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NBA Eastern Conference preview

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There are three sides to the NBA season: what the teams want, what their fans hope for, and what actually happens.

Every year, 30 teams compete for 16 playoff spots and the right to battle for the most inconspicuous-looking trophy in all of professional sports. Every team begins the season thinking it has that right, and then reality takes over and the Clippers have competition in the draft lottery.

People are always eager to give their two cents about what team will win it all and who that team will beat. Why get ahead of ourselves? A guy I met on a bus once said it best: “Playoffs are anyone’s guess. The regular season, that’s for intelligent guessing.” And I couldn’t agree more.

Boston Celtics

The Buzz

You have to respect Rasheed Wallace, because you have no choice. He’s like that guy in high school who was sort of cool, but also really frightening, which is just what the Celtics needed. After Kevin Garnett went down last season, Boston experienced a waking nightmare with Leon Powe and Brian Scalabrine. Wallace is a bigger nightmare in virtually every respect, but clearly the lesser of two evils where basketball is concerned. His toughness and playoff experience will shore up the Celtics’ lineup, and spare fans from another “Scara-brine” attack.

Prognosis

Garnett and Wallace injure themselves during a heated game of Wii Tennis in mid-February, sidelining both indefinitely. When questioned about his injury, Wallace’s only comment will be “Both teams played hard.”

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Buzz

Now that Shaq and Lebron are together, prognosticators won’t shut up about the same two storylines. Storyline one: Lebron James is a free agent next summer. Is it possible he might go to another team? Why yes, it is. And if you’re like me, you probably couldn’t decipher all those casual remarks he made about “exploring” his “options” next summer. Storyline two: Will Shaq foil the Cavs’ chemistry and sink them for good in the playoffs? Don’t count on it. Last time I checked, Shaq was a basketball player, not a villain in a Shakespeare play. Besides, if you followed basketball, you would know that he only sabotages teams after they trade him.

So what’s the bottom line? While every team would like to have its own Lebron James, Shaq’s defence against the Raptors had less plot and rhythm than an episode of Shaq Vs., and the Cavs do most of their player scouting at YMCAs across the Midwest. With two guys the Raptors didn’t want already in the rotation, Danny Ferry might be a bigger bust as a GM than he was a player.

Prognosis

Eating weak divisional opponents for breakfast, the Cavs waltz into the playoffs looking like the real deal again. Shaq takes all the credit and then takes Lebron’s idea for a reality show.

Orlando Magic

The Buzz

Rashard Lewis began the season serving a 10-game suspension for using steroids. But that shouldn’t derail the Magic with Dwight Howard and perennial sad-sack Vince “Grimace” Carter from carrying the team. Expect the Magic to get on a roll around the 30-game mark. That’s when Jameer Nelson should fully rebound from his injury and feel more in sync with the game.

Prognosis

Carter blows kisses to the Magic faithful when chants of “MVP” breakout during a home game. An embarrassed coach pulls Carter aside and tells him the chants are for his teammate Dwight Howard. Upset, Carter takes the game ball and goes home.

Washington Wizards

The Buzz

I must be crazy, right? The Wizards finished dead last in the East in 2008-09 and looked ’80s-Clippers bad (hell, current-Clippers bad) getting there. Fans in the D.C. area aren’t sweating it. Last season was a write-off for the Wiz, who relied heavily on their young players following an endless string of injuries. They’re back to the same lineup that won 43 games in ’07-08, and have added Mike Miller and Randy Foye to take some of the offensive load off of Gilbert Arenas’ shoulders.

Prognosis

Mike James starts 70 games for the injury-plagued Wizards, making them the only franchise in Washington that doesn’t get a bailout after this year.

Toronto Raptors

The Buzz

It was a busy off-season for Bryan Colangelo. After taking DeMar DeRozan with the ninth pick in the draft, he masterfully orchestrated a four-team deal to acquire 6’10” “small” forward Hedo Turkoglu. Throw in a series of trades and free agent signings, and you’ve got the new-look Raptors—with a lot of the same problems. Despite one of the league’s biggest frontcourts, the Raptors rebound like the ball could release tear gas at any moment.

Prognosis

After another sluggish start, Colangelo adopts the phrase “We like our team’s chances” and uses it until the Raps are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Fans eventually figure out that Colangelo’s favorite line is doubletalk for “we don’t have a shot in hell,” begging an important question: Why don’t Toronto basketball fans like baseball?

Atlanta Hawks

The Buzz

With Tim Donaghy in the clink, the Hawks played hard and learned how to win on their own last season. They are a young and talented squad that would rank higher if their bench weren’t so spotty. That aside, Jamal Crawford and human hand-me-down Joe Smith will give the Hawks a strong veteran presence. But their biggest area of concern remains at point guard, surprise, where Mike Bibby has been on the decline in recent years and back-up Jeff Teague is only a rookie.

Prognosis

Mike Bibby’s joints disintegrate and the Hawks are forced to sign Stephon Marbury. The league suspends Marbury when his appetite for Vaseline gets out of hand.

Miami Heat

The Buzz

After a year and a half, the Heat convinced Michael Beasley to wake up from his nap, and were so elated they made him a starter. Beasley in a daze is a serious upgrade for Miami, who have been overly dependent on Dwyane Wade for too long. Recent history suggests that the combination of one superstar and a marginal star is usually enough to make the playoffs (see Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans).

