NBA PREVIEW EASTERN CONFERENCE Alan Goldstein

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Atlantic Division Boston Celtics Last season: Second (52-30), lost to New York in first round of playoffs, 3-2.

Coach: Chris Ford (first season).

New faces: G Dee Brown (draft), G Brian Shaw (returning from Italy), F Stojan Vrankov (free agent from Yugoslavia).

Departed: G Dennis Johnson (released).

Outlook: Jimmy Rodgers was fired as coach as much for slowing down the offense as for losing to the Knicks in the playoffs. Ford will speed the tempo, with Brown and Shaw pushing the ball up the floor.

Keys: Keeping the veteran front line of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale healthy. A major injury to any of the three could prove devastating.

Philadelphia 76ers Last season: First (53-29), lost to Chicago in second round, 4-1.

Coach: Jim Lynam (167-179).

New faces: C Manute Bol (trade), G Brian Oliver (draft), G Rickey Green (free agent), F Jayson Williams (trade).

Departed: F Cliff Robinson (retired), F Ben Coleman (released), G Scott Brooks (trade), G Derek Smith (released).

Outlook: Lynam, thanks to an MVP-type season from Charles Barkley, got the maximum out of the team last season. Shot-blocking Bol was acquired for a first-round pick to bolster a vulnerable defense.

Keys: Barkley appears to have recovered from shoulder surgery, but the bench is thin, and C Mike Gminski is on the downside. G Hersey Hawkins and G Johnny Dawkins must continue to improve.

New York Knicks Last season: Third (45-37), lost to Detroit in second round, 4-1.

Coach: Stu Jackson (45-37).

New face: F Jerrod Mustaf (draft).

Departed: F Johnny Newman (free agent).

Outlook: The weak half-court game was exposed last season. Rivals concentrated on stopping C Patrick Ewing, and the supporting cast failed to ease the burden.

Keys: Oft-injured F Kiki Vandeweghe still is vital to the perimeter game. Coach Jackson must keep demoted point guard Mark Jackson from becoming a divisive force.

Washington Bullets Last season: Fourth (31-51).

Coach: Wes Unseld (101-118).

New faces: F Pervis Ellison (trade), G A.J. English (draft), F Greg Foster (draft) G Byron Irvin (trade), G Larry Robinson (free agent), G Haywoode Workman (free agent).

Departed: G Jeff Malone (trade), C Mel Turpin (released), C Doug Roth (released), F Ed Horton (released), G Steve Colter (trade).

Outlook: Their fortunes depend primarily on two players who spurned training camp -- F John Williams and G Ledell Eackles. Both threatened to sit out the season in money disputes.

Keys: Ellison must supply inside scoring and rebounding, but Williams remains the key to success. The team is vulnerable at shooting guard without Malone.

New Jersey Nets Last season: Sixth (17-65).

Coach: Bill Fitch (779-778).

New faces: F Derrick Coleman (draft), G Tate George (draft), F Jud Buechler (draft), G Reggie Theus (trade), G Kurk Lee (draft).

Departed: F Charles Shackleford (playing in Europe), G Dennis Hopson (trade).

Outlook: Coleman, who missed training camp, is expected to bring order out of chaos. Youngsters Chris Morris and Mookie Blaylock must contribute more, but Theus will supply more firepower from the backcourt.

Keys: Injury-prone C Sam Bowie must remain healthy, and Coleman must mature quickly.

Miami Heat Last season: Fifth (18-64).

Coach: Ron Rothstein (33-131).

New faces: G Willie Burton (draft), G Bimbo Coles (trade), F Alec Kessler (trade), C Mark McNamara (trade).

Departed: G Rory Sparrow (trade), C/F Sidney Green (trade), G Scott Haffner (released).

Outlook: The Heat continues to improve, but suffered a setback in losing $28 million contract bid for Cleveland F John "Hot Rod" Williams.

Keys: F Glen Rice, the No. 1 pick in 1989, must show rapid improvement after a disappointing rookie season.

Central Division Detroit Pistons Last season: First (59-23), beat Portland in NBA Finals, 4-1.

Coach: Chuck Daly (378-237).

New faces: C Tree Rollins (free agent), G Lance Blanks (draft).

Departed: F David Greenwood (free agent), G Gerald Henderson (released).

Outlook: The nucleus of the repeat champions has remained intact, with the guard rotation of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson remaining as the backbone. Age is creeping into the frontcourt, with James Edwards, 35 in November, and Bill Laimbeer, 33.

