2003-04 record: 33-49 (fifth in Atlantic)
Offense: 88.0 (28th)
Defense: 90.5 (10th)
Coming: Coach Jim O'Brien, Corliss Williamson, Brian Skinner, Kevin Ollie, Kedrick Brown, No. 1 pick Andre Iguodala.
Going: Coaches Randy Ayers and Chris Ford, Eric Snow, Derrick Coleman.
Outlook: Only in the East would you pick a bickering 33-win team to finish this high. Glenn Robinson could destroy a team's chemistry single-handedly, and putting him together with Allen Iverson didn't work. Still, this is one of the East's biggest teams, and O'Brien is working on the cohesiveness, benching Robinson and Samuel Dalembert in favor of Iguodala and Marc Jackson.
Prediction: O'Brien is also bringing in Dick Harter, a defensive ace and one of the few assistants who makes a difference by himself. If Iverson buys in, this will happen.
2003-04 record: 39-43 (third in Atlantic)
Offense: 92.0 (16th)
Defense: 93.5 (13th)
Going: Dikembe Mutombo, Othella Harrington.
Outlook: Isiah Thomas, a Gotham-type of guy, who's always firing or trading someone, got them back into the playoffs, since 39 wins were good enough. However, the title they were talking about - we're not making this up - didn't materialize. With Allan Houston out, they lost, 4-0, to the Nets, and he isn't back yet. Marbury is already musing about fans calling for coach Lenny Wilkens' head, the papers were speculating about Phil Jackson and Thomas was calling Jackson "an attractive candidate."
Prediction: Next, Vince Carter?
2003-04 record: 36-46 (fourth in Atlantic)
Offense: 95.3 (8th)
Defense: 96.7 (20th)
Outlook: GM Danny Ainge is a refreshing change who isn't willing to settle for making the playoffs, but proceeds according to a cockamamie interpretation of Red Auerbach's philosophy that says they should become a good scoring team and then find a big guy. Rivers' foibles-heavy lineup has Payton and Ricky Davis joining Paul Pierce, who's had too much leeway for his own good.
Prediction: In continuing payback for all that cigar smoke, this will make 18 years since their last title with none on the horizon.
4. New Jersey Nets
2003-04 record: 47-35 (first in Atlantic)
Offense: 90.3 (23rd)
Defense: 87.8 (4th)
Coming: Eric Williams, Travis Best, Ron Mercer, Jacque Vaughn, Rodney Buford.
Going: Kenyon Martin, Kerry Kittles, Lucious Harris, Rodney Rogers.
Outlook: It's going to be a long lame-duck season in the swamp. New owner Bruce Ratner, who bought the Nets to be the centerpiece to sell his still-only-on-paper Brooklyn development, is trimming his losses until 2008, when he hopes to move. The Nets gave away their No. 1 pick and let Martin, Kittles and Harris go. Jason Kidd is coming off knee surgery, won't be ready to start the season and says he'd like to go, too. Kidd is 31, with five years and $90 million left on his contract, so the Nets will have to dump him and probably will.
Prediction: Would you believe that now they're rebuilding around Richard Jefferson?
2003-04 record: 33-49 (sixth in Central)
Offense: 85.4 (29th)
Defense: 88.5 (6th)
Coming: Coach Sam Mitchell, Rafer Alston, No. 1 pick Rafael Araujo.
Going: Coach Kevin O'Neill.
Outlook: After leading the Raptors nowhere, Vince Carter, the reluctant superstar, wants out. Management is resisting, but the fans are booing and soon there may be no choice. They were actually respectable for a while (25-25 at the All-Star break). After Antonio Davis was sent away for yet another perimeter player, Jalen Rose, O'Neill had to play a little frontline of Chris Bosh, Donyell Marshall and Carter. Araujo, a 6-10 wide-body from Brazil, won't be ready soon.
Prediction: Carter gets his wish and they start over.
2003-04 record: 54-28 (second in Central)
Offense: 90.1 (24th)
Defense: 84.3 (tied for first)
Going: Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur.
Outlook: They were just a bunch of little Eastern overachievers with a new coach a year ago and look at them now. With Rasheed Wallace, they were better at the end of the season than they were at the start, and with McDyess and Delfino, they look better this fall than they did last spring. Delfino, an Argentine sharpshooter, looked good in exhibitions. McDyess, who played 28 games in three seasons and was dropped by the Knicks and Suns, was jumping like his old self, which would make him as great a steal as Wallace was.
