NBA PREVIEW

The Baltimore Sun

CAPSULES BY ORLANDO SENTINEL

TEAMS LISTED IN ORDER OF PREDICTED FINISH

Eastern conference

ATLANTIC

BOSTON CELTICS

Last season -- 24-58 (5th in Atlantic)

Coach -- Doc Rivers (9th NBA season, 273-312)

Projected starting five -- C Kendrick Perkins, F Kevin Garnett, F Paul Pierce, G Ray Allen, G Rajon Rondo

What to expect -- The Celtics will be the most improved team in the league, igniting an interest in the team that hasn't been seen since Boston's glory days back in the 1980s. Garnett couldn't carry the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he will get better help with the Celtics.

NEW JERSEY NETS

Last season -- 41-41 (2nd in Atlantic)

Coach -- Lawrence Frank (5th NBA season, 157-129)

Projected starting five -- C Jamaal Magloire, F Nenad Krstic, F Richard Jefferson, G Vince Carter, G Jason Kidd

What to expect -- The Nets finished strong last season, despite losing both Jefferson and Krstic for long stretches because of injuries. They should be better and ready to fight for the top spot in this division.

TORONTO RAPTORS

Last season -- 47-35 (1st in Atlantic)

Coach -- Sam Mitchell (4th NBA season, 107-139)

Projected starting five -- C Chris Bosh, F Andrea Bargnani, F Jorge Garbajosa, G T.J. Ford, G Anthony Parker

What to expect -- The Raptors struggled early last season, but they closed well, using a nice mix of young international players who know how to play unselfishly, tailoring their games around All-Star Bosh.

NEW YORK KNICKS

Last season -- 33-49 (4th in Atlantic)

Coach -- Isiah Thomas (5th NBA season, 164-164)

Projected starting five -- C Eddy Curry, F Zach Randolph, F Quentin Richardson, G Jamal Crawford, G Stephon Marbury

What to expect -- Thomas wants an offense that goes into the post, using Curry and Randolph around the basket. They will have plenty of weapons to score lots of points from inside and out.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Last season -- 35-47 (3rd in Atlantic)

Coach -- Maurice Cheeks (7th NBA season, 235-230)

Projected starting five -- C Samuel Dalembert, F Reggie Evans, F Andre Iguodala, G Andre Miller, G Willie Green

What to expect -- The Sixers have made a lot of changes since the Allen Iverson era ended last season, but they aren't any better, just different. They are young and athletic but still a long way from reaching the playoffs because everyone in the East has improved.

CENTRAL

CHICAGO BULLS

Last season -- 49-33 (3rd in Central)

Coach -- Scott Skiles (8th NBA season, 272-235)

Projected starting five -- C Ben Wallace, F Luol Deng, F Joe Smith, G Kirk Hinrich, G Ben Gordon

What to expect -- They have been improving steadily with this young cast of good athletes, and they aren't far from the top of the Eastern Conference. The playoff experience they gained last season -- losing in the second round to Detroit -- gave them a taste of what they should expect.

DETROIT PISTONS

Last season -- 53-29 (1st in Central)

Coach -- Flip Saunders (13th NBA season, 528-373)

Projected starting five -- C Rasheed Wallace, F Antonio McDyess, F Tayshaun Prince, G Richard Hamilton, G Chauncey Billups

What to expect -- This is a well-seasoned team that knows how to win, keeping its core together for another year. Losing to Cleveland in the conference final last spring might be a hint that the slide has begun.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Last season -- 50-32 (2nd in Central Division)

Coach -- Mike Brown (3rd NBA season, 100-64)

Projected starting five -- C Zydrunas Ilgauskas, F Drew Gooden, F LeBron James, G Larry Hughes, G Daniel Gibson

What to expect -- This is one team in the East that will have trouble duplicating its accomplishments from last season. The Cavs were the surprise winners of the Eastern Conference, which earned them the right to be drilled by the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Last season -- 28-54 (5th in Central)

Coach -- Larry Krystkowiak (2nd NBA season, 5-13)

Projected starting five -- C Andrew Bogut, F Charlie Villanueva, F Bobby Simmons, G Michael Redd, G Maurice Williams

What to expect -- If they stay healthy -- something they couldn't do last season -- they are a playoff contender. This team has depth, which many of the other teams in the East don't have.

INDIANA PACERS

Last season -- 35-47 (4th in Central)

Coach -- Jim O'Brien (6th NBA season, 182-158)

Projected starting five -- C Jermaine O'Neal, F Troy Murphy, F Danny Granger, G Mike Dunleavy, G Jamaal Tinsley

What to expect -- The franchise has fallen on hard times because of some trades that just didn't work for the best. Trying to get rid of the guys who caused off-court embarrassment, the Pacers ended up with a less-talented team.

