Improved Bullets, Sixers won't be least of East


It was far from a stellar year for Eastern Conference teams last season. Outside of the Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers, the play was relatively weak compared with the West. It was so dTC bad that the Boston Celtics finished 12 games under .500 and still were able to gain the final playoff spot.

Though a losing team again might gain a postseason berth, activity during recent weeks by the Washington Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers -- the two worst teams in the East last season -- points to a shift in power among the lower-level teams.

Washington has made the most dramatic improvement with the trade for point guard Mark Price. The snub by free agents Dana Barros and Elliot Perry has turned into a blessing for the Bullets. In Price, they get an outside shooter and the leader the team was lacking last season. If Price can stay healthy, his addition should help the development of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Rasheed Wallace.

"He's a great addition to our team," Bullets general manager John Nash said. "But we're not ready to start a parade yet. We still have to go out and get it done on the floor."

The 76ers took major risks in signing Vernon Maxwell and Richard Dumas, two talented players who have run into their share of off-the-court problems in Houston and Phoenix, respectively.

Should those two stay problem-free, the Sixers, who also have added Jerry Stackhouse, may forget that they lost Barros and could wind up challenging Washington for something other than the basement.

The Miami Heat (Pat Riley is good for about 10 more wins) and Detroit Pistons (addition of Otis Thorpe) also have improved, meaning that more respectable basketball could be returning to the East.

The Worm turns

Could it be that all of that dye Dennis "Chia Pet" Rodman uses has seeped into his brain? During a recent interview on ESPN Radio, Rodman, among other outrageous comments, said that he needs to be paid according to his self-proclaimed elite status.

"I am one of the top three draws in the NBA," Rodman said. "If it's not Michael Jordan and it's not Shaquille O'Neal, it's me."

Rodman also made derisive comments about San Antonio Spurs teammate David Robinson and the New Jersey Nets' Derrick Coleman.

"He let my team down," Rodman said of Robinson. "He won MVP. If you win it, you have to bust your [butt] in the postseason to prove it."

On Coleman: "I think I'm better than Derrick Coleman. Derrick Coleman is getting paid 7 million for what? He doesn't bring anything to the table."

Why is Rodman so vocal? He's attempting to renegotiate his contract and be paid among the NBA's elite, and said he will hold out until that's done.

Bigger and better

As if the Orlando Magic wasn't scary enough last season, when it reached the NBA Finals, word out of Central Florida is that off-season weight programs have produced improved versions of O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway.

O'Neal, playing at an already solid 300 pounds last season, apparently has bulked up and will show off his new physique during his one-on-one duel with Hakeem Olajuwon in Atlantic City, N.J., tomorrow. Hardaway, 195 pounds last season, said he has added nearly 20 pounds of muscle.

"It's about being focused," Hardaway said. "And I think I am more focused this year than I was last year."

Moving forward

The Nets' Jayson Williams is the most coveted free-agent power forward. Even Jordan has said he might be the player who could fill a void on the Chicago Bulls.

Jordan wants Williams in Chicago so badly that he reportedly stopped in a nightclub in New York to plead his case to Williams. Scottie Pippen said Williams would be the player who could make the team a title contender again. But will Chicago pay $3 million a year to someone who has been a part-time player his entire five-year career?

Although Williams has had his share of off-the-court problems (two years ago, he was involved in an incident in which signs were shot up outside Meadowlands Arena), he's a tenacious rebounder, averaging 5.7 boards in 13.1 minutes last season.

The Bulls are competing with New Jersey and the Indiana Pacers for Williams' services.

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