By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

When I reflect on the Sports Guy Era some day, I'll look back fondly on those times when I was holed up in my office writing a column, or those other times when I was in my office churning out a column, or even those times when I was sitting in my office slaving over a column. Save for a few ESPN field trips, it's all going to seem like one big blur. But one column stands apart from everything else, my favorite piece to write every year, the one writing experience that leaves me feeling like I just delivered a baby, only in a good way ... that's right, it's my annual two-part NBA preview!

Rick Fox and Doug Christie
The Fox vs. Christie showdown has the Sports Guy perplexed.

I avoided writing NBA stuff all summer, just so I could pull a Maximus and unleash hell in this space for the next two days. Everything was proceeding nicely -- a week of research, copious notes, opinions slowly forming -- until last Friday's Doug Christie-Rick Fox catfight rattled me to my very core. Honestly, I'm not even sure what to do with myself right now. Do we retire the Christie Jersey jokes because he slugged the most annoying player in the league? Why didn't Christie hand-signal his wife during the fight? Has there been a federal investigation to determine whether Mrs. Christie really jumped into the fray in the tunnel, swinging her purse to defend her husband, as some eyewitnesses have claimed? And if she did ... well, what should we do with this information?

It's too much. I feel like I'm going to have a seizure, and we haven't even started making fun of the Knicks yet, much less picking 16 playoff teams and a 2003 NBA champion. Without further ado, here's one man's predictions for the Eastern Conference, in reverse order (from worst to first):

15. New York
Will there be a more depressing venue on earth than MSG this season? Empty seats galore. Unruly fans paying big bucks to watch 40-point blowouts. Antonio McDyess hobbling on crutches. Latrell Sprewell wearing a hand cast, dressed like Judge Smails, reading a yachting magazine during timeouts. Charlie Ward and Howard Eisley having an argument over who sucks more. Kurt Thomas looking generally insane and disoriented. Clarence Weatherspoon and Othella Harrington sharing a hamburger. Michael Doleac and Travis Knight making plans to watch "The Bachelor" on TiVo. Allan Houston getting lively after emerging from his three-year daze. Don Chaney openly working on his resume. And Scott Layden hiding in a luxury box, trying to pretend that it was somebody else's fault that the Knicks are screwed for the next five years (at least).

Hey, Scott? You did this. If you were approaching it like Michael Corleone, you would have let Ewing play out his contract in New York, lowballed Houston, avoided signing backup players for starter's salaries, and fought off the urge to trade one chronically injured big man (Marcus Camby) for a slightly more accomplished, slightly less chronically injured big man (McDyess), sacrificing a plum draft pick in the process. Instead, you made like Sonny Corleone, plowing ahead, making panic move after panic move, reacting instead of acting, showing all the patience of Pete Rose in a Las Vegas sports book. And now you're putting David Stern in a very uncomfortable position, because the league has to rig the NBA Lottery once again to salvage their marquee franchise. Let the Lebron James Countdown begin.

(Speaking of Stern, I mention this every time it happens, but let's mention it again: Back in '93, Reggie Lewis dropped dead and the Celtics were forced to carry his salary on their cap for three more years. Nine years later, McDyess blows out his kneecap and the Knicks are given a juicy $4.5 million cap exemption for the 2003 season practically as he's getting hauled off the court. Can't the NBA just use the Knicks logo as their league logo? Why not just go the whole nine yards here?)

14. Miami
During Celtics home games, a leather-lunged guy named Brian sits behind me and keeps our sections in stitches for most of the action, spouting out goofy jokes and comments and generally livening up the proceedings. During games where both teams have trouble scoring, he invariably screams out, "God, this is a rock fight, come on, fellas!" You know it's coming, you just don't know when.

And I guess what I'm trying to say is this ...

Pat Riley
Riley's rock throwers won't have much to offer in the NBA Least.

