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Team-by-team previews

The Baltimore Sun

Listed in order of predicted finish

NBA East

Pistons

2005-06 record -- 64-18

Outlook -- Remember when they were 39-6 after two Finals appearances, got upset at having only four All-Stars and agreed they were worthy to be considered one of the best teams of all time? They then unraveled in the playoffs, turning on coach Flip Saunders for not being Larry Brown. Then the Pistons decided not to give Ben Wallace that maximum payday, refused even to increase their four-year, $48 million offer and let him go to Chicago. Nazr Mohammed isn't the same thing.

Bottom line -- Nevertheless, they're still solid, and it won't take greatness to win the East.

Bulls

2005-06 record -- 41-41

Outlook -- If you're looking for the Heat, keep reading. If effort and defense were enough, you could pencil the Bulls in now, because no one works harder than this gung-ho young team, driven by the will and mouth of coach Scott Skiles. Ben Wallace gives them one more all-heart player in place of confused Tyson Chandler. With P.J. Brown, 37, who can still block shots, an already formidable defense gets more teeth. However, neither Wallace nor Brown helps on offense. Rookie Tyrus Thomas is spectacular but mistake-prone, so Skiles won't play him. Guard Ben Gordon, a reserve for half the season, led them at 16.9 points.

Bottom line -- They might not be ready to beat elite teams in the playoffs, but there's a long time between now and then.

Heat

2005-06 record -- 52-30

Outlook -- Here's Miami. This isn't just the NBA's defending champion but its marquee team, so if (when?) it goes down, it will be with a thud heard around the league. Pat Riley used to challenge players, as when he guaranteed the Lakers would repeat in 1988, but he had Magic Johnson then. Now Riley is reconciling himself to letting Shaquille O'Neal ease through the season. At 34, coming off a career-low 20 points a game, O'Neal lacks his old explosiveness. O'Neal and Dwyane Wade combined to play 198 minutes in the preseason. Wade, coming off his summer with the U.S. team, said he felt as if he had already played 60 games.

Bottom line -- Check back for the playoffs, but that's a long way off.

Nets

2005-06 record -- 49-33

Outlook -- Let's try it again, with a little more feeling. Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson looked explosive on paper, but the Nets were 24th in scoring. This prompted defense-oriented coach Lawrence Frank to speed things up while he still had the chance. Kidd is slowing down at 35, but Jefferson is coming on at 26. Carter is still the game's most spectacular player (check out the dunk on the DirecTV ads), if a long way from its hardest-nosed. C Nenad Krstic (14.7 ppg) is a factor on offense with a nice touch. The bench was terrible but looked better in the preseason, led by last season's lost No. 1 pick Antoine Wright (12.9 ppg).

Bottom line -- In the woeful Atlantic, they could start the season Jan. 1 and still beat out the Knicks, Celtics, 76ers and Raptors.

Cavaliers

2005-06 record -- 50-32

Outlook -- LeBron James gave fans a bad week, dropping out of sight, then signing a three-year extension instead of four. At least their nightmare of losing him was pushed back to 2010. At 21, James finished second in the MVP voting, but he's coming off a long summer with the U.S. team. The Cavaliers sat him out of two exhibitions as fans booed. The real problem is they can't give him much more help. Their money is now tied up in Larry Hughes ($12 million a year), Zydrunas Ilgauskas ($10 million), disappointing Donyell Marshall ($6 million) and talkative Damon Jones ($4 million).

Bottom line -- They're just along for the ride as James makes a push to become the youngest MVP ever.

Pacers

2005-06 record -- 41-41

Outlook -- Long-suffering Pacers officials were still regrouping from years of Ron Artest when they awakened to the bad news that they didn't dump enough players. The incident in which Stephen Jackson fired his gun into the air and police found marijuana in Jamaal Tinsley's car shook the franchise to its core, again. Worse, both players are on long-term deals, and the team is stuck with them. With Al Harrington back, they would be an elite team in the East if they had any chemistry, but they don't. Jermaine O'Neal has to show he's worth $22 million a year, or half that, or he'll be on the market, too. GM Larry Bird ended the grumbling about coach Rick Carlisle for the moment, giving him an extension.

Bottom line -- Quite a few Pacers are making their last stand.

76ers

2005-06 record -- 38-44

Outlook -- Even if little was expected, missing the playoffs was a debacle for a team with Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, who teamed for 53 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists per game, plus athletic Andre Iguodala, shot-blocking Samuel Dalembert and sharpshooting Kyle Korver. Having lowered expectations to nothing, they might even be able to surprise the world and make the playoffs. But with their stars aging, the 76ers are headed into a dead end, and they know it. GM Billy King almost traded Iverson to the Celtics before realizing the implications for his own career if he started over while A.I. took Boston to the playoffs.

Bottom line -- This is Hawks-style paralysis but with NBA players.

