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Tuesday, October 30, 2001
Updated: October 31, 1:38 PM ET
East: From least to beast

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

As Jim Nantz would say, "Pull up a chair!" It's time for the Sports Guy's annual two-part NBA preview, a column so insightful, entertaining and downright inspiring that my editors had no choice but to divvy it up over the span of two days. Here's one man's predictions for the Eastern Conference, in reverse order (from worst to first):

15. Chicago Bulls
Ron Mercer
You can bet that Ron Mercer will take plenty of shots for the talent-starved Bulls.
So what does Bulls GM Jerry Krause have to pull to get fired, anyway? He pushed Pippen, MJ and Phil Jackson out of town before the '99 season; he hasn't lured a single marquee free agent in four years; he dropped the ball in the '00 Draft when he could have packaged some picks for Darius Miles; he swapped a proven 20/10 guy (Elton Brand) for a high schooler this summer; and now we're in Year One of Rebuilding Program No. 2, which is actually a Rebuilding Program Inside a Rebuilding Program (has that ever been done before?). There hasn't been a franchise mishandled this egregiously since they turned the "Batman" movie series over to Joel Schumacher.

As for this year's Bulls team, their only pure scorers are Ron Mercer (the only player in the league who takes 25-30 shots a game and wonders if he's getting enough touches) and Eddie Robinson (parlayed "Explosive bench player" status for Charlotte into a jaw-dropping $32 million contract, which would have been the worst Bulls contract if Brad Miller wasn't already on the team). Miller, Greg Anthony and Charles Oakley round out the starting lineup, and I wish I was making that up.

Three potential highlights for Bulls fans: 1) Watching high schoolers Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler figure out the triangle offense (which should re-define the phrase "high comedy"); 2) the moment when embattled head coach Tim Floyd simply limps off the court during a game, never to return; 3) seeing if Curry and Chandler can break the NBA record for "Most hours spent playing the PlayStation 2 in a hotel room during an 82-game season," set by Al Harrington and Jon Bender during the '99-00 season. Good luck, boys.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers
Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Zydrunas Ilgauskas teases the Cavs with his skills ... then gets injured.
The Cavs just seem doomed. Zydrunas Ilgauskas tantalizes them every fall before his feet start acting up, and he should -- Big Z would become a Top 5 center -- if he could ever stay healthy. Unfortunately, he bought Bill Walton's feet on eBay four years ago, and so he landed on the injured list again last week.

And rookie DeSagana Diop (the 2001 winner of the prestigious Olowakandi Award for "Worst Pick in the NBA Draft") hasn't been able to practice during the preseason, because he's also suffering foot problems. That means the Cavs will employ a Vanilla Thunder combo at center this season: Chris Mihm and Mike Doleac.

As for the rest of the team, the Cavs rely on Andre Miller's offense a little too much (he's a poor man's Michael Ray Richardson, without the coke problem). Tyrone Hill returns to Cleveland for a second tour, after getting undressed by the Lakers and Bucks in the playoffs last spring. There's a surplus of 6-foot-6 swingman types here: Wesley Person, Bryant Stith, Jumaine Jones, Lamond Murray and Ricky Davis (always a recipe for disaster).

At least new coach John Lucas will keep everyone in a good mood -- he's always good for some butt-slaps and high-fives. In fact, I wish he was here right now to help me get through this column.

13. Detroit Pistons
Jerry Stackhouse
Don't expect to see Jerry Stackhouse doing a lot of passing for the Pistons.
There's something intriguing about the Pistons. They have a bonafide Go-To Guy (Jerry Stackhouse, who averaged 29.8 a game last year). They have a bonafide rebounder (Ben Wallace, a charter member of the "Darnell Hillman Memorial Overpowering Afro Team"). They have former 20-point scorers in the lineup (Cliff Robinson and Dana Barros). The bench includes such eclectic names as Rodney White, Chucky Atkins, Corliss Williamson, Jon Barry and somebody named "Zeljko Rebraca" (not a stage name). On paper, they make you say, "Hmmmmm."