Prediction: If it weren't for the fact that Larry Brown teams have always come down as fast as they've risen, you'd like their chances.
2003-04 record: 61-21 (1st in Central)
Offense: 91.4 (20th)
Defense: 85.6 (3rd)
Coming: Stephen Jackson and No. 1 pick David Harrison.
Going: Al Harrington, Kenny Anderson.
Outlook: Big, deep and talented, they've come a long way for a team that was rebuilt after losing the 2000 Finals, but their young players have to grow up soon. Coach Rick Carlisle is great but grates on people. Jermaine O'Neal is still coming. Reggie Miller, now out six to eight weeks with a broken hand, is thought to be going. Ron Artest says he's reformed - again - after a flagrant foul in the closing minutes of Game 6 of the East finals, sending Richard Hamilton to the line to put the Pistons ahead to stay. Artest is also wearing No. 91 this season to honor Dennis Rodman, one of his heroes.
Prediction: Their future is now, or had better be.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
2003-04 record: 35-47 (fifth in Central)
Offense: 92.9 (14th)
Defense: 95.5 (17th)
Going: Carlos Boozer, Kevin Ollie, Tony Battie.
Outlook: Coming off a 17-65 season and a 6-19 start, they actually made a run at the playoffs behind LeBron James, who averaged 22 points, 6.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds after the All-Star break. Losing Boozer, who averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds, was devastating, but Gooden, who struggled in Orlando, is still promising. There's a question of how coachable James is.
Prediction: If the kids can keep it together, they'll move up.
2003-04 record: 41-41 (tied for third in Central)
Offense: 98.0 (14th)
Defense: 97.0 (21st)
Going: Brian Skinner, Damon Jones, Brevin Knight.
Outlook: After dismantling their old George Karl-Sam Cassell-Glenn Robinson-Ray Allen team, they were expected to drop out of sight but, instead, became a surprise under rookie coach Terry Porter. Porter coaches an up-tempo style, with 10 players in the rotation and only Michael Redd averaging 31 minutes a game. The Bucks are still small, and last season's point guards are gone. T.J. Ford is out because of a back problem, and Jones signed with the Heat. But they were able to trade for Williams, who was promising as a Jazz rookie.
Prediction: There's nothing like a system that works, especially in the East, where you don't have to win 50 games to finish this high.
2003-04 record: 23-59 (eighth in Central)
Offense: 89.7 (26th)
Defense: 96.0 (18th)
Going: Jamal Crawford, Jerome Williams.
Outlook: Despite appearances and misadventures, they're actually getting somewhere. Last season they fell from 30 wins to 23 with new coach Scott Skiles ripping Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler daily. Skiles now says the press made him sound negative, presumably by publishing his comments. The starting lineup, with Kirk Hinrich, Deng and Nocioni, their prize Argentine free agent, has promise but little experience.
Prediction: It's crunch time for Skiles, too, or should be.
1. Miami Heat
2003-04 record: 42-40 (second in Atlantic)
Offense: 90.3 (22nd)
Defense: 89.7 (8th)
Outlook: Shaquille vs. the East. It's not fair. Unlike the West, where everyone stockpiled big guys to throw in his path, only a few East teams (Detroit, Indiana, Philadelphia) are big enough to deal with him. The Heat had to strip down to get him but still has Eddie Jones and the sensational Dwyane Wade. Pat Riley landed some shooters, notably Person and Doleac, who'll be the best backup Shaq ever had. Stan Van Gundy recovered from an 0-7 start after Riley's eve-of-season retirement.
Prediction: The long term may be a problem, but in the near term, this will work.
2. Orlando Magic
2003-04 record: 21-61 (seventh in Atlantic)
Offense: 94.0 (12th)
Defense: 101.1 (29th)
Outlook: Coach Doc Rivers and GM John Gabriel spent four seasons waiting for Grant Hill. Now the coach is Johnny Davis, the GM is John Weisbrod and Hill is trying yet another comeback. Weisbrod has scant NBA experience, and Davis looked overmatched in both of his seasons as a head coach, so it remains to be seen whether the Magic has upgraded. Howard looks like the real deal, and Francis and Mobley will shoot them into the middle of the pack. How much further they go, as usual, depends on Hill.
Prediction: Good luck.