SOUTHEAST

WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Last season -- 41-41 (2nd in Southeast)

Coach -- Eddie Jordan (7th NBA season, 186-239)

Projected starting five -- C Brendan Haywood, F Antawn Jamison, F Caron Butler, G Gilbert Arenas, G DeShawn Stevenson

What to expect -- They were the best team in the division until getting rocked by injuries late last season. If they can stay healthy, even with a weak rebounding team, they could go deep in the playoffs.

ORLANDO MAGIC

Last season -- 40-42 (3rd in Southeast)

Coach -- Stan Van Gundy (4th NBA season, 112-73)

Projected starting five -- C Dwight Howard, F Rashard Lewis, F Hedo Turkoglu, G Jameer Nelson, G Keith Bogans.

What to expect -- The Magic will run more, loft more three-point shots and score more. The issue is whether the team can play defense. Van Gundy replaced Brian Hill as coach, and improvement is expected.

MIAMI HEAT

Last season -- 44-38 (1st in Southeast)

Coach -- Pat Riley (24th NBA season, 1,195-627)

Projected starting five -- C Shaquille O'Neal, F Udonis Haslem, F Ricky Davis, G Dwyane Wade, G Jason Williams

What to expect -- Watch for a slow start because Wade likely will not be ready until a few weeks into the season after summertime shoulder surgery and knee surgery. Davis will start at his spot until Wade returns and likely will bump one of the other starters later.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

Last season -- 33-49 (4th in Southeast)

Coach -- Sam Vincent (1st NBA season)

Projected starting five -- C Primoz Brezec, F Emeka Okafor, F Gerald Wallace, G Jason Richardson, G Raymond Felton

What to expect -- There is a good, young team starting to develop . They should improve their victory total for the fourth consecutive year, giving them a shot at one of the last playoff spots. Okafor is due for a big season, as long as he stays healthy. He also is the key to the Bobcats' possible playoff hopes. He can block shots, rebound and anchor the defense.

ATLANTA HAWKS

Last season -- 30-52 (5th in Southeast)

Coach -- Mike Woodson (4th NBA season, 69-177)

Projected starting five -- C Zaza Pachulia, F Marvin Williams, F Josh Smith, G Joe Johnson, G Speedy Claxton

What to expect -- Don't expect any dramatic jumps. They have good, young athletes who need time to marinate together. This could be the end of Woodson's tenure if management gets impatient.

NORTHWEST

UTAH JAZZ

Last season -- 51-31 (1st in Northwest Division)

Coach -- Jerry Sloan (23rd NBA season, 1,035-689)

Projected starting five -- C Mehmet Okur, F Carlos Boozer, F Andrei Kirilenko, G Deron Williams, G Ronnie Brewer

What to expect -- This is a good team, getting better with another year of stability. The Jazz doesn't get the hype that the Denver Nuggets get, but they should be good enough to win its division again and go deep into the playoffs.

DENVER NUGGETS

Last season -- 45-37 (2nd in Northwest Division)

Coach -- George Karl (20th NBA season, 829-582)

Projected starting five -- C Marcus Camby, F Kenyon Martin, F Carmelo Anthony, G Allen Iverson, G J.R. Smith

What to expect -- The Nuggets will improve considerably with Iverson starting the season with the team for the first time and with the return of Martin from a knee injury.

SEATTLE SUPERSONICS

Last season -- 31- 51 (5th in Northwest Division)

Coach -- P.J. Carlesimo (7th NBA season, 183-222)

Projected starting five -- C Robert Swift, F Chris Wilcox, F Damien Wilkins, G Kevin Durant, G Luke Ridnour

What to expect -- Durant will get every opportunity to shine as the highly touted No. 2 pick in the draft. He is immensely talented, brimming with potential. He is the centerpiece of a new beginning for the Sonics.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Last season -- 32-50 (4th in Northwest Division)

Coach -- Nate McMillan (8th NBA season, 265-294)

Projected starting five -- C Joel Przybilla, F LaMarcus Aldridge, F Travis Outlaw, G Steve Blake, G Brandon Roy

What to expect -- It was a huge disappointment for the franchise to learn that No. 1 pick Greg Oden would be lost for the season with a knee problem. Even without him, though, the Trail Blazers are headed in the right direction. They have rid themselves of most of the immaturity that marked recent years.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Last season -- 32-50 (3rd in Northwest Division)

Coach -- Randy Wittman (4th NBA season, 74-132)

Projected starting five -- C Theo Ratliff, F Al Jefferson, F Ryan Gomes, G Rashad McCants, G Randy Foye

What to expect -- This is a team starting the rebuilding process. After a decade of Kevin Garnett, the Timberwolves didn't get equal value in return when they traded him.

