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Eastern Conference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Southeast Division

Miami Heat

Last season -- 59-23.

Coach -- Stan Van Gundy, third season, 101-63.

Heat's formula -- The Heat has the most star-studded roster in the NBA. By adding Jason Williams and Gary Payton at point guard and Antoine Walker and James Posey at forward, they are overloaded with talent. The trick will be getting everyone to play as well together as last season's team did.

The buzz -- Shaquille O'Neal believes that the team still revolves around him and that his presence will keep everyone in line. The Heat will bring Walker and Payton off the bench to create a super-sub second team, giving O'Neal plenty of time to rest his big body and save it for the playoffs.

Washington Wizards

Last season -- 45-37.

Coach -- Eddie Jordan, third season with Wizards, 70-94; 103-158 overall.

Wizards' formula -- They believe they can build on last season, when they won their first playoff series since 1982. They dumped disappointing Kwame Brown and added Caron Butler, Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins. But losing free agent Larry Hughes was huge because his defense held them together.

The buzz -- Washington might be too soft in the frontcourt with Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood to really make any noise, especially without Hughes defending in the backcourt. The Wizards will score plenty, but the question is whether they can slow down the good teams with their defense.

Orlando Magic

Last season -- 36-46.

Coach -- Brian Hill, first season in Magic return; 222-227 overall.

Magic's formula -- There are a lot of reasons for optimism. Popular Brian Hill has returned to coach the team, Kelvin Cato is in his contract year, Dwight Howard is about to blossom, and Steve Francis needs the playoffs as evidence of how good a player he really is.

The buzz -- Grant Hill needs to stay healthy because he is the glue that could hold it together. With Brian Hill, the Magic should be much better defensively, and he should get Howard to start playing with more confidence. The addition of Keyon Dooling gives them good backcourt depth.

Atlanta Hawks

Last season -- 13-69.

Coach -- Mike Woodson, second season, 13-69.

Hawks' formula -- The addition of Joe Johnson in free agency brought some excitement to a franchise that was close to being forgotten in Atlanta. The Hawks have a crew of very young, but very talented, players. They are hoping that Johnson can play point guard and bring it all together.

The buzz -- Center Jason Collier died Oct. 15, stunning the franchise. Once the season begins, it can move forward. Al Harrington and Johnson, two skilled NBA veterans, must become the leaders. Woodson has to show progress in his second season as coach, or he won't be around very long.

Charlotte Bobcats

Last season -- 18-64.

Coach -- Bernie Bickerstaff, second season with Bobcats, 18-64; 356-412 overall.

Bobcats' formula -- Emeka Okafor eventually will be a great player for this expansion team. He gives the Bobcats hope. Primoz Brezec has turned out better than expected as a young center. It's going to be tough for a rookie point guard like Raymond Felton, but if he develops quickly, it will be a boost for the team.

The buzz -- The Bobcats will move into their new arena, which is going to help enthusiasm and give them some energy. Gerald Wallace should continue to improve after signing a long-term deal. Veteran Brevin Knight was re-signed, ensuring they have insurance at point guard if Felton struggles early.

Atlantic Division

New Jersey Nets

Last season -- 42-40.

Coach -- Lawrence Frank, third season, 67-55.

Nets' formula -- The Nets are excited about a full season with Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter, possibly the best set of perimeter guys in the NBA. If their big people can rebound and start the fast break, this could be a great team to watch as the stars finally are together to fly around the open court.

The buzz -- Kidd is healthy again, but he turned 32 and might start to slow as a point guard. And their frontcourt doesn't scare anyone. The Nets must prove they can defend and rebound well enough to be a serious contender.

Philadelphia 76ers

Last season -- 43-39.

Coach -- Maurice Cheeks, first year with Sixers, 162-139 overall.

Sixers' formula -- Philadelphia is hoping that Chris Webber has at least one more productive season in him, giving Allen Iverson the second fiddle he needs. A full season together should help, along with a good supporting cast led by Andre Iguodala and a new coach who everyone respects.

The buzz -- The change of coaches should really brighten everyone's spirits because this team did not like Jim O'Brien. The hiring of Cheeks was a popular move and embraced by Iverson. Lee Nailon will help add depth, and Samuel Dalembert is ready to assert himself in the middle when healthy.

Boston Celtics

Last season -- 45-37.

Coach -- Doc Rivers, second year with Celtics; 216-205 overall

Celtics' formula -- Boston has a roster of great young athletes, but the Celtics aren't quite ready. They made the playoffs last season but let go of veterans Gary Payton and Antoine Walker. Rivers hasn't set his rotation. Orien Greene (point guard) and Al Jefferson (power forward) could start soon.