3. Washington Wizards
2003-04 record: 25-57 (sixth in Atlantic)
Offense: 91.8 (18th)
Defense: 97.4 (22nd)
Going: Jerry Stackhouse, Christian Laettner.
Outlook: In retrospect, who do you want running your organization, Michael Jordan or Abe Pollin? With Jordan, they were too old. Without him, they're too young. Kwame Brown, the 2001 top overall pick, is approaching restricted free agency and could be elsewhere by this time next year. Gilbert Arenas is good but wrapped too tight. Moving Stackhouse and his $6.5 million salary helps. Jamison has a problem or two (he's a tweener who's been called selfish) but at least he tries.
Prediction: They'll duel with the Bulls to see which talented young team that won't make the playoffs finishes higher.
2003-04 record: 28-54 (seventh in Central)
Offense: 92.8 (15th)
Defense: 97.5 (23rd)
Outlook: Now they're like an expansion team that has to be assembled from scratch. Of course, after averaging 52 losses over the past five seasons, they had nothing to lose. When Walker's $14.6 million comes off their cap after the season, they'll have enough room to offer two maximum deals. The trick will be getting anyone to come.
Prediction: What's another 50 losses, at this point?
Record: Inaugural season.
Outlook: First this city got George Shinn and the Hornets. Then it was deserted. Now this. If anyone ever breaks the 76ers' 9-73 record, this is the team to do it. No. 1 pick Emeka Okafor is still troubled by a bad back. Everyone else was a sub last season. The most any of them averaged was Eddie House's 6.8 points a game. Coach/GM Bernie Bickerstaff is focused on salary cap room. Of the 16 players he brought to camp, 12 were on contracts that will run out at season's end. It's an opportunity for Gerald Wallace, who was buried on the bench in Sacramento, former Pacer Primoz Brezec and former Cavalier Jason Kapono.
Prediction: If they get to 20 wins, they should hold a victory parade down Billy Graham Parkway.
2003-04 record: 57-25 (second in Midwest)
Offense: 91.5 (19th)
Defense: 84.3 (tie for first)
Coming: Brent Barry, Tony Massenburg, No. 1 pick Beno Udrih.
Going: Hedo Turkoglu, Kevin Willis, Charlie Ward, Ron Mercer, Jason Hart.
Outlook: Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss. With the Lakers gone, the Spurs become the team everyone knows they have to beat. In the midst of a rebuilding program after winning a title in 1999, the Spurs won another in 2003, and now, with only Tim Duncan and Malik Rose there from the '99 champs, they're looking pretty much rebuilt. Last spring, Phil Jackson challenged the Spurs to beat them from outside as the Lakers eliminated them. That won't work as well with three-point ace Barry taking the shots.
Prediction: They're not dominating, but they're the best.
2003-04 record: 45-37 (fifth in Midwest)
Offense: 89.8 (25th)
Defense: 88.0 (5th)
Coming: Tracy McGrady, Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue, Bob Sura, Dikembe Mutombo, Charlie Ward, Ryan Bowen.
Going: Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, Kelvin Cato, Eric Piatkowski, Adrian Griffin.
Outlook: Jeff Van Gundy's arrival signaled the end of their knucklehead backcourt, which struggled with his structured offense. McGrady must prove he's not last season's sulky quitter, but he's still a monster talent who'll be more effective in a real program with a real center in 7-foot-5 Yao Ming and a real coach on his back. They had to scramble to reassemble a roster, and they're not done yet. Point guard is a problem.
Prediction: The game's new best tandem of Yao and McGrady won't win as much as the former best tandem, but will get along better.
2003-04 record: 50-32 (fourth in Midwest)
Offense: 96.7 (7th)
Defense: 94.3 (15th)
Coming: Brian Cardinal.
Going: No one.
Outlook: Team president Jerry West took them from 23 wins, when he got there in 2002, to last season's 50. The hard part is figuring where to go from here. The Grizzlies defied common wisdom by winning big without a star player or much size, and they're bringing the same team back. The management team, however, is another matter. West is in the third season of his four-year deal. Coach Hubie Brown, his fellow miracle worker, is 71 and working strictly year-to-year.
Prediction: They need a star, a big man or both, but with its old-school leadership, it's one of the few young teams that knows what it's doing.
