Boston Celtics

COACH: Doc Rivers (1st season).

LAST SEASON: 36-46. Lost in 1st round of playoffs.

MEN AT WORK: While PG Gary Payton (14.6 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game) grabbed all the headlines when he was traded back East, the player in the spotlight for Rivers’ first team might be PF Raef LaFrentz (7.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg). He sat out most of last season with tendinitis in his right knee and will join former Kansas Jayhawk teammate Paul Pierce, who is no doubt the leader of a Celtics squad that slipped some last season after making it to the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals. A re-signed Mark Blount (10.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg) also is back at center.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Pierce was the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer a year ago with 23 ppg, but he will be in trouble if Payton and guard Ricky Davis (14.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) do not adapt to their roles in Boston’s system and cause chemistry problems. Rivers also has four rookies in draft picks Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Tony Allen and Justin Reed. They are all expected to be able to contribute early, but with aging veterans like Payton and the questionable health of LaFrentz, there are still question marks.

EXIT: With a new coach and young backups, Boston might not be able to improve much on last year’s win total.

New Jersey Nets

COACH: Lawrence Frank (2nd season, 25-15) took over when Byron Scott was fired Jan. 26.

LAST SEASON: 47-35. Lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.

MEN AT WORK: With PF Kenyon Martin (16.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg) gone to the Denver Nuggets, the Nets will lean a lot on SF Richard Jefferson and PG Jason Kidd. Jefferson (18.5 ppg) and Kidd (9.2 apg) are the only two of New Jersey’s top six scorers last season that are on the 2004-05 roster. The Nets’ 3-point shooters are gone_Lucious Harris was waived, Kerry Kittles was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers and Rodney Rogers left as a free agent. PF/C Alonzo Mourning (8 ppg, 2.3 rpg), who had a kidney transplant, hopes to get back on the court again.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: The Nets’ prospects might depend largely on Jefferson’s leadership. Kidd had significant knee surgery in the offseason, and it is unclear when he might return. The departure of Martin, Harris, Kittles and Rogers also upset Kidd, who signed a long-term contract with the hopes of continuing to compete for a title.

EXIT: Frank reeled off a 13-game winning streak after taking over for Scott. The Nets need magic like that if they want to get even close to repeating last year’s output, especially if Kidd misses significant time or is traded.

New York Knicks

COACH: Lenny Wilkens (2nd season, 23-19) took over for Don Chaney on Jan. 14.

LAST SEASON: 39-43. Lost in 1st round of playoffs.

MEN AT WORK: With the addition of guard Jamal Crawford (17.3 ppg) from the Chicago Bulls, the Knicks have made The Stephon Marbury (20.2 ppg) Show a two-headed dragon. Marbury will give up some playing time, sure, but when you add him to the likes of Allan Houston (18.5 ppg) and Kurt (11.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and Tim Thomas (14.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg), the able Wilkens, who is coaching for a 32nd season, has plenty of players.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: One word_depth. Despite having one of the league’s largest payrolls and loads of talent, the Knicks’ bench is kind of shaky, and injuries are a concern. They have veterans such as Penny Hardaway, Shandon Anderson and Jerome Williams backing up their talented starters. But if the Knicks can’t get some stellar playmaking by Hardaway, energy from Williams and scoring from Anderson, their chances of improving a lot are dim.

EXIT: New York amassed only 39 wins last season because of a slow start. In their first season together, Marbury and Crawford will have to learn how to play together before this group will go deep into the playoffs.

Philadelphia 76ers

COACH: Jim O’Brien (1st season) takes over in Philadelphia after quitting as coach of the Celtics midway through his 4th season in Boston.

LAST SEASON: 33-49, 5th in Atlantic Division.

MEN AT WORK: On Tuesday, O’Brien shook up his starting lineup, naming SG Aaron McKie, C Marc Jackson and rookie SF Andre Iguodala to team with all-star PG Allen Iverson (26 ppg) and PF Kenny Thomas (13.6 ppg, 10.1 rpg). McKie replaced SG Willie Green, Jackson took the spot of Samuel Dalembert (8 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.3 blocks per game) and Iguodala bounced Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. Dalembert had struggled to learn O’Brien’s defensive system, and Robinson never has been known as a good defender.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Iverson was one of the few players originally chosen for the 2004 Dream Team who did not back out of the Olympics this summer, proving his maturity as he approaches age 30. Whether or not that maturity rubs off on his teammates is the biggest pause for O’Brien’s team. A pouty Robinson, who complained about playing time last season, could spoil chemistry.