But then you remember that Stackhouse hoisted roughly 6,500 shots last season to get that 30 a night. Wallace can't score. Barros shares the fork in his back with Robinson (they pass it back and forth during games). The team doesn't have any size; even someone like Todd MacCulloch might be able to have his way down low against these guys. And that tandem of Barros and Atkins might be the worst in the league -- even the Knicks wouldn't swap point guards with Detroit. It's hard to imagine them winning more than 30 games.

(Random thought: It's been two years since former Pistons center Brian Williams changed his name to Bison Dele, then walked away from a $36 million contract to pursue his business interests in the Middle East, including his desalination complex in Lebanon ... and he hasn't been heard from since. Probably the most surreal NBA moment of the past 20 years and nobody ever discusses it anymore. Can we get a Bison Dele update please? Someone? Anyone?)

12. Washington Wizards
Hey, it won't be MJ's fault. If Jordan's body holds up, he'll drop in 25-35 a night, wreak his usual havoc defensively and double as the most unstoppable crunch-time force in the league (even professional wrestling referees will be more objective than the NBA referees during Wizards games). There will even be those occasional nights when MJ reclaims "Best Player in the League" status, although he won't round himself into shape until January at the earliest (he's still a little bulky, maybe a step slow).

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan is surrounded by a truly awful team in Washington.
Here's the problem: Jordan's team stinks. You're probably saying, "Yeah, I knew they weren't very good, but they can't be that bad."

I'm telling you ... they're that bad. During his Bulls days, Jordan was always surrounded by guys who could play defense and at least 1-2 quality rebounders. He doesn't have that anymore. His two best teammates (Rip Hamilton and Courtney Alexander) are one-dimensional scorers who don't bring anything else to the table. None of the Washington big men (Christian Laettner, Jahidi White, Kwame Brown) can rebound consistently. And there isn't a point guard here with Steve Kerr potential (spot-up shooters whom MJ always seems to find). In short, it's a disaster. It's a Warren Beatty movie.

So for the Wizards to even reach .500, they need a super-human effort from Jordan every night, a nearly impossible request given his age, the fact that every younger star will be gunning for him and that opponents can double-team him with the new rules. If MJ carries the Wizards to even the eighth playoff spot, that would be one of the most remarkable basketball achievements of his career. Seriously. And I just can't see it -- even if this team had the '88 version of MJ, I'm not sure they would make the playoffs.

But hey ... as long as MJ shows off his fastball and wins an occasional game down the stretch, everyone's happy. And at least it will be interesting. If Jordan is playing on TV, I'm watching. It's that simple.

11. Miami Heat
Alonzo Mourning
The Heat will need Alonzo Mourning on the court if they're going to be competitive.
Let's put a moratorium on any reference to Alonzo Mourning, Brian Grant and Eddie Jones as "The Big Three." First of all, it's blasphemous to Parish, McHale and The Man. Second, Grant and Jones signed contracts for a combined $170 million-plus last year and aren't even in the Top 8 in the league at their respective positions (you can name six shooting guards in the Eastern Conference alone who are better than Jones -- Iverson, Houston, Carter, Stackhouse, McGrady and Pierce). And lastly, if Miami even coaxes 70 games from Alonzo at an All-Star level, it will be a near-miracle (he wasn't the same player after his comeback last spring).

Then there's the supporting cast: Anthony Mason and Tim Hardaway were shown the door last summer, replaced by a potpourrri of shaky role players (Chris Gatling, LaPhonso Ellis, Anthony Carter, Kendall Gill, Eddie House, Salami, Goldstein, Gomez). Realistically, either Miami plans on getting 65-70 a night from the Not-So-Big Three, or they plan on keeping every game in the 70s (knowing Pat Riley, I wouldn't put it past him). You know they're desperate for players when they roll the dice with Rod Strickland. Apparently Plan B was Corey Haim.