Bookies wouldn't even take odds of Brian making that joke during the first Heat-Celtics game this season. Where in God's name is Miami getting its points? Alonzo isn't around anymore. Brian Grant couldn't score 20 points in two hours if he were playing in a gym by himself. LaPhonso Ellis is D-U-N, done. I love Caron Butler's potential, but you're asking a lot from any rookie "2" or "3" to average more than 14-15 points a game. Eddie House isn't even as good as Lucious Harris on House's best night. Eddie Jones is a nice third or fourth wheel, but you can easily take him out of games when he's the only scoring option. Travis Best can't play defense, he's never been able to play defense and he's going to drive Riley crazy. And Anthony Carter isn't the answer, either.

That means Riley will be turning every night into a rock fight, which is fine ... just please keep them off TV under any and all circumstances. I don't ask for much.

13. Cleveland
Where you stand on the Cavs depends on where you stand on Darius Miles. He might be the next KG, he might be the next Bill Willoughby ... honestly, we have no idea. So let's find out. Personally, I think he pulls a Michael Vick this season -- submits a 20/10/5 every night, wins over the Cleveland fans, juvenates the franchise, even makes us forget that the league was cruel enough to split up him and Q-Tip -- but that's just me. The league hasn't seen anything like him -- smaller and slimmer than KG, but with all the same skills, and a little pizzazz to boot. I like Andre Miller, but I wouldn't pay money to watch him play basketball. I'd pay money to see Darius Miles. When you watch him in person, you never forget that he's on the court. Not for a second.

As for the rest of the Cavs, let's pretend that Ty Hill turns it up a notch in a contract year, Ricky Davis continues his fantasy surge, Jumaine Jones, Carlos Boozer and Chris Mihm give them good minutes (all those guys are serviceable), the point guards (Milt Palacio, Bimbo Coles and Ollie from Hoosiers) only slightly murder them instead of completely killing them, they coax 55-60 games out of Zydrunas Ilguaskas (OK, that's a reach), and DaJuan Wagner manages to get through the season without giving any groupies in the Cleveland area his bladder infection.

Come on ... that's not a totally horrendous team, right? Too bad they gave away Lamond Murray for Michael Stewart and a No. 1, which was like trading a quarter for two pennies and a nickel. (Why do these trades happen? Just to temporarily flummox me while I'm reading USA Today?) Regardless, I think the president of the Frisky Foundation officially coronates the Cavs by Dec. 15. And D-Miles shall lead the way.

12. Atlanta
Everyone made a fuss over the Hawks this summer, first because they made that "If we don't make the playoffs, every season ticket holder gets refunded $125" promise, then because they packaged a No. 1 pick, Toni Kukoc and some complimentary formaldehyde for Glenn "I stole Antoine Carr's nickname" Robinson, a guaranteed 20 a night if he's healthy (whether you're talking points or frowns from the coaching staff). And they look somewhat enticing on paper.

Well, until you start thinking about it.

Glenn Robinson
The Big Dog's attitude should come with a Surgeon General's warning.

Poor Theo Ratliff can't stay healthy; you almost wish he had been involved in that Camby-McDyess trade, just for comedy's sake. Shareef Abdur-Rahim puts up solid fantasy numbers, but you get the nagging feeling he's making a few more NBA pit stops before everything's said and done (he's just good enough to keep getting traded, but not quite good enough to stay in the same place). As for Robinson, I'm not saying he was a cancer on the Bucks, but George Karl apparently canceled a round of team chemotherapy sessions after the trade. Jason Terry is this decade's Sleepy Floyd, the guy who ends up giving up just as many points as he's scoring. Also, there isn't another above-average player on the roster, and they have the worst homecourt advantage in the league. So unless Robinson just goes off -- and I mean, goes off, as in 27-28 a night -- I can't imagine how they win more than 32-33 games. Maybe I'm crazy.

11. Chicago
(Note to reader: Every year, one lottery team makes me completely irrational, and I end up throwing them into the playoffs before thinking better of it at the last minute. Needless to say, I had to re-write these next two paragraphs at about 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. Consider yourself warned. Back to the column.)

