Eastern Conference rankings (cont.)
8. Pacers: Last year they finished just one game out of the playoffs -- even with O'Neal sidelined for most of the season. Ford, if he stays healthy, is an upgrade at the point over Jamaal Tinsley. The Pacers also added a quality combo guard in Jarrett Jack and a reliable true center in the 7-foot Nesterovic, who averaged 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds in the second half of last season. With Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy, the pieces are there for coach Jim O'Brien to run his type of fast-breaking, three-point-shooting system.
9. Hawks: After snapping an NBA-long eight-year playoff drought and taking the Celtics to seven games in the first round, they looked to be on the rise last spring. But the loss of Josh Childress (via free agency to Greece) and the drawn-out negotiations with restricted free agent Josh Smith (who signed an offer sheet with Memphis, only to have it matched by the Hawks) have raised concerns about chemistry heading into next season. At least Evans, who comes over from the Magic, will help take some of the sting out of Childress' departure.
10. Bobcats: On paper, they didn't do anything significant to warrant much optimism. But the Bobcats have talent in the likes of Emeka Okafor (whom they re-signed this summer), Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton, as well as decent role players in Nazr Mohammed and Matt Carroll. The difference this year will be coach Larry Brown, who despite his debacle in New York has a proven track record of turning things around in a hurry. If Adam Morrison and Sean May can come back from their injuries as well, Charlotte could be much improved.
11. Heat: Don't be fooled by their 15-win debacle of a year ago. They should be much better now that Dwyane Wade is fully healthy. Along with Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem and No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley, Miami has the pieces to at least get back in the playoff hunt. The addition of James Jones gives the Heat a much-needed outside shooter and adds some depth. But until they get a point guard (Jason Williams left to sign with the Clippers), the Heat won't be serious contenders.
12. Bucks: New GM John Hammond has made two big trades already, acquiring Richard Jefferson from the Nets (for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons) and Luke Ridnour from Oklahoma City (for Williams and Desmond Mason). Jefferson, along with new coach Scott Skiles, should help improve a woeful Bucks defense. Ridnour has potential as a distributor, and he comes with a better contract, but he's not much of a defender and he's not a scorer like Williams. With Jefferson, Michael Redd, Andrew Bogut and Charlie Villanueva, Milwaukee apparently felt it already had enough firepower. The trick will be just how fast Skiles can implement his system, and whether there is enough bulk in the frontcourt.
13. Bulls: After adding the No. 1 overall pick in Derrick Rose and re-signing Luol Deng to a six-year, $71 million deal, many Bulls fans are optimistic. But with a new coach (Vinny Del Negro) and a new point guard (Rose), it could take time. Meanwhile, restricted free agent Ben Gordon remains in limbo. Even if Gordon stays, GM John Paxson needs to do something to clear up a crowded backcourt that also includes Kirk Hinrich, Larry Hughes and Thabo Sefalosha. Throw in the fact that Drew Gooden is its only real low-post threat, and Chicago just has too many question marks right now.
14. Nets: They have been one of the more active teams, acquiring Yi and Simmons and signing free agents Jarvis Hayes, Eduardo Najera and Keyon Dooling, but it seems president Rod Thorn was maneuvering as much for the future as he was for this season. The loss of centers Nenad Krstic (Europe) and DeSagana Diop (Mavericks) puts pressure on youngsters Josh Boone and Brook Lopez to develop in the middle. Vince Carter and Devin Harris are going to have to put up monster seasons for New Jersey to contend for a playoff spot.
15. Knicks: Hiring Mike D'Antoni constitutes their biggest offseason move. He should provide an immediate boost to a locker room sorely in need of a new face. But the Knicks have been limited to minor changes in personnel, adding Chris Duhon (formerly of the Bulls) and first-round pick Danilo Gallinari. New president Donnie Walsh might not be done yet (Stephon Marbury could be traded or waived), but it looks as if it will take at least another year to clean house and get D'Antoni the right players to fit his system.