They also need at least 225 combined games from the Not-So-Big Three to even think about sneaking into the playoffs. Would you wager on the "over" on that one? Didn't think so.

(Number of championships Pat Riley has won without Magic and Kareem: Zero. One of my favorite stats in sports. And no, I'm not bitter about the '87 Finals or anything.)

10. New Jersey Nets
Now we're getting somewhere. The Nets made the most important deal of the summer, swapping Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd (a move they had to make when they finally realized that NBA teams can't succeed if they revolve around a point guard's offense). You can imagine them getting off to a decent start and Sports Illustrated running a "NO KIDDING AROUND: HERE COME THE NETS!" story in a few weeks.

Keith Van Horn
Although he's lost some confidence, Keith Van Horn can still be an offensive force for the Nets.
At least Kidd has something to work with here. Keith Van Horn might have lost his confidence over the past two seasons -- he and Marbury meshed about as well as Carlo Rizzi and Connie Corleone -- but the fact remains that he's a competent offensive player who creates his own shot and scores down low (when he's willing to get his nails dirty). And it took Kenyon Martin a year to bounce back from that fractured leg at Cincinnati, but if you caught him during the Goodwill Games, he was running the floor, blocking shots and draining jumpers (fantasy alert!). Marbury failed to bring out the best in their games; Kidd thrives on making his teammates better. I mean, who would you rather play with?

The supporting cast isn't brutal: Kerry Kittles, Richard Jefferson, Aaron Williams, even Todd MacCulloch, the Sixers free-agent center who was wildly overpaid -- $34 million?!? -- but has just enough Mike Gminski in him to make you glad that he signed with the Nets (hey, I finally slipped G-Mo into a column!). And they played pretty hard for Byron Scott last season, even after the season slipped away and everyone started getting hurt.

As a Celtics fan worried about competitors for the eighth playoff spot, I have to admit, the Nets scare me a little. Just a little.

(One potential obstacle for Kidd: He went from Phoenix to New Jersey. Talk about culture shock -- you'd hate to see him pull a Willie Burton. Can't you see him coming out of a timeout during a meaningless January game against the Cavs, looking around the half-empty Meadowlands, remembering that it's 20 degrees outside and he's stuck in Jersey ... and just starting to sob in front of everyone? I wonder if that would make "Plays of the Week.")

9. Indiana Pacers
Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller and the Pacers have plenty of questions to answer in 2001-02.
Along with Miami, the Pacers are the odds-on favorite for the "Which playoff team will slip out of the Top 8 this year?" guessing game. With Isiah Thomas calling the shots, a 25-win season isn't out of the question (put it this way: If Isiah coached Hickory High, he would have brought Jimmy Chitwood off the bench). Has a playoff team ever looked more unprepared and out-of-synch during the season than the Pacers did last year? I kept waiting for them to show up for a road game wearing their home uniforms.

Questions abound: How much does Reggie Miller have left in the tank? Will Jermaine O'Neal ever progress past that "Camby in the '99 Playoffs" stage and give them a consistent low-post presence offensively? Who was that impostor wearing Austin Croshere's jersey last season, and has he been thrown in jail yet? Why doesn't Al Harrington get 35-40 minutes a game?

(Wait, there's more!)

Does Jalen Rose look surly, uncommunicative and totally un-fun to play with, or is it just me? Will Jonathan Bender be 45 years old and still get mentioned as "up-and-coming"? Why would Jamaal Tinsley start at point for a team with Rose and Travis Best? Doesn't a crunch-time lineup of Miller, Rose, Harrington, Croshere and O'Neal look splendid on paper? Does Isiah cancel everything out here?

(My prediction: Yes.)

