Eastern Conference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

Orlando Magic

Coach: Doc Rivers (84-80 in two seasons)

2000-01 season: 43-39, fourth, lost to Milwaukee in first round of playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Patrick Ewing, Horace Grant

Key off-season loss: John Amaechi

What has to go right: The return to health of former All-Star Grant Hill and continued rise of Tracy McGrady and Mike Miller, last year's top rookie, could put the Magic atop the division.

What can go wrong: Warhorses like Ewing and Grant run out of gas at the end of the season, and preseason injuries to Hill (sprained ankle on surgically repaired left foot) and Miller (fractured right foot) slow them too much over the long haul.

Likely scenario: As long as key players get healthy and Rivers keeps getting his team to play as hard as any in the league, the Magic make a strong run for the NBA Finals.

Philadelphia 76ers

Coach: Larry Brown (fifth season, 788-612 in 18 seasons)

2000-01 record: 56-26, first, lost to Los Angeles in NBA Finals

Best off-season acquisitions: Matt Harpring, Derrick Coleman

Key off-season losses: George Lynch, Jumaine Jones, Tyrone Hill, Robert Traylor

What has to go right: Coleman can return near the form he showed in Philly a few years ago while the team overcomes playing without injured guards Aaron McKie and Eric Snow, and possibly reigning Most Valuable Player Allen Iverson, to start the season. Harpring fits into his third team in as many years and Dikembe Mutombo proves worthy of team's $65 million investment after a strong showing against Shaquille O'Neal in Finals.

What can go wrong: Without former team president Pat Croce serving as an everyday buffer between Iverson and Brown, the once-immature point guard and the often-insecure coach start fighting again. Coleman starts eating his way right out of the rotation with a steady diet of Philly cheese-steak sandwiches.

Likely scenario: The Sixers don't get off to the same fast start as they did last year, with 13 of the first 21 games on the road and blue-collar players, such as McKie and Snow, on the sideline. Can't see this team getting by Orlando or Milwaukee in the East.

New York Knicks

Coach: Jeff Van Gundy (238-163 in six seasons)

2000-01 record: 48-34, third, lost to Toronto in first round of playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson

Key off-season loss: Glen Rice

What has to go right: Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell continue to be one of the best 1-2 scoring combinations in the league, while Eisley gives the offensive punch that Charlie Ward and Mark Jackson lack at point guard.

What can go wrong: Things have already started going in the wrong direction, with Larry Johnson announcing his retirement. Unless Marcus Camby bulks up or Othella Harrington steps up, the Knicks still don't have anybody to counter Mutombo or Miami's Alonzo Mourning.

Likely scenario: Another first-round loss in the playoffs.

Miami Heat

Coach: Pat Riley (seventh season, 1049-466 in 19 seasons)

2000-01 record: 50-32, second, lost to Charlotte in first round of playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Kendall Gill, LaPhonso Ellis, Chris Gatling

Key off-season losses: Anthony Mason, Tim Hardaway, Dan Majerle and Bruce Bowen

What has to go right: Mourning returns to at least near the form that made him one of the top centers in NBA, and plays the entire season. Anthony Carter shows he can run the team full time.

What can go wrong: The recent signing of Rod Strickland proves to be the desperation move it appears to be, tearing an already fractious locker room apart. Mourning tires by midseason and Eddie Jones' shoulder problem prevents him from returning to All-Star form.

Likely scenario: Check with Mourning's doctors before predicting how things will go. Everything from playoff contender to nonparticipant possible.

Boston Celtics

Coach: Jim O'Brien (second season, 24-24 last season)

2000-01 record: 36-46, fifth, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Draft picks Joe Johnson, Joseph Forte and Kedrick Brown

Key off-season losses: Bryant Stith, Adrian Griffin

What has to go right: O'Brien has the same kind of success he did after taking over for Rick Pitino, which means that Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker keep playing together while incorporating newcomers Brown, Forte and Johnson into the offense.

What can go wrong: The battle for minutes and shots among the team's many perimeter players brings an end to O'Brien's short reign of success, and Forte shows why he could have used another year at North Carolina.

Likely scenario: The Celtics will battle it out with Indiana, Atlanta and possibly Washington for the last playoff spot in the East.

Washington Wizards

Coach: Doug Collins (first season, 258-197 in six seasons)

2000-01 record: 19-63, seventh, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Michael Jordan, draft pick Kwame Brown, free agent Tyronn Lue

Key off-season loss: Mitch Richmond

What has to go right: Jordan plays at such a high level that he lifts former All-Star Christian Laettner as well as helping rising star Richard Hamilton and Courtney Alexander continue to improve.

What can go wrong: Jordan is just another good player on a bad team, which gets off to a slow start and continues its losing ways, and Brown demonstrates he is still a few years away.

Likely scenario: Jordan is still among the league's elite players, but bringing a team back to .500 or above proves a little too much for his 38-year-old legs. Brown isn't ready to be a regular contributor.

New Jersey Nets

Coach: Byron Scott (second season, 26-56 last season)

2000-01 record: 26-56, sixth, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisition: Jason Kidd

Key off-season loss: Stephon Marbury

What has to go right: Kidd blends his marvelous talents with those of rookies Brandon Armstrong, Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins, while Keith Van Horn, Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles stay healthy.

What can go wrong: Kidd is not the scorer Marbury was and has trouble adjusting to a losing team.

Likely scenario: Like the Wizards, the Nets should be better, but there are still too many teams to leapfrog to get into the playoffs.