Prognosis

Wade tears his patellar tendon in the second week of the season and misses four months. In the third month, he runs out of ensembles and has a nervous breakdown.

Chicago Bulls

The Buzz

If you don’t know who Derrick Rose is yet, go to Youtube, take five minutes, and get familiar. Rose is that good and stands to get a lot better. Still, the Bulls are a hard team to figure out. On paper, they’re a strong team with excellent guards and good mixture of size and athleticism in the frontcourt. They’re also very young and may take a while to gel again this year.

Prognosis

Scandal rocks Chicago after it’s revealed that Derrick Rose’s birth certificate, Memphis highlights, and 2008-09 season are all forgeries. An infuriated Bulls management demands an explanation from Rose. He tells them Kentucky head coach John Calipari made him do it, to which they respond, “We thought so.”

Detroit Pistons

The Buzz

It was really swell of Joe Dumars to give Ben Wallace that contract. But starting him? Overlooking their problems at centre, don’t be surprised if the Pistons sneak into the playoffs this year. Hamilton, Stuckey, and Prince give Detroit a solid foundation, and Ben Gordon’s streaky shooting should generate more wins than losses. The X-factor for the Pistons may come down to former Raptor Charlie Villanueva, who showed flashes of brilliance with Milwaukee last season, but still hasn’t developed into a consistent player.

Prognosis

Head coach John Kuester encourages his team to embrace a blue-collar spirit and take more charges. Tayshaun Prince flops harder than Eminem’s new album, as the Pistons set a single-game record with 40 blocking fouls.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Buzz

In the East, the fate of teams on the playoff cusp is more often a war of attrition than a fight to the finish. The 76ers are perennial champs when it comes to being slightly less worse than their middling peers, but even passable mediocrity has to end at some point.

Prognosis

Sixers stick it to everyone and make the playoffs again. However, they bow out early, giving recently acquired Jason Kapono time to read Catcher in the Rye, have lunch with his uncle, and learn to play the guitar.

Charlotte Bobcats

The Buzz Kill

Emeka Okafor and Tyson Chandler are equally adequate centres, so why swap them? Ignoring all the claptrap about team chemistry and fresh starts, what the Bobcats are doing here is kind of cute. They’ve traded one so-so centre for another, because the new guy matches up “better” against Shaq and Dwight Howard and according to Bobcats GM Rod Higgins, “Tyson [puts] us in a position to compete night in and night out with the other quality centres in the league.” The Bobcats might be pathological.

Prognosis

Declining revenues compel owner Robert Johnson to pitch the Bobcats as a reality series to BET. Bobcat executives remind Johnson that he owns the network, prompting him to reply, “I can’t win, can I?”

Indiana Pacers

The Buzz Kill

The Pacers somehow managed to win 36 games last year. What is more perplexing is how they managed to nap through free agency, while the rest of the league at least pretended to care. Let’s talk about the Colts instead.

Prognosis

Pacers dismiss Gene Hackman impostor Jim O’Brien mid-season and hire the real Hackman as the team’s interim head coach. The two-time Oscar winner inspires his players with muddled speeches about how “God wants them to win,” then switches his tune and insists that they’re already “winners in his books.” Confused, the Pacers finish the season with a 6-42 record under the three-time Oscar loser, who really needs a good role.

New York Knicks

The Buzz Kill

Knicks fans knew they were in for a long one when they saw “Welcome to the Darko ages” printed on their season tickets. As a franchise recognized for its mismanagement and sexual harassment lawsuits (or Isiah Thomas’s indiscretions if that’s easier), the Knicks really know how to tell a good joke.

Prognosis

Hopeless by the 25-game mark, the Knicks sign rapper Bow Wow to a 10-day contract. He and Nate Robinson square off immediately over who was lil’ first. Robinson backs down when Bow Wow threatens to play Like Mike on the team bus.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Buzz Kill

Over the last 15 years, the Bucks have had their share of talent. However, when it came time to play, they were as listless as a Coldplay concert. Now that they have significantly less talent and a starting lineup that includes veteran fossil Kurt Thomas, the Bucks are ready for a fresh batch of lottery picks.

Prognosis

Kurt Thomas refuses to board the team’s charter flight to Atlanta until he gets his Chex Mix and a new book of crossword puzzles.

New Jersey Nets

The Buzz Kill

It’s insulting when one of your owners can be seen courtside at the Knicks game, but won’t go near you or your team. The “Izod” Centre has always looked like something out of the Twilight Zone, which makes Rafer Alston joining the Nets kind of fitting. Alston, an eccentric grouch, is the third point guard on the team’s depth chart, behind stud Devin Harris and robot Keyon Dooling. While Harris should make fans shake their heads in amazement, Rafer is always a threat to twist them off. Either way, it’s the Nets that will have the state of New Jersey skipping to a loo somewhere.

Prognosis

Blowout losses become intolerable and Nets fans start pelting players with rubber marmots. Team officials collaborate with Papa Johns to give ticket holders free pizza when the Nets lose by 15 points or more. The pizza deal (known as “the thin crust compromise”) becomes the blueprint for dealing with truculent sports fans everywhere.