8. Boston Celtics
The C's finished the season with a 24-24 stretch, and that was without starters Tony Battie and Kenny Anderson (both injured) or any of the three athletic first-rounders they selected in last June's draft (all of whom should crack the nine-man rotation by January). And any team that features two of the top 25 players in the league (Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker) deserves to be taken seriously, especially when Walker (matured from a summer of hanging in Chicago with MJ) arrived at camp in the best shape of his life. Pierce and Walker should be good for 50-55 a night. No small feat. And Pierce gives them their first legitimate crunch-time guy since Reggie Lewis.

Antoine Walker
Now hear this: Boston's Antoine Walker carries more responsibility than just about any forward in the league.
There are some problems here, including the lack of a quality rebounder, the fact that they're relying on three rookies, and everything that comes with the Kenny Anderson Experience (bad body language, declining skills, wrong team for him since Walker and Pierce handle the ball so much, driving me insane, let's agree not to discuss him again). But if one of the rookies steps up (say Joe Johnson gives them 20-25 minutes per game at the 3-spot, for instance), Battie bounces back, and the underrated Milt Palacio (or as I like to call him, "The next Eric Snow") can steal Kenny's job as quickly as possible, they're a playoff team. And no, I'm not drunk again.

As strange as this sounds, it all depends on Walker, who carries more responsibility than just about any forward in the league -- he has to worry about rebounding, guarding the other team's power forward, handling the ball (the offense mostly runs through him) and taking the scoring burden off Pierce, with the added wrinkle that Boston fans don't appreciate these things and don't really like him that much in the first place (there isn't a more misunderstood guy in the league). But he's also the undisputed leader of the team, as well as a legitimate 25-10-8 threat every night.

And like C-Webb in Sacramento three years ago, this will be 'Twan's breakout season, the year he makes The Leap. You heard it here first. Team him with somebody as gifted as Pierce and ... hot damn! I'm going to a playoff game this season.

(I know, I know, I'm insane. I pick the Celts to make the playoffs every year. They could be starting the five guys from the Backstreet Boys, and I'd still pick them to win 40 games. I'm a homer. Just indulge me.)

7. Atlanta Hawks
A crunch-time lineup that includes Theo Ratliff, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Toni Kukoc and Jason Terry? I'm sold. I don't even care about the fact that the Hawks addressed their point guard problems by rolling the dice with two total unknown free agents -- Emanual Davis and Jacque Vaughn. If either of them pan out, they make the playoffs. Hell, even if both of them stink, they'll just move Terry to the point and still probably have enough for a playoff run.

Jason Terry
Jason Terry could help the Hawks make a big leap into the playoffs.
(Quick note on Davis: I bought DirecTV last year, purchased the NBA Package and watched enough basketball from November to June that the Sports Gal once said at 1:30 in the morning, and I quote, "I hate DirecTV, I hate the Clippers and I hate you." Needless to say, I didn't miss a trick all season ... and I had never heard of this Emanual Davis guy until about two hours ago. Not sure what this means.)

There's a lot to like here: Shareef finally found a half-decent team (the classic "Good Player with a Fresh Start" scenario); Ratliff wants to shove it in Philly's face; Kukoc is one of the few inventive offensive players in the league (when healthy); Terry always presents matchup problems for his opponents (he's too quick for most 2-guards); and the Atlanta bench (Alan Henderson, Nazr Mohammed, even Dion Glover) can actually lend a helping hand from time to time. Interesting team. We'll see if the point guards pan out. And even if they don't, they can always trade for a serviceable veteran like, oh, say ... Kenny Anderson?

(Note to Celts GM Chris Wallace: Send tapes of Kenny to Atlanta from his Georgia Tech days with "Time for a homecoming???" on the VHS label. If they ask for any footage of Kenny from 1991 on, tell them you lost the tapes. Just trust me on this.)

