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Posted: Wednesday August 13, 2008 12:05PM; Updated: Thursday August 14, 2008 2:27PM
Marty Burns Marty Burns >
INSIDE THE NBA

Eastern Conference rankings

Story Highlights
  • What's the East pecking order in light of two months of offseason movement?
  • The on-the-rise 76ers are blossoming into legitimate contenders
  • Several also-rans from last season appear to have improved in the offseason
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The Celtics will have to make up for the absence of swingman James Posey, who signed with the Hornets this offseason.
The Celtics will have to make up for the absence of swingman James Posey, who signed with the Hornets this offseason.
John W. McDonough/SI
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With the NBA in full summer mode, it's a good time to take a look at how teams stack up right now. First up is a snapshot of the Eastern Conference, followed by the West later this week.

It's extremely difficult to get a read on the East, especially the bottom half. Nearly every team that finished out of the playoffs last season looks improved, with no obvious doormats. The battle for the No. 8 spot could be very tight among a handful of teams.

Here's a look at how we see it at the moment, with the caveat that the view could change between now and the start of training camp in October:

1. Celtics: The loss of veteran forward James Posey (via free agency to the Hornets) could hurt, especially come playoff time, but for now Boston has to be considered the East favorite again. General manager Danny Ainge re-signed key reserves Eddie House and Tony Allen, and Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen should be even better with another year together (assuming they're not too worn out from last season's long playoff run). The bottom line is that the defending champs didn't make any significant moves ... but they didn't need to.

2. Cavaliers: Even before Wednesday's acquisition of Mo Williams (via a trade with the Bucks), they would rank here simply because of LeBron James. He showed last year in the playoffs that he's good enough almost by himself to take the Celtics to seven games. Williams, acquired in a three-way deal that sent Joe Smith to Oklahoma City, should be a significant upgrade at the point. Plus, the Cavs are one of the NBA's toughest defensive teams under Mike Brown, and their core lineup -- shuffled by a major deal at last season's trade deadline - was starting to gel at the end of last season.

3. Magic: It's easy to forget that these guys won 52 games last year and won their first playoff series in 12 years. With Dwight Howard coming into his own, big man Tony Battie back after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury and coach Stan Van Gundy having another training camp to implement his system, the Magic should be even better next season. Orlando could miss part-time starter Maurice Evans, who signed with the Hawks, but the addition of free-agent signee Mickael Pietrus (formerly of the Warriors) should help strengthen its perimeter defense.

4. 76ers: They made perhaps the biggest splash in free agency, persuading Elton Brand to bolt the Clippers for a new life in Philadelphia. The two-time All-Star power forward gives them the low-post scorer they desperately needed. They also re-signed Louis Williams and added Kareem Rush to shore up their backcourt depth. Assuming they bring back Andre Iguodala, who reportedly is nearing a new deal to stay, the Sixers should take another big step in their dramatic rise.

5. Wizards: Their big moves have been to re-sign Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison. With Caron Butler already in the fold, it gives Washington a scoring trio that few other teams can match. If Arenas is healthy and ready to earn his huge paycheck, the Wizards should get back to being the team that had one of the best records in the East two years ago before injuries derailed their season. Keep in mind, Brendan Haywood has his best season a year ago, and backup center Etan Thomas is expected back after sitting out the entire season with a heart condition. The loss of guard Roger Mason (Spurs), however, leaves them a bit thin on their bench.

6. Pistons: Logic says they should be ranked higher, since they suffered no significant losses (other than coach Flip Saunders) from a team that won 59 games last season. But even president Joe Dumars seemed to think this present group had run its course at the end of last season and needed some new blood. Kwame Brown isn't likely to light a fire under anybody. And how will all those Pistons vets react to hearing their names in trade talks all summer? Unless Dumars has something else up his sleeve, the Pistons just seem like a team headed for a decline.

7. Raptors: GM Bryan Colangelo made perhaps the most underrated move of the offseason, acquiring five-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal from the Pacers for T.J. Ford and Rasho Nesterovic. If O'Neal is recovered from his knee problems, he should join with Chris Bosh to give the Raptors one of the best frontcourts in the East. Colangelo also re-signed Jose Calderon and brought in Croatian star Roko Ukic to replace Ford as backup point guard. The Raptors still need Andrea Bargnani to live up to his billing as a No. 1 overall pick, but Toronto definitely will be a team to watch next season.

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