Much like the debut of the Pumpkin Spice donut at Dunkin Donuts last week, the Bulls are downright intriguing. Hey, you know how much I love Jalen Rose, one of my favorite players in the league, somebody who needed his own team just like Dave Grohl needed his own band, somebody who will be infinitely more appreciated after this season. Then there's Jason Williams, who apparently isn't talented anymore because Duke choked against Indiana last March. You forget that, before that game, he was further along than Stevie Francis (when Francis was coming out of Maryland), and Francis only averaged 18 a night as a rookie. You're telling me Williams can't average 15 and dribble the ball over midcourt? Please. The Eddy Curry-Tyson Chandler combo gives them young legs and energy. Donyell Marshall gives them another proven scorer. Eddie Robinson and Marcus Fizer gives them bench scoring. And there's fhfhsh bcnsnsh dhshjsakjds gwrsfsgf dldldls ncbsdgshgsj fjfdjshshs sksksakakakj dhjdjdj.

(Whoops, sorry about that. I nodded off. It's 3:15 a.m. right now. I feel like James Brolin in "Amityville Horror" -- bleary-eyed, incoherent and hearing voices from the devil. All for you, the home reader. You don't care.)

Of course, I'm not sure you could even find an above-average defensive player in the mix, with the possible exception of Chandler (still at least two years and 20 pounds away from wreaking havoc). There also could be a tiny letdown factor here, considering that Chandler and Curry broke the NBA record for "Most hours spent playing video games in a hotel room" last season. How can they top that? I have no idea. And since I'm regurgitating jokes from last year's preview, let's just stop here.

10. Milwaukee
Ever notice how the weird "over" keeps popping up when you start discussing the Bucks? Jason Caffey = "Overpaid" ... Tim Thomas = "Really, really overpaid" ... Ervin Johnson, Anthony Mason & Kukoc = "Over the hill" ... Joel Pryzbilla = "Overwhelmed" ... Sam Cassell = "Overcomplainer" ... Michael Redd = "Almost went over to Dallas" ... George Karl = "Overrated and overexposed" ... Milwaukee fans = "Over-eating."

Ray Allen
Who knows what has prevented Allen from making The Leap?

And then you have Ray Allen, the one guy who could salvage this mess, pull a McGrady and singlehandedly push this team into the playoffs ... and he can't seem to get over the hump and make The Leap. Remember, Allen joined the league in '96, same year as Iverson, Antoine, Kobe, KG, Shareef, Nash, Marbury and everyone else. If it doesn't happen after seven seasons in this league, it's not happening. Even Chris Webber (the late bloomer of late bloomers) blossomed by his seventh year, and it's impossible to believe that somebody could take longer to mature than him. If Allen continues to be the same player we've seen for the last three years -- 20 a night, good D, fun to play with, occasionally takes over the game -- and nothing more, then the Karl Era is finished in Milwaukee. Over and out.

9. Orlando
Shawn Kemp, Horace Grant, Andrew DeClerq, Steven Hunter, Olumide Oyediji.

Don't worry, that's not the lineup for the next six weeks of "Cheaters." Unless something has changed, the Orlando Magic need to get 96 minutes per game -- including interior defense, rebounding, shotblocking and low-post scoring -- at the "4" and "5" spots from everyone in the previous paragraph. Forget about Tracy McGrady's back, or Grant Hill's ankles, or Darrell Armstrong hitting his mid-30s, or needing to find Mike Miller minutes. You can't make the playoffs with a group of big forwards and centers like that. You just can't. It's impossible.

Now ... if Hill bounces back, and Doc Rivers is smart, he'll pull a Rudy T and play SmallBall with McGrady, Hill, Miller/Garrity and Armstrong, spread the floor, play zone on defense, and hope they get hot from threes 20 times a year, McGrady gets hot another 20 times, and that's 40 wins right there. But Orlando can't succeed at SmallBall without Hill's all-around game, and we all know that this latest comeback will end badly. You can't bounce back in the NBA from bad shins, bad ankles or bad feet, you just can't, you cannot, and let nobody tell you differently. And if you don't believe me, ask Andrew Toney, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Mychal Thompson