PACIFIC

PHOENIX SUNS

Last season -- 61-21 (1st in Pacific Division)

Coach -- Mike D'Antoni (6th NBA season, 212-145)

Projected starting five -- C Amare Stoudemire, F Shawn Marion, F Grant Hill, G Boris Diaw, G Steve Nash

What to expect -- The Suns thought they were robbed of a chance to play in the NBA Finals last season when they lost Stoudemire and Diaw for a game after they came off the bench during a skirmish in the Western Conference finals against San Antonio. They expect to win it all this time.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Last season -- 42-40 (3rd in Pacific Division)

Coach -- Don Nelson (29th NBA season, 1,232-920)

Projected starting five -- C Andris Biedrins, F Mickael Pietrus, F Kelenna Azubuike,G Baron Davis, G Monta Ellis

What to expect -- After shocking the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs last spring -- following a 42-win regular season -- the Warriors expect big things. The success of their small-ball lineup fuels their belief that centers may not be needed in their scheme.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Last season -- 42-40 (2nd in Pacific Division)

Coach -- Phil Jackson (17th NBA season, 919-393)

Projected starting five -- C Andrew Bynum, F Luke Walton, F Lamar Odom, G Kobe Bryant, G Derek Fisher

What to expect -- The Lakers still look like a middle-of-the-pack team in a tough Western Conference. Despite all the urging and threats by Bryant, they didn't significantly upgrade the team.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

Last season -- 32-49 (5th in Pacific Division)

Coach -- Reggie Theus (1st NBA season)

Projected starting five -- C Brad Miller, F Ron Artest, F Mikki Moore, G Mike Bibby, G Kevin Martin

What to expect -- Things will get better this season under new coach Theus, who will have the Kings scoring more and complaining less. His intent to impose a curfew on the road might not work, but his style will.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Last season -- 40-42 (4th in Pacific Division)

Coach -- Mike Dunleavy (15th NBA season, 550-566)

Projected starting five -- C Chris Kaman, F Tim Thomas, F Corey Maggette, G Cuttino Mobley, G Sam Cassell

What to expect -- Without Elton Brand, who is lost for at least the first half of the season after Achilles' surgery, the Clippers are missing their best player.

SOUTHWEST

DALLAS MAVERICKS

Last season -- 67-15 (1st in Southwest Division)

Coach -- Avery Johnson (4th NBA season, 143-39)

Projected starting five -- C Erick Dampier, F Dirk Nowitzki, F Josh Howard, G Devin Harris, G Jerry Stackhouse

What to expect -- The Mavs are determined to erase the pain of last season's embarrassing playoff collapse. They may pace themselves better in the regular season, trying to time their peak for the playoffs.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Last season -- 58-24 (2nd in Southwest Division)

Coach -- Gregg Popovich (12th NBA season, 576-276)

Projected starting five -- C Fabricio Oberto, F Tim Duncan, F Bruce Bowen, G Tony Parker, G Michael Finley

What to expect -- They have to be the favorites to win again, even if the Mavericks or the Rockets win more games in the regular season. This team knows how to pace itself and be ready for the playoffs. Four NBA titles in nine seasons gives them bragging rights.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

Last season -- 52-30 (3rd in Southwest Division)

Coach -- Rick Adelman (17th NBA season, 752-481)

Projected starting five -- C Yao Ming, F Shane Battier, F Luis Scola, G Tracy McGrady, G Rafer Alston

What to expect -- This should be the year the Rockets get beyond the first round. McGrady and Ming have been starters together on the All-Star team the past three years, but they haven't won a playoff series.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Last season -- 39-43 (4th in Southwest Division)

Coach -- Byron Scott (8th NBA season, 244-290)

Projected starting five -- C Tyson Chandler, F David West, F Peja Stojakovic, G Morris Peterson, G Chris Paul

What to expect -- Back in New Orleans full time, the Hornets will be interesting to watch, and to see if the fans are there to support them. It's also a crucial season for Scott, who is expected to produce a winner.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Last season -- 22-60 (5th in Southwest Division)

Coach -- Marc Iavaroni (1st NBA season)

Projected starting five -- C Stromile Swift, F Pau Gasol, F Rudy Gay, G Mike Miller, G Damon Stoudamire

What to expect -- The Grizzlies will improve under a new coach, but it might be tougher to move up in the standings. The three Texas teams all believe they are serious contenders, and the Hornets should be close to .500, so somebody still has to lose games.

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