EXIT: The Sixers will be the surprise of the conference or struggle all season. Their roster looks good, but how they will mesh is unclear.

Toronto Raptors

COACH: Sam Mitchell (1st season).

LAST SEASON: 33-49, 6th in the Central Division.

MEN AT WORK: Swingman Vince Carter (22.5 ppg, 1.21 spg) out of Daytona Beach Mainland has asked to be traded, but the Raptors have said they won’t make a deal unless it makes them better. So he is returning for another go as their top scoring threat. Carter will be joined again by Jalen Rose (15.5 ppg, 4 rpg) and by new PG Rafer Alston (10.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg). Alston, a longtime streetball legend, signed his first long-term NBA contract and will carry the load at the point unless Alvin Williams (8.8 ppg, 4 apg) returns from injuries. Second-year center Chris Bosh (11.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg) came up big last season.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Rose and Carter had a little trouble sharing the spotlight last season, and it could be a point of concern this season for Mitchell and add to Carter’s frustration. Also, Toronto is confident in Alston, but he is not intended to be the starter. If Williams is healthy, he is the natural choice. The team could suffer if Alston has to shoulder the duties long term.

EXIT: The playoffs aren’t a pipe dream for the Raptors, but they need Williams to recover earlier than expected, Bosh to continue to show progress and some bench players to step up.


Cleveland Cavaliers

COACH: Paul Silas (2nd season, 35-47).

LAST SEASON: 35-47, 5th in Central Division.

MEN AT WORK: Like last year, the spotlight will be on SF LeBron James (20.9 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game and 5.9 assists per game), who had an incredible Rookie of the Year season. The shock of PF Carlos Boozer leaving for the Utah Jazz has faded. The hole isn’t as wide with C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (15.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg) in the middle and PF Drew Gooden, acquired in a summer trade with the Orlando Magic, averaging about 11 rebounds and 10 points per game in the preseason. Toss in a healthy Jeff McInnis (12.8 ppg, and 2.5 rpg) and Eric Snow (10.3 ppg, 6.9 apg) at the guard spots, and the Cavs have a very capable starting five.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: The hope is that lottery pick Luke Jackson can help solve some of the Cavaliers’ atrocious outside-shooting woes. Last season, Cleveland was 21st among 29 NBA teams in field-goal percentage, connecting on 43 percent of its shots.

EXIT: Cavs fans haven’t seen a playoff team since 1997-98. Paul Silas is one of the best X’s and O’s coaches for young talent, especially with young big men such as Gooden. This team has loads of it, so look for Silas to excel and this team to get back to the postseason.

Chicago Bulls

COACH: Scott Skiles (2nd season, 19-47 as he took over for Bill Cartwright).

LAST SEASON: 23-59, 8th in Central Division.

MEN AT WORK: Youth, youth and more youth is the story. The Bulls saw the last piece of their championship past leave when Scottie Pippen announced his retirement after battling nagging injuries. The good news is there is plenty of potential for the young talent. Their top returning scorer and starter is Eddy Curry (14.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Kirk Hinrich (12 ppg, 3.4 rpg) at point guard also is a great scorer. Tyson Chandler (6.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg) starts at power forward, and rookie SG Ben Gordon helped Connecticut win the NCAA title last season.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: The inexperience of its players also could hurt Chicago. A rookie in your starting lineup (Gordon) is always a risk. With Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni also expected to log big minutes, rookies will be forced to put up numbers for the Bulls to succeed. They also need Curry to be ready to step up to his full potential and for Chandler to stay healthy.

EXIT: There is no getting around the age or inexperience of the players. The new-look Bulls have potential but cannot afford a big learning curve if they hope to make the playoffs this season. They likely are at least a season away.

Detroit Pistons

COACH: Larry Brown (2nd season, 54-28).

LAST SEASON: 54-28. Won NBA championship.