2003-04 record: 52-30 (third in Midwest)
Offense: 105.2 (1st)
Defense: 100.8 (28th)
Going: Steve Nash, Antoine Walker, Antawn Jamison, Christian Laettner, Eduardo Najera, Travis Best, Tony Delk, Danny Fortson, Scott Williams.
Outlook: Mark Cuban managed to keep from firing Don Nelson and settled for turning over the roster instead, starting with his surprising decision to let Nash go. With Dampier, they finally have size. The Warriors were afraid his improvement was strictly tied to free agency, but Cuban just bet $67 million that he has reached a new level.
Prediction: Let's see what The Benefactor does when they sink this far.
2003-04 record: 41-41 (tied for third in Central)
Offense: 91.8 (17th)
Defense: 91.9 (11th)
Going: Coach Tim Floyd, Stacey Augmon, Steve Smith, Robert Traylor, Courtney Alexander.
Outlook: New Orleans has problems after moving West and saying goodbye to the playoffs as attendance drops and Baron Davis muses about escaping. Before he signed a long-term deal, he was always saying he wanted to get back home. Now his agent is saying it again, putting Davis at odds with owner George Shinn. Jamal Mashburn is out for the year. On the bright side, rookie J.R. Smith, an athlete who can shoot, excelled in the preseason.
Prediction: Bad career move for Scott.
2003-04 record: 58-24 (1st in Midwest)
Offense: 94.5 (10th)
Defense: 89.1 (7th)
Coming: Eddie Griffin.
Going: Gary Trent.
Outlook: They're not small-market wretches anymore. Having suffered every catastrophe modern basketball could visit on them, from J.R. Rider to Stephon Marbury to David Stern's decree, the Timberwolves have steadily climbed into the circle of elite teams. Last season they finally got out of the first round and gave the Lakers trouble in a six-game West finals, with little from Sam Cassell, with Troy Hudson out most of the season and Michael Olowokandi giving them next to nothing. Now they're a power with a $68 million payroll, No. 5 in the league, and their best may be yet to come.
Prediction: All they need is better health, and, for once, some luck.
2003-04 record: 43-39 (sixth in Midwest)
Offense: 97.2 (5th)
Defense: 96.1 (19th)
Coming: Kenyon Martin, Greg Buckner.
Going: Michael Doleac, Chris Andersen, Jon Barry, Ryan Bowen.
Outlook: Carmelo Anthony's rough summer included a fight in a club, an Olympics chained to the bench and a marijuana charge. Now, he can concentrate on building his game, which was grown-up enough last season to help the Nuggets go from 17 wins to 43. Then the Nets let them have Martin, although he's on the emotional side, himself. Coach Jeff Bzdelik almost was fired last season when players turned on him. Bzdelik was kept after they made the playoffs but was left dangling for weeks, suggesting he's still in trouble.
Prediction: They may be volatile, but they're good, too.
3. Utah Jazz
2003-04 record: 42-40 (seventh in Midwest)
Offense: 88.7 (27th)
Defense: 89.9 (9th)
Coming: Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur.
Going: Greg Ostertag, Tom Gugliotta, Maurice Williams, Mikki Moore.
Outlook: Whoever these guys are, they're not going away. To everyone's surprise, instead of falling to 10 to 20 wins after Karl Malone and John Stockton left, they were still competitive and stayed that way after losing leading scorer Matt Harpring. Now Harpring is back and they've upgraded their front line with Ostertag leaving and Boozer arriving. Jerry Sloan, long one of the game's most respected coaches, chose to stay around after Malone and Stockton left. His teams still do what he says, so don't expect them to stop now.
Prediction: If anyone falters, look out for them.
2003-04 record: 41-41 (third in Pacific)
Offense: 90.7 (21st)
Defense: 92.0 (12th)
Going: Dale Davis.
Outlook: For the first time since the first lottery in 1985, the Trail Blazers were in it, meaning they were the last team to miss the playoffs in that span. However, they've been fringe players lately and last season began weeding out their troublemakers. Of course, as Qyntel Woods showed this fall, allegedly finding yet another way to break the law (engaging in dogfights), the beat goes on. This is a work in progress with parts that don't fit, such as power forwards Zach Randolph, who's staying, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who isn't.
Prediction: Van Exel is the wild card. If he's as good coming off the bench as he was in Dallas, watch out for them, too.
5. Seattle SuperSonics
2003-04 record: 37-45 (tied for fourth in Pacific)
Offense: 97.1 (6th)
Defense: 97.8 (24th)
Coming: Danny Fortson, No. 1 pick Robert Swift.