Central Division

Milwaukee Bucks

Coach: George Karl (fourth season, 625-418 in 14 seasons)

2000-01 record: 52-30, first place, lost to Philadelphia in Eastern Conference finals

Best off-season acquisition: Aleksandar Radojevic, Anthony Mason, Greg Foster

Key off-season loss: Lindsey Hunter

What has to go right: Mason stays out of trouble off the court while blending in with Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and former Dunbar star Sam Cassell, and gets some help from role players such as Ervin Johnson, Tim Thomas and the newly acquired Radojevic inside.

What can go wrong: Upset with his contract situation, Cassell starts looking for his own shots before Allen, Robinson and Mason, and Karl gets fed up trying to keep all four happy.

Likely scenario: The Bucks have improved their lock with last week's signing of Mason, but still don't have the inside game to be a legitimate Finals contender.

Toronto Raptors

Coach: Lenny Wilkens (second season, 1,226-1,016 in 28 seasons)

2000-01 season: 47-35, second, lost to Philadelphia in Eastern Conference semifinals

Best off-season acquisitions: Hakeem Olajuwon, re-signing free agents Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Alvin Williams

Key off-season loss: Charles Oakley

What has to go right: Olajuwon plays as he did in spurts last season with Houston and does not spend an appreciable amount of time on injured list, while Antonio Davis gives Vince Carter the support he needs.

What can go wrong: Olajuwon breaks down, and first-round draft choice Michael Bradley is not ready.

Likely scenario: Again, it depends on Olajuwon's health. It's not a given that at 38 he'll be anything more than a solid backup.

Charlotte Hornets

Coach: Paul Silas (fourth season, 195-240 in six seasons)

2000-01 season: 46-36, third, lost to Milwaukee in Eastern Conference semifinals

Best off-season acquisitions: George Lynch, Matt Bullard, Bryce Drew, Traylor

Key off-season losses: Derrick Coleman, Eddie Robinson

What has to go right: Coleman's departure proves to be addition by subtraction, while Lynch and Traylor give the Hornets some inside presence. Jamal Mashburn and Baron Davis play key roles in the team's rise in the East.

What can go wrong: Talk of team's move to various locales becomes a distraction.

Likely scenario: The Hornets have too much talent and a good enough coach in Silas not to win 50 games. They can make some noise in the East, but probably not get any further than last season.

Indiana Pacers

Coach: Isiah Thomas (second season, 41-41)

2000-01 record: 41-41, fourth, lost to Philadelphia in first round of playoffs

Best off-season acquisition: Carlos Rogers, draft choice Jamaal Tinsley

Key off-season loss: Sam Perkins

What has to go right: As Jermaine O'Neal did last season, Al Harrington blossoms into a front-line frontcourt player, while Jalen Rose and Reggie Miller again combine for about 40 points a game.

What can go wrong: Tinsley doesn't pan out, Miller starts showing his age (36) and Rogers demonstrates why he has been with four teams in his first seven years.

Likely scenario: Indiana should sneak into the playoffs, right ahead of Atlanta, Boston and Washington.

Atlanta Hawks

Coach: Lon Kruger (second season, 25-57)

2000-01 record: 25-57, seventh, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jacque Vaughn

Key off-season losses: Brevin Knight, Lorenzen Wright

What has to go right: Abdur-Rahim's return to his hometown from Vancouver energizes one of the league's best-kept secrets, while Jason Terry and Theo Ratliff prove to be a good outside-inside combination.

What can go wrong: Toni Kukoc is as enigmatic in Atlanta as he was in Philadelphia, showing only flashes of the player who was on the verge of stardom in Chicago. The combination of Emmanuel Davis and Vaughn leaves the Hawks thin at the point.

Likely scenario: If Kruger is as good a pro coach as he was in college, the Hawks could be one of the season's biggest surprises.

Detroit Pistons

Coach: Rick Carlisle (first season)

2000-01 record: 32-50, fifth, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Jon Barry, Cliff Robinson, draft pick Rodney White

Key off-season loss: Joe Smith

What has to go right: In short, a lot. Carlisle has to prove as good a head coach as he was an assistant in Indiana, and Stackhouse gets help from Robinson, Barry and Ben Wallace in proving the Pistons are not a one-man team.

What can go wrong: In short, a lot. The Pistons were 28th in the NBA in field-goal percentage last season, and unless Carlisle gets his players to take better shots, it will be another long year at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Likely scenario: The Pistons have shown some flashes in the preseason, but it's still an uphill climb to the playoffs.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Coach: John Lucas (first season, 136-171 in four seasons)

2000-01 record: 30-52, sixth, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Michael Doleac, Jumaine Jones, Tyrone Hill

Key off-season loss: Harpring

What has to go right: Lucas gives the Cavaliers the kind of instant energy that he provided in past coaching stops, and point guard Andre Miller has the support from the rebuilt frontcourt to allow Lucas' up-tempo style to work.

What can go wrong: Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas doesn't recover from foot injuries and second-year big man Chris Mihm doesn't improve much moving from center to power forward. Lucas burns out his new team faster than he did his former teams in Philadelphia and San Antonio.

Likely scenario: Lucas does a good enough job to hold his job longer than Randy Wittman did, but not good enough to get the Cavs into the postseason.

Chicago Bulls

Coach: Tim Floyd (45-169 in three seasons)

2000-01 record: 15-67, eighth, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Draft picks Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, Charles Oakley, Eddie Robinson

Key off-season loss: Elton Brand

What has to go right: Curry and Chandler have the kind of rookie seasons that Brand did, Oakley gives the young team some much-needed experience and the Bulls win at least 30 games.

What can go wrong: Curry and Chandler show they have a lot to learn, Oakley is spent and no one can take over for injured Jamal Crawford at the point. Then again, after what has transpired here recently, what else can go wrong?

Likely scenario: Krause is already busy scouting next year's top high school player to pick.

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