6. New York Knicks
Latrell Sprewell
Latrell Sprewell's Knicks have a very enigmatic roster.
Strange team. They have three shooting guards, two power forwards, two undersized power forwards and three point guards. That's their roster. None of the point guards (Mark Jackson, Howard Eisley and Charlie Ward) could even be considered "average at best." Their two best scorers (Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell) play the exact same position. Their starting center (Marcus Camby) missed 42 games over the past two seasons and always seems like an Injury Waiting to Happen. Their crunch-time lineup includes a frontcourt in which all three players (Camby, Clarence Weatherspoon and Sprewell) are considered "undersized" for their positions.

And yet I have no doubt that the Knicks will make the playoffs again this season. None. Either the league is fixed or Jeff Van Gundy is that good. Maybe it's a little of both.

5. Philadelphia 76ers
Danger! Danger! Warning signs everywhere! In order ...

  • They coaxed 90-plus games out of Allen Iverson last season, who takes more punishment from game to game than anybody since Earl Campbell. He can't possibly absorb that pounding again ... can he?

  • If Derrick Coleman is the answer, we don't want to know the question. The Coleman move culminated Philly's bizarre offseason of Power Forward Roulette -- determined to dump Ty Hill, the Sixers gave cups of coffee to George Lynch (too small), Matt Geiger (too dicey), Robert Traylor (yikes!) and Jerome Moiso (Good Lord!), before pulling the trigger on Coleman. And "pulling the trigger" is the perfect description.

    Allen Iverson
    Will Allen Iverson be able to survive the pounding of another long season?
    (Philly made its bones last year as one of those "Everyone sublimates their games/everyone gives 110 percent" teams that revolved around Iverson, defense and a ton of heart. You're telling me that DC will be setting picks, helping out on the boards and breaking a sweat for this team? Puh-leeeze. Who was next on Larry Brown's wishlist, Shannen Doherty?)

  • Without a reliable power forward, it seems like the Sixers are asking an awful lot on the rebounding/defense end from Dikembe Jean Jacques Nawanda Louis Latour Au Gratin Wamatumbo Mutombo, who turns 36 years old this season.

  • They dumped Pat Croce. Bad karma. You can't pull stuff like that.

  • Philly should be more affected by the new rules than just about anybody -- not only can opponents send double-teams at Iverson, but when Philly starts running him though those baseline picks, opponents can switch to zone and always keep a defender near him.

  • They're relying on three guys who haven't "been there" before in their top eight: Matt Harpring, Speedy Claxton and Coleman.

  • I don't like how they're starting the season, with Snow out for two months, Iverson already banged up and Aaron McKie coming off surgery, and that's before we even deal with Coleman's first injury of the year (coming soon). They also play 22 of their first 32 games on the road, including two West Coast swings (couldn't come at a worse time).

    And with all of that said ... they still probably finish in the Top 5. As Norman Dale would say, that Iverson-Mutombo combination deserves and commands your respect.

    4. Charlotte Hornets
    Baron Davis
    Nobody in the East can stop Baron Davis off the dribble.
    Nice team. Maybe the best starting five in the East -- P.J. Brown, Jamal Mashburn, Elden Campbell, David Wesley and Baron Davis -- pushed to the next level by the fact that Davis is ready for his Ultra-Breakout Year. Last season was Davis' breakout year in a "Here I am!" sense; this season, he slides into the group of elite point guards, along with Francis, Marbury, Kidd and the Artist Formerly Known As Gary Payton (and I'd take Baron for the next 10 years over all of them). There isn't a player in the East who can stop him off the dribble.

    But the bench ... ugh. Stacey Augmon, George Lynch (out for two months), Bryce Drew, Matt Bullard and Jamal Magliore. Welcome to the CBA!!!! This means Charlotte's starters will play too many minutes during the season and burn out within the first two rounds of the playoffs, just like they did last year.

    (Hey, at least their fans like them. Um ....)