Keys: Daly has to keep his team focused on a third straight title. G Dennis Rodman, the defensive stopper, is hobbled by an ankle injury.

Chicago Bulls Last season: Second (55-27), lost to Detroit in conference finals, Coach: Phil Jackson (55-27).

New faces: G Dennis Hopson (trade), F Cliff Levingston (free agent).

Departed: Jeff Sanders (released).

Outlook: The Bulls hope Hopson will take scoring pressure off G Michael Jordan. B.J. Armstrong is improving rapidly at point guard.

Keys: Levingston will add reserve strength to the frontcourt, but slow-footed G John Paxson is suspect as a starter. If F/C Stacey King matures, the Bulls could make a strong run at the Pistons.

Cleveland Cavaliers Last season: Tied for fourth (42-40), lost to Philadelphia in first round, 3-2.

Coach: Lenny Wilkens (725-647).

New faces: F Danny Ferry (spent last season in Italy), C Milos Babic (draft).

Departed: C Paul Mokeski (released).

Outlook: They spent a fortune to sign Ferry and keep John "Hot Rod" Williams after falling short in the playoffs last season. Wilkens has yet to find a solid replacement for the traded Ron Harper at shooting guard.

Keys: Ferry will be under pressure to make an impact, with F Larry Nance proving less effective. The Cavaliers must show they can beat the 76ers and Pistons in physical games.

Indiana Pacers Last season: Tied for fourth (42-40), lost to Detroit in first round, Coach: Dick Versace (64-71).

New faces: F Ken Williams (draft), G Michael Williams (free agent).

Departed: G Rickey Green (released).

Outlook: This is a young team on the rise, with Dutch-born C Rik Smits as its centerpiece. F Detlef Schrempf proved a valuable acquisition last season, and G Reggie Miller became an All-Star.

Keys: One-dimensional F Chuck Person has a reputation for causing disharmony. Versace must find ways to better use Smits' fine shooting touch in the pivot.

Atlanta Hawks Last season: Sixth (41-41).

Coach: Bob Weiss (59-105), first year with Hawks.

New faces: G Sidney Moncrief (free agent), G Rumeal Robinson (draft), Steve Bardo (draft), F Trevor Wilson (draft), C Tim McCormick (trade).

Departed: G Kenny Smith (trade), F Cliff Levingston (free agent), G Roy Marble (trade), F Duane Ferrell (released).

Outlook: The Hawks grew quarrelsome and complacent last season, causing coach Mike Fratello to quit before he was fired. This is a team in transition, but it lacks leadership on the floor.

Keys: Weiss must tame F Dominique Wilkins' one-on-one forays and somehow get aging C Moses Malone involved in an up-tempo game.

Milwaukee Bucks Last season: Third (44-38), lost to Chicago in first round of playoffs, 3-1.

Coach: Del Harris (276-298).

New faces: F Frank Brickowski (trade), C Danny Schayes (trade).

Departed: F Paul Pressey (trade).

Outlook: Harris is looking to rebuild the inside game with Schayes andBrickowski after Jack Sikma showed signs of aging.

Keys: G Alvin Robertson and G Ricky Pierce will have to carry the offensive load, but the Bucks will be hard-pressed to post a 12th straight winning season.

@Charlotte Hornets Last season: Sixth in Midwest Division (19-63).

Coach: Gene Littles (15-42).

New faces: G Kendall Gill (draft), C Steve Scheffler (draft), F Johnny Newman (free agent).

Departed: G Robert Reid (released), G Michael Holton (released).

Outlook: G Rex Chapman has been demoted to the bench, putting added pressure on Gill to produce.

Keys: J.R. Reid still is a power forward masquerading as a center. If loyal fans turn on the Hornets, team spirit could disintegrate.

Rookies worth watching

* Dave Jamerson, Houston Rockets, guard: The Rockets felt the Ohio University graduate was the best pure shooter in the draft, including Dennis Scott, who was the fourth player selected.

* Negele Knight, Phoenix Suns, guard: Pro scouts who watched Knight play in the Los Angeles summer league said the Dayton alumnus was certain to become an NBA star. Although lacking great speed, Knight has ability to break down a defense with his ball-handling.

* Travis Mays, Sacramento Kings, guard: The University of Texas sharpshooter reminds some scouts of Detroit Pistons star Joe Dumars.

* Alaa Abdelnaby, Portland Trail Blazers, forward: A late bloomer at Duke, he will provide inside scoring and rebounding as Buck Williams' backup.

NTC

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