MEN AT WORK: If you need proof that the Pistons have the best starting five in the East_and maybe the entire league_look no further than the balance of their statistics from last season. Except for F/C Ben Wallace (9.5 ppg), all but one of their starters averaged double figures, but his 12.4 rpg and lunch-bucket work ethic more than made up for it. He again is joined by PG Chauncey Billups (16.9 ppg, 5.7 apg), SG Richard Hamilton (17.6 ppg), SF Tayshaun Prince (10.3 ppg) and F/C Rasheed Wallace (16 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Billups’ scoring and rebounding numbers last season were career highs.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: It’s hard to find fault with the defending champions. They lost their top bench players (Corliss Williamson and Mehmet Okur) from last season and added Antonio McDyess and Derrick Coleman. They could hit bumps in the road if Brown becomes too exhausted after coaching at the Athens Olympics this summer or if Wallace gets in a bad emotional state.

EXIT: Repeat champions? Why not? They have their starting five back and rearing to defend, and they seemingly have plugged all the holes on their bench.

Indiana Pacers

COACH: Rick Carlisle (2nd season, 61-21).

LAST SEASON: Best record in NBA at 61-21. Lost in Eastern Conference Finals.

MEN AT WORK: Indiana has the East’s best one-two punch in SF Ron Artest and PF Jermaine O’Neal. As long as he wasn’t suspended or on the verge of mischief, Artest’s (18.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) defensive skills and toughness had the kind of impact that drew comparisons to Dennis Rodman. Combine that with O’Neal’s 20.1 ppg and 10 rpg, and hot shot Reggie Miller, and the Pacers again are a threat for the league’s best record. To add scoring and clear a logjam at forward, Indiana acquired SG Stephen Jackson (18.1 ppg) from the Atlanta Hawks for Al Harrington (13.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg).

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Having Artest on your roster adds some uncertainty. What happens if he blows up? He made some noise this summer about how he was the Pacers’ MVP, not O’Neal. Carlisle was able to keep him in check for most of last season’s conference finals run. Also, O’Neal has been bothered by nagging injuries since last season, and starting C Jeff Foster will miss 4-6 weeks after right hip surgery.

EXIT: Other than the Miami Heat, the Pacers are the only team that can challenge the Detroit Pistons for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Milwaukee Bucks

COACH: Terry Porter (2nd season, 41-41).

LAST SEASON: 41-41. Lost in 1st round of Eastern Conference playoffs.

MEN AT WORK: Michael Redd (21.7 ppg, 5 rpg) is the top returning scorer, but the bulls-eye is stapled to the back of F Keith Van Horn. Van Horn (16.1 ppg, 7 rpg) is free of the criticism that likely resulted in him leaving New Jersey and New York but must carry some of the load. Flashy SF Desmond Mason also averaged 14.4 ppg and 4.4 rpg a year ago.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Redd, the NBA’s 10th-leading scorer in 2003-04, and Van Horn probably will have to put up big numbers again for Porter’s team to return to playoffs. The lack of an established center, the possibility that Redd’s pending free agency could become a distraction and the uncertain long-term status of PG T.J. Ford might be factors, too.

EXIT: Everything clicked last season as Porter coached the Bucks to the playoffs in his first season. That has to happen again. Either Mike James or Maurice Williams will have to duplicate Ford’s 6.5 assists-per-game performance from last season before he sustained a freak spinal-cord injury. He is, to date, unavailable, and his replacement, Damon Jones, left as a free agent in the offseason to play with the Miami Heat.


Atlanta Hawks

COACH: Mike Woodson (1st season).

LAST SEASON: 28-54, 7th in the Central Division.

MEN AT WORK: The Hawks have averaged only 30 wins a season since 2000 and desperately needed an overhaul. Woodson comes to Atlanta via the NBA champion Detroit Pistons, where he was an assistant coach. He has four new faces in Atlanta’s starting five_all offseason acquisitions via trades and free agency. Garnering the most attention is 24-year-old SF Al Harrington (13.3 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game). He comes from the Indiana Pacers’ pipeline of young producers and will be joined by PF Antoine Walker (14 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and C Jason Collier (11.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg).

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: It will be hard for Woodson to help a team with so many new faces find some cohesiveness and chemistry early. Atlanta’s management must hope he can somehow tap into the philosophies that put Motown’s team at the top of the charts.

EXIT: The bad news is the Hawks still are rebuilding. The good news is that every other team in the new Southeast Division is, too. They won’t get into the playoffs just by tucking in behind the Southeast Division favorite Miami Heat, though. With a young, energetic coach who has a good NBA mind like Woodson, they should improve a lot.

Charlotte Bobcats

COACH: Bernie Bickerstaff (1st season).

LAST SEASON: Inaugural season.