    3. Orlando Magic
    In mid-September, I wasn't just ready to pick Orlando to make the Finals, I was ready to pick them to win the title. Everything seemed right about them. The scary-good Tracy McGrady would assume his rightful position as "Dominant player in the East." Grant Hill would emerge as the Pippen to McGrady's MJ. Guys like Mike Miller and Darrell Armstrong would thrive in supporting roles. The token washed-up veterans (Horace Grant and Patrick Ewing) would do token washed-up veteran things. An underrated bench (Miller, Bo Outlaw, Pat Garrity, Don Reid) would help carry them to 60-plus wins. And Doc Rivers would keep everyone on the same page.

    Grant Hill
    If Grant Hill's ankle injury persists, the Magic might not be one of the NBA's elite teams.
    But this thing with Grant Hill's ankle ... I mean ...

    First of all, I hate when the phrases "surgically repaired ankles" and "NBA player" show up in the same sentence. It's never a good thing. Ankle problems haunt basketball players like shoulder problems haunt baseball pitchers and knee injuries haunt running backs -- they never, ever, ever go away. Take it from someone who watched Kevin McHale's career get sidetracked in the late-'80s and early-'90s because his feet and ankles started to betray him. It never gets better, it never totally goes away, and it always seems to rear its ugly head at the worst times.

    So here's Hill, who sat out last season after undergoing two separate surgeries on the same faulty ankle, and now that same ankle is already giving him problems again ... and the season hasn't even started yet. Not good. You wonder if he'll ever be the same. It makes me sad to think of Hill limping along, if it comes to that. When he was healthy, few players glided around the court as effortlessly as he did (maybe Pippen and that's about it). What a shame.

    FANTASY SLEEPERS
    The Sports Guy's top eight fantasy basketball sleepers in the East:

    1. Kenyon Martin: A different guy this year.

    2. Derrick Coleman: Healthy, getting big minutes (for now).

    3. Todd MacCulloch: Only true center on the Nets' roster.

    4. Speedy Claxton: Getting his chance with Snow out.

    5. Milt Palacio: Boston's starting PG by mid-December.

    6. Kwame Brown: He'll start coming on in February.

    7. Zeljco Rebraca: Just for the hell of it.

    8. Michael Jordan: Still a first-rounder (believe it).

    Where does that leave Orlando? It's impossible to say. Even if Hill gives them 60-65 games and stays relatively healthy in the playoffs, that's still enough for Orlando to sneak into the Eastern finals. And if you think I'm showing too much faith in McGrady and Rivers, well, you're right. I think they're the best player-coach combo on the East. But between Miller's injury (out at least two months with a broken foot) and Hill's ongoing problems, they should struggle at least a little during the regular season. The No. 3 spot seems right.

    (Quick tangent: If I could have anybody's jump shot in the NBA, I would take Mike Miller's. It's perfect. It's like seeing Heather Graham naked for the first time -- you don't even know what to say while you're watching it. Words can't do it justice. Ray Allen's jumper ranks a distant second for me. Walter McCarty's jumper ranks last.)

    2. Milwaukee Bucks
    Apparently chemistry doesn't matter in the NBA anymore, because the two representatives in the 2001 Eastern Conference finals traded for Derrick Coleman and Anthony Mason this summer. Milwaukee's move seemed like an even bigger risk than the Coleman trade, and Coleman is practically the human ebola virus -- the Bucks gave away an overachieving veteran who always seemed to make big plays for them (Scott Williams) for Mason, an undersized power forward who only seems happy when the offense is running through him.

    (And we haven't even mentioned Mason's considerable off-court baggage. Put it this way: Mark Chmura probably pumped his fist when he heard about this trade in a "Mike Torrez after the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs" kinda way.)

    Ray Allen
    Ray Allen made The Leap last season, becoming one of the NBA's best all-around players.
    The Bucks had already forged an identity as a freewheeling, run-and-gun team that revolved around the scoring of its three stars (Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn "I stole my nickname from Antoine Carr" Robinson) and a bunch of role players. Now here's Mason, who thrives at a slower pace and bitches about doing the rebounding/defense thing unless he's getting enough touches. Throw in the fact that Sam Cassell has been pouting about a contract extension (he still has two years left at $8.5 million, which he would gladly collect if he ever blew out his knee) and you wonder if this will be the season that finally destroys George Karl.

