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Steve Kerr's preseason conference rankings:
East | West

The Eastern Conference has changed dramatically in the past four months. First the Pistons upset the Lakers to win the NBA championship. Then the Heat traded for the most dominant player in the league, Shaquille O'Neal. No longer are people ridiculing the East.

And while it doesn't have the depth the West does, the East does have three legitimate title contenders. Like the West, the remaining playoff spots could be filled by any one of a number of clubs.

Here's how I rank the Eastern Conference on paper:

(1) Detroit Pistons Central Division Last season's record: 54-28

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The defending champs are loaded with confidence, and they will be a better team than they were a year ago. Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace anchor an intensely quick defense, and this season they'll have a rejuvenated Antonio McDyess to back them up.

The question remains whether Detroit can score. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton will again lead this team in scoring. An injury to either one would be a killer to the Pistons.

(2) Indiana Pacers Central Division Last season's record: 61-21

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Many people have forgotten that the Pacers had the best record in the NBA a season ago, and they have made improvements this offseason. Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest form a terrific forward tandem, and the Pacers added backcourt scoring and athleticism with the acquisition of Stephen Jackson.

Indiana will be a year better under coach Rick Carlisle, who enters his second season at the helm. The key for Carlisle is the play of Jamaal Tinsley, who has improved each season and will be relied on to run the team.

(3) Miami Heat Southeast Division Last season's record: 42-40

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Any team with Shaq on the roster is a championship contender. He is still the one player in the league who completely alters the opposition's defensive game plan every night. It was a coup for the Heat that they didn't have to give up Dwyane Wade, who should form a lethal inside-outside tandem with Shaq.

Miami still needs more help on the front line and with its perimeter shooting. Eddie Jones will be the key, and his marksmanship will improve as the opposition turns its attention to Shaq down low.

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers Central Division Last season's record: 35-47

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If Carlos Boozer hadn't bamboozled the Cavaliers and bolted to the Jazz, Cleveland would be a fantastic young team. As it is, Cleveland still will be good. Eric Snow adds defense and leadership, and LeBron James will undoubtedly improve after an amazing rookie season. It's hard to believe that he's just 19 years old.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a very good low-post threat, and the Cavs will try to replace Boozer's productivity with Drew Gooden. Rookie Luke Jackson will help immediately and provide offense when teams double James. The Cavs should be in the playoffs for the first time since 1998.

(5) New York Knicks Atlantic Division Last season's record: 39-43

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How many balls will this team need to keep everyone happy? Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford will be shooting jumpers from all over New York City, and coach Lenny Wilkens also has to find enough shots for Allan Houston, Tim Thomas, Vin Baker and Kurt Thomas.

If Wilkens can figure it out, the Knicks could win the weak Atlantic Division, but this roster looks to be overloaded with guys who need the ball. It will be very interesting to watch this club.

(6) Toronto Raptors Atlantic Division Last season's record: 33-49

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Sam Mitchell gets his first coaching job in the league and his star player is already asking for a trade. Welcome to the NBA, Sam. If Mitchell can convince Vince Carter to commit himself to the team, the Raptors could be good.

Rookie Rafael Araujo from BYU is ready to play, and his 6-foot-11-inch frame will help solve some of Toronto's interior woes from a year ago. Chris Bosh is a wonderful looking player who enters his second year, and Rafer Alston returns to man the point. With veterans Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall providing scoring, the Raptors should make a run at a playoff spot.

(7) Philadelphia 76ers Atlantic Division Last season's record: 33-49

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Coach Jim O'Brien will try to help this team return to its defensive ways after a disastrous season a year ago. Eric Snow is in Cleveland, leaving the point guard duties to Willie Green and Kevin Ollie. Rookie Andre Iguodala will have a chance to distribute the ball as a point forward as well.

How long can Allen Iverson continue to send his frail body flying into the defense night after night and hold up? As he gets older, he will have to rely more and more on his jump shot, which has always been streaky. Young center Samuel Dalembert showed signs of dominating games defensively last season, and he'll get some help from Brian Skinner.

