But the first week of training camp also means there are four weeks left until Opening Night, a.k.a. the Debut of LeBron. It also means that it's time, once again, to take an early look at what teams have done since they last played and how they might shape up. (Don't take their word for it; they've all gotten better.) We'll pass for now on making a judgment on where the teams might finish; that will come after the exhibition season when we've had a few weeks to see what gives.
We'll start with the Atlantic Division. The defending East champion Nets look to be angrier, if not better, while the Celtics are into Year 1 of the Danny Ainge Era. Larry Brown has left for Detroit, and Doug Collins has left for television. The other five coaches remain in place, at least for now.
This division sent four teams last spring to the JV tournament otherwise known as the Eastern Conference playoffs. Three of them -- the Celtics, Nets, and Sixers -- made it to the conference semis. Who says this division isn't loaded?
A look at the teams, in alphabetical order:
Last year: 44-38, third place.
Coach: Jim O'Brien (third full season).
Additions: Marcus Banks, Brandon Hunter, Mike James, Jumaine Jones, Kendrick Perkins.
Losses: J.R. Bremer, Bruno Sundov, various free agents of little import.
Player on the spot: Vin Baker.
Outlook: The Celtics hope Vin's frame of mind is every bit as sturdy as his outside appears to be. And they're hoping Antoine Walker puts his mind totally on the season instead of the extension that isn't going to come, at least not for the dollars he thinks he should make. The Celtics are placing a lot of hope and faith in Banks, a rookie point guard, and Baker, the veteran big man. That's inherently risky, yet what choice do they have? They pretty much know by now what to expect from Walker and Paul Pierce. Everyone else has skills, though limited. Ainge promised to make the Celtics younger, quicker, and better-conditioned. But he can't go out there and shoot (which, come to think of it, is probably a good thing). If O'Brien can find something resembling an offense instead of the nauseating shooting gallery he had last season, the Celtics might even improve on their win total. But that's assuming Baker gives them something -- the Celtics would take his final-season numbers in Seattle (14.1 points, 6.4 rebounds) -- and that Pierce and Walker stay injury-free. Oh, and that they don't forget how to play defense. That would help.
Last year: 25-57, seventh place.
Coach: Pat Riley (eighth season).
Additions: Rafer Alston, Ike Austin, Bimbo Coles, Lamar Odom, Dwyane Wade, Samaki Walker, John Wallace, Loren Woods.
Losses: Travis Best, Anthony Carter, Alonzo Mourning, Vladimir Stepania, LaPhonso Ellis.
Player on the spot: Lamar Odom.
Outlook: Well, Riley didn't sit idly by this summer and do nothing. He basically blew up the roster -- with 25 wins, did he have much of a choice? -- and watched his one-time franchise center bolt for New Jersey without compensation. What does that say? Well, Riley had to do something. He tried to get Elton Brand and failed. Odom is his big catch, and we know there's been a mutual admiration society there for years. The big unknown: Can Odom unleash all his undeniable talents and remain a good boy with all the perils of South Beach lurking? If he can, Riley may have something to go along with the three main guys who did much of anything last year: Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, and Caron Butler. Riley seems determined to shoehorn Wade, the rookie from Marquette, into the point guard position after letting both James and Carter leave. And unless Austin somehow reverts to his pre-lockout persona, there'll be a problem -- again -- in the middle. Still, if Odom delivers, Miami at least might not be horrible. Right now, that is about the best to expect. The playoffs, even in the East, seem a bit of a reach.
NEW JERSEY NETS
Last year: 49-33, first place.
Coach: Byron Scott (fourth season).
Additions: Alonzo Mourning, Zoran Planinic.
Losses: Anthony Johnson.
Player on the spot: Kenyon Martin.
Outlook: Not a whole lot of turnover here. The Nets re-signed Jason Kidd, something a lot of people (OK, me) thought they'd be unable to do. (I still don't get it.) They gave the medically worrisome Mourning a four-year guaranteed deal, but balked at extending their coach or giving Martin a maximum deal, possibly because they feel neither deserves it. This could bring a tad of disenchantment to camp, particularly from Scott, who must be wondering what he has to do to get some security. But Martin also was miffed at not getting a maximum extension, even though he's never even appeared in an All-Star Game in a conference with no power forwards. (Ah, but he was a late choice for the Olympic team, the third Net. Had there been any more, Brazil might have beaten Team USA.) But the on-court performance hinges on Kidd, who has shown the past two years that he is as valuable as any player in the league. The Nets are close to buying out the contract of Dikembe Mutombo, but they still could be a dangerous defensive team with Mourning added to the mix. There's still a lot of potential. And there's also a lot of potential for disharmony.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Last year: 37-45, tie, fifth place.
Additions: Maciej Lampe, Michael Sweetney, Keith Van Horn.
Coach: Don Chaney (third year).