    Four leftover thoughts on the Bucks:

  • In case you missed it, Allen made The Leap during the playoffs last spring (fantasy alert!). Just wanted to get that heard before the jury. As long as he's healthy, the Bucks need to be taken seriously. Just a great player. Allen is one of the few I would gladly pay to see, along with Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Shaq, Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, MJ, Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, Jason Kidd and Moochie Norris.

  • Tim Thomas' $60 million contract is my favorite ludicrous contract in sports right now (as Mike Tyson would say, "It's ludicrisp! Just ludicrisp!"). With that said, Thomas is one of the few effective sixth men in the league right now, someone who can enter a game cold and immediately shift the momentum. Warrants mentioning.

  • I'm not saying that Joel Przybilla is a stiff, but the Bucks should hire a hearse and two caretakers to remove him from the bench after games.

  • It's always enjoyable to see the Bucks in person, if only because of Karl. He reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld's line about Rodney Dangerfield, that Rodney wears every routine he ever did on his face. Karl looks like that, too; he always seems one bad call away from calmly placing down his clipboard and strolling off the court, never to be seen again. Plus he looks like John Lithgow. I'm always fascinated by him when the Bucks come into Boston for a game. I can't wait to see his face when Mason and Cassell are screaming at each other this season. Good times ... good times.

    1. Toronto Raptors
    That leaves us with the Raptors, the obvious choice to finish with the best record in the East this season. You have the potential superstar coming into his prime (Vince Carter) ... the token sentimental veteran (Hakeem Olajuwon) ... capable point guards (Alvin Williams and Chris Childs) ... a rebounder/shot-blocker (Antonio Davis) ... fresh legs off the bench (Keon Clark and Jerome Williams) ...the veteran gunner (Dell Curry) ... and the token "Young Player Who Needs To Step Up" (Mo Peterson).

    Vince Carter
    Vince Carter is now surrounded by an excellent cast of players in Toronto.
    It's a genuine NBA team, isn't it? Count me among those who believed that McGrady's departure two summers ago was the beginning of the end for Toronto Basketball; I thought Davis would flee last summer, then Carter would leave skidmarks crossing the border in June 2002, and that would be that. Instead, that memorable seven-game series against Philly last May (some of the best basketball we've seen in years) turned this franchise around in a "Henry Steele in the last 10 minutes of 'One on One' " kinda way.

    But can this team make the Finals and actually scare the Lakers? Somebody needs to step up as a second scorer. It can be a different person every game -- that's how Philly did it last year -- but somebody from that Williams/Hakeem/Peterson/Davis group needs to help Carter game in and game out next spring. They also need Hakeem to stay healthy and avoid the giant salad fork that seems to suddenly find All-Pro centers when they hit their late-30s.

    Most importantly, they need Carter to make that Iversonian leap to The Next Level. Vince played very well last season, sometimes great, and he carried them at times in the playoffs ... but he wasn't consistently dominant the way Iverson was, and he wasn't remotely in the same ballpark as McGrady, Iverson and Kobe on both sides of the ball. You wonder if Vince is destined to become his generation's Dominique Wilkins, a highlight film guy and Roto God whose teams always fall short in the end. Maybe Jordan's return will get the proper amount of competitive juices flowing for him. We'll see.


    Playoff Predictions
    First round: Milwaukee, Orlando, Philly and Toronto advance. There's your Final Four, in some order. Guaranteed.

    Second round: Toronto gets revenge on Philly; Milwaukee holds off Orlando (I'm guessing that Hill never fully recovers).

    Eastern finals: Milwaukee stuns the Raptors in six. While everyone waits for Vince to make The Leap, Ray Allen quietly kicks his rear end and propels the Bucks into their first Finals in 28 years. He got game.

    COMING WEDNESDAY: My breakdown of the Western Conference

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.