Going: Brent Barry, Calvin Booth.
Outlook: Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz insists his team is a contender. The Sonics are basically Ray Allen, a three-point ace, and a bunch of 6-foot-10 guys such as Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic, who want to stand outside and shoot, too. Outspoken coach Nate McMillan is popular but in trouble. Schultz has to choose between giving Allen $126 million, or letting him go and starting over with $20 million worth of cap space.
Prediction: Bet on the cap space.
2003-04 record: 55-27 (second in Pacific)
Offense: 102.8 (2nd)
Defense: 97.8 (25th)
Coming: Greg Ostertag, Courtney Alexander, Matt Barnes.
Going: Vlade Divac, Anthony Peeler, Rodney Buford, Tony Massenburg.
Outlook: After all those years when they had bad breaks but good chemistry, they developed issues last season. After a 43-15 start, Chris Webber came back limping and they went down the drain. Webber pointed a finger at Peja Stojakovic, who then asked to be traded, and Divac, who was like their den father, left. Nevertheless, Bobby Jackson is back, and Webber looks closer to being back, so they're not done yet.
Prediction: Without issues, at the top of their game, they can play with anyone.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
2003-04 record: 56-26 (first in Pacific)
Offense: 98.2 (3rd)
Defense: 94.3 (16th)
Coming: Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, Jumaine Jones, No. 1 pick Sasha Vujacic.
Outlook: For those of us who kept predicting the end of their world, it's here. Bryant drove them to a 6-2 exhibition mark, playing heavy minutes, but there are things to work out with Odom still on the perimeter, rather than the post where he turned it around with the Heat running the offense through him. Bryant has made more sacrifices than he's given credit for but has never learned how, or been asked, to play off the ball.
Prediction: On the bright side, their free-throw shooting will be better.
3. Phoenix Suns
2003-04 record: 29-53 (sixth in Pacific)
Offense: 94.2 (11th)
Defense: 97.9 (26th)
Coming: Steve Nash, Quentin Richardson, Steven Hunter.
Going: Antonio McDyess.
Outlook: The Suns are in transition, with Jerry and Bryan Colangelo now part of a committee that runs the team, along with incoming owner Robert Sarver and his point man, Steve Kerr. Kerr is close to Phil Jackson, so keep that in mind when Sarver takes over in 2007. Nash's three-point shooting spaces the floor, which makes him a rare asset. There's a lot of talent but it's young and, except for Amare Stoudemire, 6 feet 8 and under. Coach Mike D'Antoni is going small with Stoudemire often at center but that's hard in the West where even also-rans are big and deep.
Prediction: They're one player away from being a factor again, but it's a big player.
4. Golden State
2003-04 record: 37-45 (tied for fourth in Pacific)
Offense: 93.3 (13th)
Defense: 94.0 (14th)
Coming: GM Chris Mullin, coach Mike Montgomery, Derek Fisher, Dale Davis, Eduardo Najera, No. 1 pick Andris Biedrins.
Going: GM Garry St. Jean, coach Eric Musselman, Erick Dampier, Nick Van Exel, Brian Cardinal, Dan Dickau, Avery Johnson.
Outlook: GMs and coaches come and go, but Chris Cohan remains. He's the shallow-pockets owner who took over in 1994. Musselman got them to try again, going 75-89 in his two seasons, compared with 38-126 in the previous two, but his players didn't like his hard-driving style. On the bright side, they're very deep with Jason Richardson and Mike Dunleavy Jr. coming on. Montgomery can go 10 deep, and will.
Prediction: On the realistic side, that's still not enough.
2003-04 record: 28-54 (seventh in Pacific)
Offense: 94.8 (9th)
Defense: 99.4 (27th)
Coming: Kerry Kittles, Zeljko Rebraca, Mikki Moore, Mamadou N'diaye, No. 1 pick Shaun Livingston.
Going: Quentin Richardson, Keyon Dooling, Melvin Ely, Eddie House.
Outlook: If this were another team, you'd like its chances with so many big, young, hard-working players. Mike Dunleavy spent last season without a real point guard and, in a daring move for a Clippers coach, went for a high school player. Livingston just turned 19 and is being brought along slowly, which means they hope he can be in the rotation now and starting by season's end.
Prediction: Still a tad early for a breakthrough, but keep an eye on Livingston.