Last week I examined the best teams in the Western Conference. This week it’s the East, which hasn’t had an NBA champion since Michael Jordan’s last title with the 1998 Bulls.
NETS: Two straight trips to the NBA Finals and two losses, winning only two games out of eight. Perhaps this is the year. New Jersey is the Beast of the East, led by All-Star point guard Jason Kidd (18.7 ppg, 8.9 apg last season). The unselfish play of Kidd makes other players such as young stars Richard Jefferson (15.5 ppg) and Kenyon Martin (16.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg) better.
The Nets rolled the dice by bringing in center Alonzo Mourning. At best, he can be a defensive force in the paint and improve their rebounding. At worst, he won’t be able to contribute much, which has been the case the last two years at Miami because of a kidney ailment. If the Nets want to take the next step, coach Byron Scott needs to get them to play better on the road (23-28 SU, 24-25-2 ATS in 2002-03).
PISTONS: In a strange off-season, the overachieving Pistons fired outstanding coach Rick Carlisle essentially to bring in nomadic Larry Brown, who tired of Allen Iverson’s baloney (can you blame him?) There’s no shortage of talent for Brown to work with, and Detroit is coming off a season in which it earned the top seed in the East, only to be swept by the New Jersey Nets in the conference finals.
Detroit has a deserved reputation as a hard-working group that maximizes talent. The guard depth is strong with Chauncey Billups (16.2 ppg) and Richard Hamilton (19.7 ppg). The frontcourt has remarkable Ben Wallace (15.4 rpg), Elden Campbell and rookie Darko Milicic (No. 2 pick in the draft). He can shoot and move well for a big man. On a team that needs a bit more offense, Milicic might be the final piece of the puzzle.
76ers: The Nets and 76ers have represented the East in the last three NBA Finals. Iverson (27.6 ppg) does it all for this team, which includes complaining and taking most of the shots. He has help now in Glenn Robinson, but Big Dog likes to shoot, too. It will be interesting to seen if they can coexist.
This will be among the challenges for new coach Randy Ayers, who still has to deal with 6-10 man-child Derrick Coleman (7 rpg) and get this team to play defense. Despite having the reputation as a strong defensive team under Brown, remember that last season the 76ers went 29-17-1 "over" the total at home.
Pacers: There’s a chance this could be the best team in the East. Indiana was sensational at home last season (34-10 SU, 26-18 ATS), yet a very different team on the road (16-28 SU, 17-26-1 ATS). That suggests coaching was a problem. A good coach can get a team to play well no matter where.
Apparently the Pacers think so too, firing Isiah Thomas and scooping up Rick Carlisle. Carlisle was a miracle-worker in Detroit, getting the Pistons to play brilliant defense and team-oriented ball. He inherits a talented team, with young players such as Jamaal Tinsley (7.8 ppg, 7.5 apg), 6-11 Jermaine O’Neal (20.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg), 6-7 Ron Artest (15.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and 6-9 forward Al Harrington (12.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg). If Carlisle can get them to play ”˜D’ on the road, watch out.
Hornets: Like the Pacers, Charlotte has a new coach and was a different team at home than on the road. The Hornets were 30-14 SU at home last season (23-21 ATS) and 19-25 SU on the road (17-25-1 ATS). Popular Paul Silas is gone, and new coach Tim Floyd takes over. This is curious, as Floyd had little success with the rebuilding Bulls (49-190 record). Now, he does have some veteran talent to work with.
Guard Baron Davis (17.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 6.4 apg), David Wesley (16.7 ppg), 6-8 Jamal Mashburn (21.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.6 apg), 6-11 P.J. Brown (10.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and Jamaal Magliore (10.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg) anchor a strong all-around team that finished 47-35 last season. They hope the injuries that decimated them a year ago are a thing of the past.