Losses: Lee Nailon, Latrell Sprewell.
Player on the spot: Antonio McDyess.
Outlook: What does it say that the key guy may not even be ready for the start of the season? Or that that guy came in a trade for Marcus Camby -- and has played fewer games? It means that you're putting a lot on the fragile knees of McDyess who, if healthy, vaults to the head of the power forward pack in the Eastern Conference. But who knows what McDyess can do and when he'll be able to do it? The Knicks once again present a team with a bunch of weak point guards, a bunch of undersized power forwards, and no one to play center. Other than that, they're loaded. You'll hear a lot about how they've gotten younger, longer, and maybe even faster. Big deal. Are they any better? Van Horn is now with his third team in three years and, after six years in the league, he's a little bit behind Tim Duncan on the learning and success curve. (Hey, remember, a lot of people looked at them as 1 and 1A that year, including Rick Pitino.) How will Van Horn adjust to the New York fans? Then again, he was in Philly last year and those fans are tough. Maybe he'll have a breakout year. Maybe McDyess will come back and be dominant, and maybe Allan Houston will play like an All-Star. That's the hope, anyway, at 33rd and 8th.
Last year: 42-40, fourth place.
Coach: Doc Rivers (fifth year).
Additions: Reece Gaines, Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue, Shammond Williams.
Losses: Darrell Armstrong, Shawn Kemp, Jacque Vaughn.
Player on the spot: Tracy McGrady.
Outlook: The Magic can, at long last, look past Grant Hill and move on. The once-great forward is mending again from yet another foot surgery, and Orlando is not even thinking about him this season. That is a good thing, unless you're McGrady, whose constant back woes may in some way be attributed to having to carry the whole bloomin' franchise for the past three years. But he's good enough to do it, and now it looks as though he has some help. Orlando picked up Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek last year from Memphis, and those two can only improve with age and experience. The offseason acquisitions of Howard, who can play, and Lue, who can be a pest, will help. There's still not a lot of there there in the middle; Andrew DeClercq is the center by default unless you want to take a flyer on Zaza Pachulia or Steven Hunter. Still, the Magic do have a better inside presence than in years past (read: none) and that can only help the outrageously versatile McGrady. Newcomer Reece Gaines can, as they say now, score the ball. And Pitino does get his guys prepped for the NBA, so Gaines could be of some immediate help.
Last year: 48-34, second place.
Coach: Randy Ayers (first year).
Additions: Marc Jackson, Glenn Robinson.
Losses: Tyrone Hill, Brian Skinner, Keith Van Horn.
Player on the Spot: Glenn Robinson.
Outlook: The Sixers came within a game of the first-place Nets last season and then lost to the Pistons in the conference semis. So Larry Brown bolted for Detroit, and his longtime assistant, Ayers, was promoted from within. Ayers is said to get along with Allen Iverson, which is a good thing, because Iverson now has an accomplished scorer in Robinson to share the load. Yes, we know. He's also had Tim Thomas, Jerry Stackhouse, and Keith Van Horn. And he still took all the shots. But Robinson is a flat-out scorer, and the Sixers and Iverson can't ignore that rather basic strength. If you've seen the Sixers' offense the last few years, you know they could use another option. Ayers also got center Marc Jackson in the Robinson deal. Jackson was the league's best rookie in 2000-01 with Golden State. He hasn't done squat since. He should get the chance, given that Todd MacCulloch's status is iffy and Derrick Coleman is really a power forward. So there'll be new looks on the floor and bench, but the Sixers have old reliables in Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, and -- of course -- Iverson. Almost anything is possible here.
Last year: 37-45, tie, fifth place.
Coach: Eddie Jordan (first year).
Additions: Gilbert Arenas, Jarvis Hayes, Chris Whitney.
Losses: Michael Jordan, Charles Oakley, Bryon Russell.
Player on the spot: Kwame Brown.
Outlook: It's hard to see how the Wizards won't be better. They've added Arenas, who blossomed into a star at Golden State. The rookie Hayes is also highly touted. Last year's No. 1, Jared Jeffries, will be back after a knee injury. Most important, Michael Jordan has gone and Eddie Jordan has arrived. You can't understate how divided the Wizards were last year. You had Jordan and the grizzlies on one side, backed by coach Doug Collins. You had Jerry Stackhouse and the younger guys chafing at all things Michael. It blew up in a 37-win season, and owner Abe Pollin wisely ditched MJ and brought in Eddie and Ernie Grunfeld to run things. The one guy who has to feel liberated is Brown, the overall No. 1 pick two years ago who has done little to back it up as a pro. He has to play and play well this year; no more sharing minutes with Christian Laettner. Otherwise, the Wizards can throw some bangers and scorers at you in the likes of Jahidi White, Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas, Larry Hughes, and Jeffries, and you have a team that, like most in the East, can't be ruled out of anything.
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