best big man (Marcus Camby) for talented Antonio McDyess, hoping he was healthy. He’s not (kneecap). G Allan Houston (20 ppg) and F Larry Johnson make a ton of money. G Latrell Sprewell was fined because of a broken hand and told to “come back when he can make a positive contribution.” A repeat of the 13-28 ATS home mark will bring boo-birds out early.
(12) Milwaukee: The Bucks are now a two-headed monster with guards Sam Cassell and Ray Allen (21.8 ppg). They’re also old and don’t play much defense. SF Glenn Robinson was traded for Toni Kukoc, which was meant to change the selfish attitude. The Bucks carry a 7-19-1ATS run into this season. Coach George Karl hopes often-injured F Tim Thomas can fill Big Dog’s shoes. They’re strong in the backcourt, but weak in rebounding and ”˜D’.
(11) Washington: Big off-season highlighted by the return of Michael Jordan. What was remarkable about Jordan at age 39 was his all-around play (22.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 5.7 rpg) Jordan’s heart and intelligence is unquestioned. The Wizards should improve with new G Jerry Stackhouse (Pistons) and PF Charles Oakley crashing the boards. Former top pick C Kwame Brown is a project. Rookie F Jared Jeffries adds youth and potential. The UNDER was 46-36 in Washington’s games.
(10) Toronto: The Raptors proved they could win without Vince Carter and, with him, have a lot of pieces in place to make a run. Carter averaged 24.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game when he went down. Morris Peterson (14 ppg) benefited from Carter’s absence. Ageless Dale Davis is back after stepping into the center position where he grabbed 9.6 boards per game. Coach Lenny Wilkens preaches defense (47-36 UNDER). A team on the rise.
(9) Miami: Rebuilding. Pat Riley now has a guard-oriented team with Eddie Jones, Travis Best and Eddie House. The offense should be better because of F Caron Butler (from UConn), an early-season Rookie of the Year candidate. C Alonzo Mourning is expected to miss the season because of continuing kidney ailments, leaving Brian Grant as the best rebounder. Riley always gets his teams to play strong defense (23-18 UNDER at home).
(8) Atlanta: Guaranteed season ticket holders their money-back if failing to reach the playoffs. Brought in F Glenn Robinson, who averaged 20.7 ppg with Milwaukee in 66 games. C Theo Ratliff clogs the middle, but played in only three games. The Hawks have young talent in F Sharif Abdur-Rahim (21 ppg, 9 rpg), G DeMarr Johnson, C Nzar Mohammed and Gonzaga rookie G Dan Dickau. Hawks hope to do what the Nets did, but need to improve on the road (10-31 SU, 17-24 ATS).
(7) Indiana: The Pacers have a talented young group, making few off-season moves. G Jamal Tinsley (8.0 assists) was the steal of the draft a year ago. He teams with Fs Austin Croshere, Jermaine O’Neal (19 ppg) and Othell Harrington to form a gifted, young nucleus. G Reggie Miller (16.5 ppg) provides veteran leadership and there’s plenty of role-playing depth with Ron Artest, Ron Mercer and Brad Miller. The UNDER was 25-19 in Indiana’s road games.
(6) Detroit: Thrived under coach Rick Carlisle, who stressed defense, unselfish play and hard work and chemistry. Pistons were 27-15 ATS on the road.
The one change was big, trading Stackhouse (21.4 ppg) to Washington for SG Richard Hamilton (20 ppg). The backcourt added Chauncey Billups and Hubert Davis. Ben Wallace (NBA Defensive Player of the Year) and Corliss Williamson (Sixth Man of the Year) are solid up front.
(5) Philadelphia: The 76ers are a big wild card and deep in talent. G Allen Iverson is what he is: strong on the court, weak off it. He averaged 31 ppg last year, but injuries limited him to 60 games. Philly shipped out C Dikembe Mutombo for F Keith Van Horn, who led the Nets in rebounding. They are still good in the pivot with role players Derrick Coleman and Todd McCulloch. There’s enough talent to win, if Iverson is healthy and the players haven’t tuned out coach Larry Brown.
(4) Orlando: Tracy McGrady (25.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 5.3 apg) is the best all-around player in the league. Doc Rivers is an outstanding coach and has several talented young players (Mike Miller, Darrell Armstrong) to go veteran PF Horace Grant. Often-injured Grant Hill (bad ankles) hasn’t been much of a factor, but is averaging around 10 points in limited preseason action. If he contributes in any fashion, the Magic will be real good. Orlando was 26-22 ATS as a favorite, 11-23 as a dog.
(3) New Orleans: No longer in Charlotte, the Hornets should win a lot of games. Jamal Mashburn (40 games last year) must stay healthy. The Hornets have depth and road success (25-20 SU/ATS). Guard Baron Davis (18 ppg) re-signed, David Wesley returns at shooting guard and shooter Courtney Alexander was acquired from the Wizards. P.J. Brown and Eldon Campbell won’t hurt in the middle.
(2) Boston: The Celtics have two big stars and several role players. Antoine Walker (23.4 ppg) and Paul Pierce (25.3 ppg) lead the way. Coach Jim O’Brien has these guys playing defense and working hard. The loss of SF Rodney Rogers may hurt, and acquiring troubled C Vin Baker from Seattle is a risk. Baker played in just 55 games, but if coming back to his roots motivates him, the Celts will be right there.
(1) New Jersey: Last year was remarkable, going from 26-56 two years ago to the NBA Finals. The Nets had been stockpiling top draft picks the last few years (Kenyon Martin, Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles, Richard Jefferson) and everything blossomed. The missing piece was guard Jason Kidd (14.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 9.9 apg), who should have been MVP. That trade was a masterstroke. The Nets shipped Van Horn to Philly for 7-foot-2 Mutombo and acquired Rogers from Boston. The pieces are in place for a repeat.