8. Philly
Allow me to be the 110,075th person to question why Larry Brown tinkered with a team that came within a Shaq sprained ankle of winning the title two years ago. Why mess with a group that succeeded because of their rebounding, defense and toughness, then bring in guys who don't fit that mold? Did they really think they were getting two healthy seasons out of Derrick Coleman? Or that Keith Van Horn -- someone who couldn't handle the pressure of playing with Stephon Marbury and Kenyon Martin -- would respond well alongside Allen Iverson, only the most intimidating teammate in the league? After losses, can't you see a terrified Van Horn sitting at his locker, motionless, looking like the guy at the end of the "Blair Witch Project," awaiting the next Iverson tirade? He might shoot 25 percent this season.

Allen Iverson
Even Dr. Melfi would have a hard time figuring out Iverson.

Here's a better question: If Philly starts off slow, should they consider trading Iverson? Forget about the fact that he's nuts ... don't you feel like they can't recapture everything that happened in 2000, that it was as good as it gets for him? Over the next couple of years, as his body starts to break down from all the punishment he takes, as he gets frustrated by injuries and first-round exits, Operation Sabotage will be in full effect. So dump him now. Get something for him. Deal him to the Warriors or Clippers, bring some young players back and start over. It's the only way. They had their window with him. Now it's closed.

One more thing: You know when somebody calls you and says, "Guess what so-and-so cost?", like if they bought a game-worn jersey on eBay or something and want you to guess how much they spent, but they won't tell you, so you have to keep throwing out guesses? Well, if somebody called me in July and said, "The Sixers signed Greg Buckner, guess how much they gave him?", I would have been on the phone for six hours until we arrived at the correct figure, "Six years, 18 million." Two years, $900,000? (Nope.) OK, two years, $950,000? (Nope.) Two years, $975.000? It would have taken forever. With "Arli$$" mercifully getting cancelled last week, the Greg Buckner Signing officially becomes No. 1 on the "How in God's name did somebody greenlight that one?" list. I'm speechless. I am without speech.

7. Toronto
As Dan Dierdorf would say, you think Vince Carter isn't motivated right now? I'm not so sure that this isn't the biggest season of his career. Everything that happened in the last year and a half -- the fallout from the "Graduating the day of Game 7" fiasco, McGrady and Pierce passing him in the Pantheon, whispers about his heart, his teammates running off a Ewing Theory-fueled run to make the playoffs in his absence -- was compounded by him having to hear about it all summer. Now he's ornery. Maybe like Drew Bledsoe, Vince became too comfortable and simply needed a kick in the butt; I can't imagine we'll see him coasting on defense and settling for fallaway jumpers this season. Too much at stake.

So let's assume that Vince comes back strong. With Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams, Mo Peterson, Lamond Murray and Jerome Williams, he's in much better shape than T-Mac in Orlando. If Vince puts up big numbers, I can't imagine how the Raptors miss the playoffs, especially when they have the most underrated advantage in the league: The whole "Playing in Canada thing," which flusters every NBA team.

(Think about it. International flights take longer to board/depart. You have to deal with customs and drug-sniffing dogs. You can't bring, um, smoking supplies. You have to figure out the Canadian exchange rate if you go out, and believe me, if I can't do it, I sincerely doubt that someone like Keon Clark or Hedu Turkoglu is going to handle it. Plus, it's freezing cold. And since teams usually leave after the games, they know they aren't getting home until 4-5 in the morning because of the airport issues, so they're bummed out even when they're getting there. Talk about a homecourt advantage. Does anyone else think of this stuff?)

Vin Baker
Vin Baker is part of the mediocre cast the Celtics seem content with.

6. Boston
Bottom line: It's a weak conference. I don't care if Vin Baker rolls over and plays dead for the next four years, it won't change the fact that (a) the Celts have two of the top 20 players in the league (Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce), (b) those same two guys play hard every night, and (c) they are astoundingly durable.

If you surrounded them with 10 average and below-average players, they would still win 42-45 games in the East. Unfortunately, that's exactly what the Celtics front office has decided to do, and it didn't have to be that way, and to be honest, I don't even feel like talking about this.