MEN AT WORK: The Bobcats decided to build their team around youth – beginning with No. 2 NBA draft pick Emeka Okafor, a center/power forward. The Magic passed on the former Connecticut star, and he became the no-brainer choice for the expansion Bobcats. Okafor might wind up being the best fit for Bickerstaff’s first bunch, though. To Okafor, Charlotte adds 14th-year veteran SG Steve Smith (5 ppg) and a host of youth_including swingman Jason Kapono (3.5 ppg, 1.3 rpg) and SF Gerald Wallace (2 ppg, 2 rpg).

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: You name it, and it’s a question mark for the Bobcats. Okafor, the Most Outstanding Player in UConn’s run to the NCAA title, will be a great player in time, but their investment in him is for the long term. Bickerstaff’s mission is to help the Bobcats continue to improve and see to it that their future franchise player doesn’t sustain too many bumps and bruises.

EXIT: In the NBA, times can get really bad, really quickly. Just ask the 2003-04 Orlando Magic. The Bobcats have some decent young players, but most of them have not played a lot in the league. That might make them hungry. Even if they overachieve, though, they probably will dwell mostly in the cellar this season.

Miami Heat

COACH: Stan Van Gundy (2nd season, 42-40).

LAST SEASON: 42-40. Lost in Eastern Conference semifinals.

MEN AT WORK: The story of the Eastern Conference is Shaquille O’Neal’s return to the state where he began his NBA career, with the intrastate and division rival. Slimmer and eager to punish the East teams (as well as ex-teammate Kobe Bryant), O’Neal (21.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg) will anchor a revamped team that advanced in the playoffs last season. The Heat also have second-year stud Dwyane Wade (16.2 ppg, 4 rpg) and SF Eddie Jones (17.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg), a former a teammate of O’Neal’s with the Lakers.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: At age 32, Shaq’s health was the chief concern heading into the offseason, but his work in the gym has built a fitter, more agile Diesel. The trade that brought O’Neal to Miami also cut into its ability to score from the perimeter.

EXIT: The Pacers and defending champion Pistons aren’t going to hand O’Neal and the Heat the East. The Pistons are confident they know how to beat him, after taking down the Lakers dynasty in June. The Big Fella makes the game easier for teammates, but Van Gundy admits that crafting schemes to use other players with O’Neal could be a challenge. No doubt he will be entertaining.

Orlando Magic

COACH: Johnny Davis (2nd season, 20-51) took over for Doc Rivers after the Orlando Magic started last season 1-10.

LAST SEASON: 21-61, the worst record in the NBA.

MEN AT WORK: New General Manager John Weisbrod hired a whole new crew. Rather than adding a star and role players around two-time NBA scoring champ Tracy McGrady, he made the controversial decision to deal the two-time All NBA first-team star who was born in Central Florida. In return, he got three-time all-star PG Steve Francis, SG Cuttino Mobley and C Kelvin Cato from the Houston Rockets. Weisbrod drafted high school PF Dwight Howard with the No. 1 pick in the draft and acquired PG Jameer Nelson, who was chosen No. 20. He also added defensive standout Stacey Augmon and sent PF Drew Gooden and second-round pick Anderson Varejao to the Cleveland Cavaliers for veteran big man Tony Battie.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Davis is 44-111 in two stints as a coach so he must prove he can guide a turnaround and do so with an almost entirely new roster. A healthy Grant Hill would help.

EXIT: Weisbrod said he expects this team to contend for a playoff spot. Few teams have managed such a big improvement in one year, especially with so many new additions.

Washington Wizards

COACH: Eddie Jordan (2nd season, 25-57).

LAST SEASON: 25-57, 6th in the Atlantic Division.

MEN AT WORK: Former No. 1 pick Kwame Brown (10.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) has experienced his growing pains and then some. He has shown flashes of the talent that Michael Jordan and others saw when they drafted him straight out of high school in 2001, but this could be his breakout season. He is joined by guards Gilbert Arenas (19.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Larry Hughes (18.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and PF Antawn Jamison (14.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg).

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Relying on so much youth is always risky, but the Wizards traded for Jamison to add an experienced and dependable veteran, replacing mercurial SG Jerry Stackhouse. They are hoping Jamison’s steadiness will help them climb the standings and get into playoff contention for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

EXIT: With better health this season, this team is much improved from the injury-plagued squad that notched just 25 wins a year ago. If they can get an expected much improved effort from Brown, the Wizards might finish just out of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference that will make the postseason and look to build on that.

(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.