The Sixers will miss Snow, but will compete under O'Brien and have a chance to make the playoffs.

(8) New Jersey Nets Atlantic Division Last season's record: 47-35

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The best team in the East for most of the past three seasons is in free fall.

Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles are gone, and Jason Kidd's knee is a question mark. Richard Jefferson will take on a bigger role, and he appears primed for an all-star season. But the depth, speed and quickness the Nets have grown accustomed to appear to be waning, as will fan interest if this team doesn't play well. With the Nets on their way to Brooklyn in a few years, New Jersey fans will quickly lose interest if things go south.

(9) Milwaukee Bucks Central Division Last season's record: 41-41

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What a job Bucks coach Terry Porter did last season, taking a team expected to finish in the bottom of the conference and leading it to the playoffs. Michael Redd is as good a shooting guard as there is in the East, and T.J. Ford returns from his scary neck injury to run the offense.

The frontcourt is thin, with Keith Van Horn and Joe Smith joining Desmond Mason and Toni Kukoc. Talented but small, the Bucks will be hard pressed to repeat their performance from a year ago.

(10) Chicago Bulls Central Division Last season's record: 23-59

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A year ago the Bulls were being hailed as a possible playoff team, but their youth and inexperience led to another disappointing season. Sooner or later the Bulls are going to figure it out. Kirk Hinrich is a keeper at point guard, and rookie Ben Gordon has the look of a star.

The key for Chicago will be the development of Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. This is their fourth year together and it's time for the two young studs to become real players. If they do, the Bulls could make a playoff push. But that's a big IF.

(11) Orlando Magic Southeast Division Last season's record: 21-61

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Orlando has a chance to be the most improved team in the East. Of course, coming off a 21-win season, it's hard not to get better.

Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Hedo Turkoglu provide athleticism and versatility to the backcourt, and they might be joined by Grant Hill if his latest comeback attempt is successful.

Kelvin Cato will be asked to defend and rebound, and young Dwight Howard is tall, talented and mature beyond his years. In a weak conference, the Magic could make a push for the playoffs.

(12) Boston Celtics Atlantic Division Last season's record: 36-46

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The rebuilding project continues for Danny Ainge and the Celtics. Doc Rivers takes over a team that is still dominated by Paul Pierce. Rookie Al Jefferson has the look of a future stud, but he'll be a work in process. Raef LaFrentz returns after missing most of last season with a knee injury, and the Celtics signed Tom Gugliotta for help up front as well.

In the meantime, Rivers hopes Gary Payton can return to form as a dominant point guard. Rivers must work his magic, as he did in Orlando, to turn this team around.

(13) Washington Wizards Southeast Division Last season's record: 25-57

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The Wizards made a good move in dealing for Antawn Jamison, who will balance out a roster that was too guard-heavy last season. Jamison should score 20 points each night, and with guards Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes, Washington has a talented threesome of scorers.

Still, Washington has a long way to go. There isn't much in the way of frontcourt presence, where Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood are still developing. Looks like another year in the lottery for coach Eddie Jordan's club.

(14) Atlanta Hawks Southeast Division Last season's record: 28-54

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Hawks' roster turnover continues, with Antoine Walker and Al Harrington taking over the forward spots and Jon Barry and Kenny Anderson joining the backcourt.

Coach Mike Woodson has a tough job, as the fans in Atlanta haven't come out to support the Hawks since the Mookie Blaylock/Steve Smith days. This team is spinning its wheels.

(15) Charlotte Bobcats Southeast Division Last season's record: N/A

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As bad as the Southeast Division will be, the expansion Bobcats still don't stand a chance. The Bobcats hope to build their future around the defense of Emeka Okafor, and he'll get plenty opportunities to block shots. But with a roster full of aging veterans and hopeful rookies, it will be a long season for Okafor and the Bobcats.
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