Eastern Conference Preview

Another long season awaits Michael Redd and the Bucks.The NBA Eastern Conference got better in the offseason, and is probably stronger top to bottom than the West. Our Bucks, unfortunately did not improve for the short term. This is the inescapable Bucks reality as the 2009-10 season gets underway.

Playoffs? Let's not even talk about it. There are four new forwards, a rookie point guard and a recovering Michael Redd to work in and around depending on his mood. Coach Scott Skiles has his work cut out for him. The Bucks need to simply be young, play defense, grab rebounds and loose balls and keep the ball moving on offense — and forget about the scoreboard.

While we wait for the Bucks to sort things out, sit back and enjoy the rest. The top of the East will be a titanic fight for dominance and home court advantage between the Cavs, Celtics and Magic, all of whom made major upgrades after winning 59+ games last season. Miami, Chicago, Philly and Atlanta will compete for the coveted 4th seed. The 8th playoff spot is once again up for grabs, with the Raptors the most improved team of the rest.

Here's how I see the East stacking up:

Together in Cleveland: Shaq and Big Z's facial expressions are now teammates.1. Cleveland Cavaliers:  Replaced Ben Wallace with Shaquille O'Neal, Wally Szczerbiak with one of the best three-ballers in the league, Anthony Parker, and added Jamario Moon to their rotation. The best player in the world and coach Mike Brown's dedication to defense and rebounding give the Cavs the night-in, night-out consistency needed to win the regular season. They'll win with Shaq or Zydrunas Ilgauskas, they'll win with both, and they'll win with neither. When the Cavs' three-headed monster (Shaq, Big Z and Andy Varejao) is in the lineup, good luck grabbing a rebound against this team. The key for the Cavs is to get the all three healthy into the playoffs, obviously.

The Cavs backcourt problems should work themselves out. Three years in Milwaukee did little to prepare Mo Williams for the playoffs, and it showed. Mo's running mate, defensive stopper Delonte West, has had some trouble (guns, booze and who knows what else). For now, Delonte's lost his starting spot to Parker, but Mike Brown likes him on the court: Last season Delonte was second only to Lebron in mins per game. (Note: Opening the season without Delonte West, the Cavs are 0-2, with losses to the Celtics and the new and improved Raptors.

The Cavs in the offseason went after Hakim Warrick, who opted for the Bucks (should we assume Bucks GM John Hammond used that iou Cavs GM Danny Ferry gave him after the Mo trade?) then signed Leon Powe from the Celtics. Powe is working his way back from knee surgery. It'll be Shaq, Big Z, Andy and Leon Powe too! come playoff time. A lot of tonnage to throw at Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett. Keep an eye out for Jamario Moon — he plays like a rabid 76er and shoots better than most of the Philly roster.

Vinsanity gets most of the attention among the newcomers in Orlando, but rugged PF Brandon Bass is the kind of help Dwight Howard can use in the paint.2. Orlando Magic: Was Hedo Turkoglu a small or big forward? No matter, the Nets handed the Magic Vince Carter in a salary dump and they swapped Hedo to Toronto in a complex 4-team deal. Then the Magic raided the Western conference, signing a rugged young PF in Brandon Bass (Dallas free agent) and a solid small forward to come of the bench in Matt Barnes (Suns). Bass would have been a great complement to Andrew Bogut (same goes for the Cavs' Powe). Now Bass'll do the same for Dwight Howard. Carter isn't as explosive as he used to be but he's smarter, more versatile and shoots well enough from 3-land (38% last season). VC likes to pass, too.

Howard, entering his sixth season, is the best and most durable center in the world, and was probably a cat in a previous life. He is clearly showing signs of slipping: Last season Howard missed three games!, the first DNP's of his entire career. Forward Rashard Lewis is an all-star and maybe point guard Jameer Nelson is too, recovered nicely from last season's ankle problems. Swingman Mickael Pietrus only adds to the athleticism, depth and versatility of a team whose time to win a title has come. If the nationally televised whupping last week of a very good Hawks team was any indication, the Magic can't wait to get this season going.

3. Boston Celtics:  I don't see Doc Rivers riding workhorses Ray Allen and Paul Pierce as much as he did last year. Pierce in particular seemed drained by playoff time. But that was last season, when the only team with a more grueling schedule was the Bucks, and Ray and Pierce looked as exhausted as Richard Jefferson did by late December. I expect the Celtics to take things a little slower this time, considering that Kevin Garnett is coming back from knee surgery and this is likely the last hurrah for the Hall of Fame Three (Ray and Pierce will be free agents next summer). Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo and Eddie House and his great shooting are still around and so's Big Baby Davis (though Big Baby's out for thumb surgery and disciplinary reasons).

Rasheed Wallace signed for less to play with the Celtics.And who is this guy? This Celtics crew has been around so long and accumulated so much NBA experience that they probably don't care one bit whether they get along or not. Sheed's tough, likes to rebound and play D, and is a nice post presence if he stays near the basket, which he lost interest in doing in Detroit. Last thing the Celtics need is Sheed hanging around out in 3-point land and chuck up shots like he was Charlie Villanueva. If I remember right, the best way to piss off Ray Allen is to throw bricks at the basket. But this is Garnett's team, and Sheed will eventually find his offensive role. One question lingers: Will Need4Sheed change the name of her Pistons blog?

I'm picking the Celtics 3rd in the regular season, which means the Magic will have homecourt should they meet the Celtics in the conference semifinals. I don't think, however, that the new Magic will take the series.

I predict that Boston will revenge its Garnett-less defeat at the hands of the Magic and move on to play the Cavs. What happens next will probably be the stuff of NBA legend. (The Celtics kicked off the season last night with a win in Cleveland at the Q.)

THE REST:  The Heat stood pat after last spring's Jermaine O'Neal trade and hope to be healthier. The Bulls were so overloaded in the backcourt that they let Ben Gordon go (they couldn't afford, nor did the Bulls deserve FOUR of 'em). Hyper-athletic Philly let its veteran point guard go in favor of youth (good move in my book).

The Heat, Bulls and Sixers will continue to improve and grow because they didn't add new pieces, something like addition by subtraction — which I'm going to do by subtracting outta here for now. While I refuel, check out Depressed Fan, a top notch blog on all things Sixers and Philly, where our Bucks'll be Friday to open the season.

4) Miami Heat: The temptation here is to fill in Dwyane Wade's Heat for the 4th seed, so I'll give in. Trouble is, the Heat are no better than the Bulls and they start injury-prone O'Neal at center. What I like is that the Heat stuck with their young players, guards Mario Chalmers and Daequan Cook (Daequan who?), and forward Michael Beasley, doing fine after a rough summer South Beach summer and some rehab.  The Heat courted Lakers FA Lamar Odom in the offseason but couldn't come to terms — a blessing in disguise. Odom would have taken minutes from Beasley and been paid too much for accomplishing very little that the Heat won't accomplish without him — a 4th or 5th seed in the East. Tough guy PF Udonis Haslem is still in the fold, and Quentin Richardson (from the Knicks) adds to the scoring punch and depth at guard-forward. This is a team that will need to be tougher than it is in the paint to win 50 games in the East, but with Beasley getting better all the time and Haslem's veteran presence, they just might get close.

END NOTE: Jason Kapono can shoot.  Active NBA 3-point shooting list. (No Bucks in the top-25, but four ex-Bucks are: Ray Allen, Eddie House, Bobby Simmons and Mo Williams). And the Career NBA 3-point shooting list.

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