5. Indiana
Damn this team. If Isiah lasts the whole season, they won't finish higher than seventh or eighth. If they canned Isiah right now, they would win the Central. If he lasts half the season, they'll probably finish right around here. You get the idea. How is he coming back? What more does he have to do (or not do)?

I can't emphasize this enough ... this is a really talented team. How many other Eastern teams feature two scoring big men (Jermaine O'Neal, Brad Miller)? Or two swingman defenders who can handle the Pierces and McGradys (Ron Artest and Al Harrington)? Or a bench filled with quality players (Ron Mercer, Jeff Foster, Jon Bender and Erick Strickland)? Or the rare ability to throw out different looks depending on the opponent? Or even a proven crunch-time scorer (Reggie Miller, who can still get it done)? Except for New Jersey and New Orleans, nobody else is even remotely this deep -- they could lose a starter and instantly plug in someone like Foster, Bender or Harrington, which is almost ridiculous. If Jamaal Tinsley gives them even a mediocre season, they should win 50-plus in the East.

But they won't. Some day, we will reflect on the Isiah Era and share a hearty laugh. There might even be some guffawing. I feel very strongly about this.

4. New Orleans
Hey, it's the city that hates me! And now they have their own basketball team, after David Stern's brilliant brainstorm to move the Hornets to N'Awlins, then eventually give Charlotte an expansion team. Why not just give New Orleans an expansion team and keep the Hornets where they were? Everyone claims that the league needed to move Hornets owner George Shinn out of there, and he wouldn't sell the team, so this was the next best option. Whatever. You're telling me that David Stern couldn't convince somebody to do something? Stern wanted to secure two paychecks for the NBA owners -- the relocation fee and the expansion fee -- and nobody can convince me otherwise. As Casey Affleck said in "Good Will Hunting," "My boy is wicked smaht." More on this later this week.

Baron Davis
The Big Easy may be too much for Baron & Co.

As for the Hornets, what can you say? They're the Bandwagon Team this year. You've heard it all -- deep rotation, Baron Davis, no more moving distractions, big bodies up front, Jamal Mashburn finally healthy, etc. -- and I won't regurgiutate this stuff, but I will vehemently disagree. I mean, vehemently. For one thing, this is New Orleans. Nobody ever wins there -- that's why they host the Super Bowl every few years, because it's their only chance to see a playoff game. Second, predictions are never that easy. You can't just hand over a division to somebody who hasn't won before. Third, when you move an entire team from one city to another, that's a little more complicated than it sounds -- it's like playing the first 50 games on the road, because players take a few months to get settled.

Fourth, I didn't like what I saw from Baron Davis in the World Championships this summer -- it was like he switched bodies with Stephon Marbury (like in that Dudley Moore-Kirk Cameron movie). Fifth, this is New Orleans -- short of putting a team in Vegas, sticking 12 NBA players in the craziest social scene in America sounds like a psychology experiment. Couldn't ESPN run one of those "The Season" shows about this? And sixth, too many of the Hornets are pitted against one another -- Elden Campbell vs. Jamaal Magliore, George Lynch vs. Jamal Mashburn, David Wesley vs. Courtney Alexander, Baron Davis vs. everybody -- and there just aren't enough minutes and enough basketballs. Throw in those creepy New Orleans vibes, and I bet the Hornets won't be as good as you think.

(And yes, I'm bitter that I can't go back. Mmmmmm ... gumbo.)

3. Washington
Say what you want about Michael Jordan's comeback. Did it need to happen? Probably not. Then again, "Jackass: The Movie" didn't need to happen, either, and that was only the most entertaining movie experience of the year. Jordan seems happy settling into the role of "Spiritual leader and competitive rock," even signing Bryon Russell so he could conserve his knees during the season (and kick his butt in practice). He stole Jerry Stackhouse from Detroit, who's ticked off that the Pistons traded him. Plus, Stack reveres MJ, and he's in a contract year. Like he's not having a huge season? Throw in Charles Oakley and Christian Laettner, and this suddenly feels like a tested bunch. You never had that feeling last year.

