The NBA's Eastern Conference is strong. There are several favorites, in my mind. The Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic could all win the East. Yet each team also has a clear deficiency.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Once everyone is healthy, the Sixers will be a force to be reckoned with. The question is: When will they get healthy? With Dikembe Mutombo in the middle to go along with Allen Iverson and Aaron McKie, the Sixers will be trouble for the opposition every night. This is a good team with a good coach, and they play great defense. Watch out for Speedy Claxton, who was injured last year. He could supplant Eric Snow as the starting point guard by the end of the year, which gives them good depth at a key spot. In the offseason, they acquired the enigmatic Derrick Coleman. He bears watching, for reasons good and bad. Fellow newcomer Matt Harpring will add some punch off the bench.
2. Orlando Magic
Tracy McGrady could be the best all-around player in the league. I'd put him in the same sentence as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Now it's Grant Hill fitting in to McGrady's team. Mike Miller is injured, but with him and Pat Garrity the Magic have a strong combination coming off the bench shooting 3-pointers. That's a great weapon for Orlando. And I love Doc Rivers as a coach. You've got six men on the floor with Rivers coaching. Bo Outlaw is athletic coming off the bench. I just hope they are not depending on Horace Grant and Patrick Ewing. I wonder how much those two have left.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
You have the three-headed monster in Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell -- with Tim Thomas coming off the bench. The Bucks still need a little more production out of the middle. Anthony Mason will be a big help there. Beyond Mason, they've got Ervin Johnson at center, who's not exactly formidable. This is a team that came within a game of the conference title last season, and they're going to get better. I still haven't decided if they're the team to beat in the East.
4. Toronto Raptors
|Toronto's Vince Carter tries to find his way around Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki.|
Does it depend on Hakeem Olajuwon and how much he can offer? I like point guard Alvin Williams, one of the more underrated players in the league. Mo Peterson is in the starting lineup, so he will have to take his play up a notch. Antonio Davis gives you a double-double every night. The bench is OK. But it may be up to Vince Carter, who needs to develop a bit more of an all-around game. He could take a note from his relative and former teammate, T-Mac. To win, you need to be more than a highlight reel. Though Vince is a great highlight reel.
5. New York Knicks
I like the additions of Clarence Weatherspoon, Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson -- good experience there. Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell can handle the scoring and, what's more, they'll have to. But center Marcus Camby is hurt again. And I don't know if Mark Jackson should still be the starting point guard. An undersized team that will play great defense and probably overachieve. Then again, the Knicks always seem to play just a bit better than you think they will.
6. Charlotte Hornets
Baron Davis is a star. I love his game. He's a dynamo when he's on the floor. He and David Wesley are a top, top backcourt. Jamal Mashburn proved this was his team last season and into the postseason. Elden Campbell and P.J. Brown are solid pros. They got rid of Derrick Coleman, which has to be addition by subtraction. Speaking of subtractions, Robert Traylor, acquired from the Sixers for Coleman, could be more effective if he lost some weight. A good team, a playoff team, but nothing more than that.
7. Miami Heat
Before the health problems, the Heat figured to be a force. Now, who knows? How much can Alonzo Mourning do? Brian Grant should be able to help Alonzo on the glass. Eddie Jones is great, but he's injury-prone. The Heat still have a weapon in Pat Riley. This may be another typical Heat team: does well in the regular season but burns out by playoff time. Kendall Gill and Chris Gatling are serviceable players, but there's desperation in Miami regarding the team's other big acquisition: point guard Rod Strickland. How he and Riley get along will go a long way to determining how far the team goes.
8. Atlanta Hawks
A good front line -- Theo Ratliff is one of my favorite players. He'll intimidate and block shots. Now Shareef Abdur-Rahim is in the Eastern time zone -- a whole different part of the country will realize just how great he is. Toni Kukoc is a wonderful complementary player and Jason Terry is a star in the making. This is a good team. A very surprising team. A team to keep an eye on.
9. Indiana Pacers
Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose. Two weapons. It's up to the kids, Al Harrington and Jermaine O'Neal, to take the Pacers places. O'Neal has shown flashes of being able to take his game higher. The bench is not bad, with Travis Best and Austin Croshere. The Pacers might even get something out of Jonathan Bender. Miller is 36. The younger guys need to step up or the Pacers won't make the playoffs. And I like their youngest player, rookie point guard Jamaal Tinsley.
AWARDS and PICKS
Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant. They'll probably just have a meeting themselves and figure out who will get it.
Rookie of the Year
European import Pau Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies) or Jamaal Tinsley (Pacers).
Lakers over ... well, let's say Raptors. But if you asked me last week, I might have said the Magic or the Sixers. Next week I might like the Bucks. But, hey, this is now and I say Lakers over Raptors.