By Steve Kerr, Yahoo! Sports
September 26, 2006
More Kerr – Western Conference preseason rankings
The biggest roster change in the Eastern Conference in the offseason didn't involve Miami, but the Heat may have benefited from the move more than anyone.
Ben Wallace's departure from Detroit to Chicago severely weakened the Pistons, widening the gap between the East's top two clubs last season. Add the fact that Pat Riley will return to the sidelines in Miami, and it is clear that the Heat are the favorites to come out of the East and return to the NBA Finals in June.
Detroit's loss is Chicago's gain, of course, and for the first time since Michael Jordan retired, the Bulls are legitimate title contenders. Remember, Chicago played Miami extremely well in the playoffs last spring, and now the Bulls will be even better defensively. But there is plenty of work to be done incorporating Wallace into the lineup, particularly on offense.
Meanwhile, both Detroit and Chicago will have plenty of competition in their own division from LeBron James and the Cavaliers, not to mention the talented Pacers and the improving Bucks and Raptors. The Central just might be the toughest division in the NBA.
But the rest of the East looks awfully weak, and that should mean clear sailing for the Heat. Miami begins the season in the same position as it finished nearly four months ago – on top of the Eastern Conference.
1. Miami Heat – The NBA champs return everyone, but they're aging quickly. Health and motivation will be the key factors for the Heat. But in the weak Southeast Division, Miami should have no problem capturing a top-three seed and gearing up for another title run.
2. Chicago Bulls – Ben Wallace brings two things: great defense and bad offense. Scott Skiles needs to highlight one and cover up the other, and with a very deep roster, he should be able to do so. The question is: Do the Bulls have enough inside scoring?
3. Detroit Pistons – Wallace's departure signifies a philosophical change for Detroit. The Pistons will run, play smaller and be more offensive-minded. But did they lose their soul?
4. Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron continues to get better, but his supporting cast will either make or break the Cavaliers' season. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Donyell Marshall and Larry Hughes must have better seasons.
5. New Jersey Nets – Jason Kidd and company had a terrific season in 2005-06, but can they take the next step and challenge for the conference championship? There wasn't much done to the roster, so the continued development of Nenad Krstic will be critical.
6. Washington Wizards – Jared Jeffries is gone, but Darius Songaila gives the Wizards a much better scorer on the front line. This team will continue to put up big numbers.
7. Indiana Pacers – A familiar face returns in Al Harrington. But it's the same old story for the Pacers: plenty of talent, questionable chemistry. Can Indiana rely on Jamaal Tinsley to lead them?
8. Milwaukee Bucks – The Charlie Villanueva trade gives the Bucks a formidable front line. The key will be at the point, where Charlie Bell, Steve Blake and Mo Williams will battle for the starting job.
9. Orlando Magic – After a 13-6 finish last season, the Magic have playoff hopes this season. The play of Dwight Howard and Darko Milicic will tell the tale.
10. Toronto Raptors – "Team Euro" could be a sleeper. Five European players dot the Raptors' roster, with Spain's world championships hero Jorge Garbajosa expected to play a major role. T.J. Ford will get a chance to be the catalyst for an uptempo offense.
11. New York Knicks – Poetic justice? Isiah Thomas inherits the mess he created, but there's no doubting the Knicks have talent. Word is, Thomas wants to play small and run like Phoenix, but there's one problem – his point guard is named Marbury, not Nash.
12. Boston Celtics – The Celtics brought in Sebastian Telfair to lead Gerald Green, Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins. If the NBA had a 21-and-under league, these guys would win it.
13. Philadelphia 76ers – Improvement from within? The Sixers won 38 games last season but did nothing in the offseason other than draft Rodney Carney. Tough to see much progress.
14. Atlanta Hawks – Harrington is gone, and that gives Marvin Williams a chance to shine. Speedy Claxton, whose health will be key, is already injured before camp has even started. Bad omen?
15. Charlotte Bobcats – Adam Morrison gives us a reason to actually watch the Bobcats this season. Other than that, there's not much there to get excited about.
Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Wednesday, Sep 27, 2006 2:57 am, EDT
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