Two summer moves worked much better than I originally thought. First, Larry Hughes will surprise people this year -- with Stack and MJ, you don't need a true point guard running the show, and Hughes gives them defense and athleticism (the proverbial Ron Harper role). Something looks right about him this year, like he's finally getting it (hey, if it could happen to Marc-Paul Gosselaar, it could happen to anybody). And rookie Jared Jeffries will shock some people -- he's one of those "nitty-gritty" guys who's always up to something, the guy you hate playing pickup hoops with because he's always picking up loose balls, taking charges, tipping in rebounds, guarding people fullcourt and acting like a general nuisance. You win playoff games with people like that. I can't believe how wrong I was about him; he's turning out to be my favorite player from the draft.

So what's the ceiling here? That depends on Kwame Brown, who still looks like he's about a year away (you realize he went two picks ahead of Pau Gasol, right?). And it depends on MJ, who wraps his knees in mammoth ice packs after every game, hoping to coax them through one last grueling season before fading into the sunset. With the East wide open again, with the NBA praying for the Wizards to make a run, with Stackhouse carrying some of the scoring load, we might even see MJ playing in May this season. Now that would be fun.

2. Detroit
I could throw out 20 reasons here, but only one really matters. Let's run down the two crucial elements that need to be in place for the groundbreaking Ewing Theory, as described in the column last year:

Playoff Predictions
First round: New Jersey, Washington, Detroit and Indiana all advance.

Second round: New Jersey over Indiana; Washington over Detroit.

Eastern Finals: New Jersey over Washington.

1. A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).

2. That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) -- and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.

Voila! Hey, I like Jerry Stackhouse. He's a much better all-around player than Rip Hamilton. It's not even close. Maybe Hamilton can score in bunches, but he seems destined to become this decade's Jeff Malone, one of those guys who goes 12-for-19 for 27 points ... with 0 rebounds and 0 assists. And I think I could post him up; I can't even imagine what some of the East 2-guards would do. You would have thought Detroit could have secured more value for a Top-40 player in the last year of his contract (is there a more valuable commodity in the NBA?), even if Stack did pull a Lewinsky in the playoffs.

Who knows? Maybe this was the first trade made with the Ewing Theory in mind. Whatever the case, I'm sold. The Pistons look worse on paper, and everyone seems to be writing them off as an Eastern contender. Perfect. I'm excited.

1. New Jersey
I can't remember flip-flopping on any sports-related subject more than the "Mutombo for Van Horn and MacCulloch" trade. On the one hand, they weren't winning a title with Van Horn and MacCulloch, and the trade opened up playing time for Richard Jefferson (one of my favorites -- nobody guarded Paul Pierce better last season). On the other hand, Mutombo was getting mauled by corpse-sniffing police dogs during the Celtics-Sixers playoff series last May.

Jason Kidd
Tony Firriolo/NBAE/Getty Images
When you get right down to it -- Kidd is da man.

So I don't know what to think. If Mutombo has anything left in the gas tank -- and I mean, anything -- they're a better team than they were with MacCulloch, a nice enough player who was nearly swallowed whole by Shaq in the Finals. And yet, nothing declines faster and more precipitously than an All-Pro center in his late-30s, with the possible exception of Teri Hatcher. Again, your guess is as good as mine.

But do they even need him? I like their bench, I like their chemistry, I'm even growing to like their coach. And what about Martin and Jefferson (the most athletic forward combo in the East), or Rodney Rogers (a proven sixth man), or Jason Kidd (he's Jason Kidd)? When you think about it, they're the only true team in the East, the one group that could head into anyone's building, lay the smack down and cruise to a 20-point win. And nobody won a tougher game last spring than Game 4 in Boston, the ultimate character test. In a conference filled with question marks, underachievers, overachievers and maybes, the New Jersey Nets are the only sure thing. Sad but true. Now if they could only sell out their own building.

Coming Wednesday: Part 2 (the West).

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.