The buzz -- Paul Pierce is going to score a lot of points, but he might get frustrated quickly when the young guys don't follow his lead. The trade rumors will follow him through the season, especially if Boston starts slowly. Rivers will have his patience tested plenty of times this season.

New York Knicks

Last season -- 33-49.

Coach -- Larry Brown, first year with Knicks; 987-741 overall.

Knicks' formula -- The hiring of Brown has everyone excited - and he will help - but they lost their toughness when they traded Kurt Thomas. They don't have the frontcourt to really battle the good teams. Already there are reports that Malik Rose could be traded. Starters will play big minutes.

The buzz -- Stephon Marbury will butt heads with Brown quickly. So will president Isiah Thomas. There will be plenty of fireworks and internal bickering, which really will turn up the pressure. Quentin Richardson will become a big star in New York if he can pry the ball away from Marbury.

Toronto Raptors

Last season -- 33-49.

Coach -- Sam Mitchell, second season, 33-49.

Raptors' formula -- Their best young player is Chris Bosh, and they need to make sure he stays happy and healthy. Jalen Rose still can pour in the points, but he could be traded as they rebuild around younger guys. This is going to be a rough season, and it's hard to imagine them winning many games.

The buzz -- Mitchell is a stickler for getting his guys to play hard, but he just doesn't have the weapons to help this team win much. He must make sure that Bosh continues to develop, along with rookies Charlie Villanueva and Jose Calderon. Interest in the Raptors is waning rapidly in Toronto.

Central Division

Indiana Pacers

Last season -- 44-38.

Coach -- Rick Carlisle, third year with Pacers; 205-123 overall.

Pacers' formula -- The return of Ron Artest, who missed most of last season after his suspension following the brawl with Pistons fans, gives the Pacers all the pieces to seriously contend in the Eastern Conference as long as they all get along. They also will be playing with a chip on their shoulders.

The buzz -- Eighteen-year veteran Reggie Miller stuck to his retirement plans, but the Pacers say Stephen Jackson will do fine as shooting guard. Jermaine O'Neal could be headed for an MVP season. If that happens, the Pacers will be standing at the end. Jamaal Tinsley could face competition to remain a starter.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Last season -- 42-40.

Coach -- Mike Brown, first season.

Cavaliers' formula -- LeBron James got his running mate when Larry Hughes signed as a free agent, and he should relieve some of the pressure. Damon Jones' three-point shooting will help open up the floor, too. James is about to blossom into the NBA's best player, and he has a nice lineup around him now.

The buzz -- Brown, who wasn't the first choice as coach, has fallen into a gold mine to start his coaching career. The Cavs could be the NBA's most improved team, hoping to ride the James Gang at least into the East semifinals. If Zydrunas Ilgauskas stays healthy and Drew Gooden stays focused, watch out.

Detroit Pistons

Last season -- 54-28.

Coach -- Flip Saunders, first season with Pistons; 411-326 overall.

Pistons' formula -- The Pistons say they believe they can make a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, fighting off any challenges from the Pacers, Heat and Cavaliers. They return a veteran, playoff-tested roster and what should be a better group of reserves than they had last season.

The buzz -- Coach Larry Brown left for New York, believing the Pistons might not tolerate another season of his harping on fundamentals. If Saunders can't get Detroit back to the Finals, he will shoulder the blame. The Pistons might not be hungry enough to do it again, so there is pressure.

Chicago Bulls

Last season -- 47-35.

Coach -- Scott Skiles, third season with Bulls, 66-82; 182-161 overall.

Bulls' formula -- The loss of center Eddy Curry to the Knicks is bigger than the Bulls want to admit. They traded him because of health concerns, but you can't replace a center with his kind of potential. They had hoped to build on last season's run to the playoffs, but they took a step backward.

The buzz -- The frontcourt is going to be a real problem, and the rebounding will suffer. They are built around a perimeter game that might not be strong enough to compensate. Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon are coming off great seasons, but there is a reason talented Tim Thomas keeps being moved.

Milwaukee Bucks

Last season -- 30-52.

Coach -- Terry Stotts, first season with Bucks; 52-85 overall.

Bucks' formula -- The Bucks are excited by the return of T.J. Ford, the addition of Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 pick, and the signing of Bobby Simmons as a free agent. The future looks good, but they will have to live with the mistakes from the young guys. Ford could team with Bogut for many years.

The buzz -- Re-signing Michael Redd was big for the franchise, along with getting the No. 1 pick. Bogut will get pushed around plenty in his first season, but he has the skills to become an outstanding NBA center. Stotts is returning to the team with which he made his name as an assistant coach.

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