Magic

2005-06 season -- 36-46

Outlook -- It has been 10 increasingly sad years since the Magic let the Lakers sign Shaquille O'Neal away, and the locals barely notice the misfortunes anymore. Now, with Tracy McGrady gone, along with everyone Orlando got for him, the Magic is left with a young, spirited nucleus that put together a 16-6 finish after a 20-40 start. Dwight Howard, 20, is still learning post moves, but he's so relentless it barely matters. With tough little PG Jameer Nelson, 7-0 Darko Milicic, veterans Grant Hill and Hedo Turkoglu and a new arena coming, enthusiasm is so high, Howard says they could "go all the way."

Bottom line -- Well, they could go all the way to the playoffs, anyway.

Wizards

2005-06 season -- 42-40

Outlook -- In only the latest sign of disrespect that drives him, Gilbert Arenas was cut from the U.S. team, noting, "You've got LeBron being LeBron. You've got Carmelo [Anthony] being Carmelo. You've got D-Wade being D-Wade. Why can't I be me?" In Washington, for better and worse, Arenas gets to be his untamed self, raising his average annually, to last season's 29.3 points, helping the Wizards make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 18 years. Caron Butler moved in alongside Arenas and Antawn Jamison last season to form a trio that averaged 67.4 points. They were No. 21 on defense last season. C Etan Thomas now starts ahead of lethargic Brendan Haywood, but it'll take more than that.

Bottom line -- They're fun, but their rivals have been improving and they haven't.

Bucks

2005-06 record -- 40-42

Outlook -- The young Bucks started 17-11 but finished 23-31 and turned over half their roster, including T.J. Ford, Jamaal Magloire and Joe Smith. Now it's up to sharpshooting guards Michael Redd and Mo Williams, second-year center Andrew Bogut (cleared to play after an injury) and a cast of head cases. Bobby Simmons, a bargain as a Clipper, was a bust as a $9 million-a-year Buck. Charlie Villanueva, who came in the Ford trade, showed flashes as a rookie.

Bottom line -- If that nice Terry Stotts can coach, he had better show it fast.

Knicks

2005-06 record -- 23-59

Outlook -- Team president Isiah Thomas is now the coach, too, after corporate boss James Dolan fired Larry Brown with four seasons and $40 million left on his contract. Now, Thomas is next on the firing line. It's easy to miss since none of the parts fit, but Thomas turned their small, old team into a younger, bigger one, acquiring Eddy Curry and Channing Frye. Unfortunately, too much still depends on PG Stephon Marbury.

Bottom line -- Despite tough talk about firing Thomas, clueless Dolan will be OK if they get close to making the playoffs, and they might.

Celtics

2005-06 record -- 33-49

Outlook -- For years, they weren't sure if they wanted to rebuild with youngsters such as Gerald Green and Al Jefferson or try to stay competitive with veterans such as Ricky Davis and Wally Szczerbiak. Now, after last spring's deal for Iverson fell through, it's official - they're rebuilding. They have five players (Jefferson, Green, Sebastian Telfair, Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo) 21 or younger. This might finally be too much for Paul Pierce, who's 29 but seems older after years of trying to carry bad teams. Coach Doc Rivers was musing about leaving but Pierce helped persuade him to stay.

Bottom line -- OK, this is the season Pierce and Rivers go.

Raptors

2005-06 record -- 27-55

Outlook -- Bryan Colangelo, who grew from boss' son to one of the driving forces in the Phoenix front office, starts his first full season as GM, trying to reshape the Raptors in the image of his old 110-points-a-night Suns. His old players would come in handy. The best available point guard Colangelo could find was T.J. Ford, a flashy playmaker but a shaky shooter who can't space the floor by making defenses come out as Steve Nash does. They were 7-1 in the preseason, averaging 107 points.

Bottom line -- A new direction or any direction is welcome.

Hawks

2005-06 record -- 26-56

Outlook -- It has been three seasons since Ted Turner put them on ice while seeking a buyer and two since he took a mere $300 million for the Hawks, the NHL's Thrashers and a new downtown arena. The new owners have been suing each other since, with no clear winner in sight. The GM remains Billy McKinney, who took Marvin Williams instead of Chris Paul and 6-7 1/2 power forward Shelden Williams instead of Brandon Roy or Randy Foye.

Bottom line -- Hawks fans should just hope the ownership situation is resolved in their lifetime.

Bobcats

2005-06 record -- 26-56

Outlook -- In a nightmare second season, Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor bulked up, regressed and was lost after 26 games with rookie Sean May, who lasted 23. Raymond Felton, a surprise pick at No. 5 before May went at No. 12 in the Bobcats' 2005 Tar Heels draft, made 36 percent of his three-point shots, giving them their lone glimmer of hope. Rookie Adam Morrison is anything but shy. The major new face in town is co-owner Michael Jordan or would be if he were in town. During the preseason, he took off for Europe to promote Brand Jordan.

Bottom line -- Jordan could be on the moon and coach Bernie Bickerstaff wouldn't stay in place long.

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