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Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Updated: September 21, 12:01 PM ET
Offseason review: Rating the East from Heat to Sixers

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

Add an unofficial conference championship to the shiny gold trophy they won in June.

That's right. The Miami Heat had the best summer of any team in the East.

Better, even, than the Chicago Bulls had.

Just by getting Pat Riley's commitment to coach another year -- and with an assist from the Bulls, who weakened the Heat's chief rivals by signing away Ben Wallace -- Miami will begin the new season as a heavy favorite to get back to the NBA Finals. It doesn't matter that a clutch of East teams were far more active than the Heat this offseason. No move will have a bigger impact on the title race than Riley's decision to come back to the bench.

With training camps scheduled to open in a little more than two weeks, it's a good time to review everyone's summer dealings. The following is a 1-15, team-by-team ranking of the Eastern Conference based on who has done the best business. (Just to be clear: These are offseason assessments, not predicted order of finish for the coming season.)


1. MIAMI HEAT

Who says you have to bring in new blood to have a big summer? The Heat eventually will need a healthy dose of youth and athleticism around Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, but that's a longer-term issue. This was a momentous offseason even without significant changes.

First, Wade signed a contract extension. Then, Alonzo Mourning agreed to play another season when he had every reason to retire. Then Riley, who had even greater justification to go out on a championship high after suffering through nearly two decades without winning a ring, heeded his players' pleas to come back at 61. Good thing, too, because the Heat wouldn't feel nearly as hot about their repeat chances with any other coach. Believe it.


2. CHICAGO BULLS

Did the Bulls overpay by committing $60 million to Wallace over the next four seasons? Of course. Yet as we've said numerous times, overpaying is the only way to persuade a good player to leave a good situation. The Bulls, furthermore, can handle the expense because they needed a title-tested veteran and because the outlay -- for all the concern about Wallace's offensive limitations -- doesn't immediately take away John Paxson's flexibility to keep improving the roster. Paxson eventually must address the Bulls' lack of dependable scorers, but he still has several trade chips to keep tweaking and should even have some decent cap room to burn next summer.

In the short term, meanwhile, Wallace and fellow newcomer P.J. Brown will lend size and savvy to complement the Bulls' young drive-and-kick stalwarts. As one GM told me recently: "Imagine what kind of [coaching] job Scott Skiles will do now that he actually has a couple bigs."


3. INDIANA PACERS

Donnie Walsh has always been good. But you know the saying: Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good ... and this summer was that time. New Orleans/Oklahoma City could have signed Peja Stojakovic outright, leaving Indy with no compensation for the sharpshooter who replaced Ron Artest in January. The Hornets instead consented -- for a mere cash payment of roughly $250,000 -- to absorb Stojakovic via sign-and-trade, creating the trade exception that (eventually) enabled the Pacers to reacquire Al Harrington for a bargain $35.3 million over four years.

Without that fortuitous trade exception, Indy had no shot at Harrington. With it, Indy became the only team Atlanta wanted to work with on a sign-and-trade because it enabled the Hawks to move Harrington without taking back any salary. Without that trade exception, Indy's summer is a disaster. With the Hornets willing to help keep Harrington away from Golden State, either to help their own playoff odds or to spite Baron Davis, Harrington's return reenergizes Jermaine O'Neal more than Indiana's other 10 new faces combined.


4. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

What's better than winning a championship? For the Cavs, it's getting LeBron James' signature on a contract extension. That alone made it a celebratory offseason in Cleveland, even if James signed for only three extra years as opposed to the maximum five ... and even though Cleveland lacks the financial flexibility to chase more glamorous free-agent help for LBJ than Scot Pollard and David Wesley.

The flip side to the glee, of course, is that pretty much everyone signed by the Cavs in their summer of 2005 spending spree -- Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- faces an uncertain future with the club because Cleveland is pressed right against the luxury-tax threshold. The Cavs are thus forced to trade their way into roster upgrades between now and LeBron's free-agent summer of 2010, meaning everyone not named James is at risk for possible relocation.


5. MILWAUKEE BUCKS

The two big Bucks questions: Where would Jamaal Magloire finally go? And how much would Team USA miss Michael Redd's shooting? The answers: Portland and a lot. In the biggest nonsurprise of the offseason, Milwaukee finally parted with Magloire, choosing to ship him to the Blazers for two reserves with favorable contracts: Steve Blake and Brian Skinner. The surprise is that Milwaukee actually made two bigger trades to sandwich the Magloire move.

The follow-up trade sent Joe Smith to Denver for Ruben Patterson. But the biggie came just moments before the free-agent buzzer sounded July 1, sending T.J. Ford to Toronto for Charlie Villanueva in a widely praised small-for-big swap that (A) established Andrew Bogut as the unquestioned starting center, (B) anointed Bogut and Villanueva as the frontcourt of the future and (C) guaranteed a favorable summer report card.


6. TORONTO RAPTORS

The best word to describe the first Bryan Colangelo offseason in Toronto? Decisive. Colangelo knew exactly how he wanted to remake the Raptors and did it quickly, bringing in nine new players. Five of them (No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani, swingman Jorge Garbajosa, Maccabi Tel Aviv star Anthony Parker, veteran center Rasho Nesterovic and 2005 second-round selection Uros Slokar) were either born in Europe or starred there, with Colangelo convinced that players accustomed to more cosmopolitan surroundings will adapt better to Canada than young Americans would.

Will it work?

I definitely wouldn't expect a playoff berth in Year 1, after so many changes and given the inevitable struggles awaiting the NBA newcomers, but the plan already has won Chris Bosh over. The Raps' franchise forward signed a three-year contract extension in July and actually applauded that risky big-for-small trade because Ford is one of his best friends.


7. BOSTON CELTICS

The good news: Paul Pierce was signed to a three-year contract extension that will keep him off next summer's free-agent market. The better news: Danny Ainge didn't pull a Brian Scalabrine and needlessly bestow $15 million over five years to a marginal reserve.

Ainge also just locked up Stein Line favorite Kendrick Perkins on reasonable extension terms ... and I'll even sanction the notion that Theo Ratliff occasionally might provide a much-needed defensive presence. But let's not get carried away.

Even after Ainge acquired Rajon Rondo's draft rights and traded for Sebastian Telfair to join holdover point guard Delonte West, not much has changed for the Celts. They still have a slew of interesting youngsters around Pierce, but we've been saying that for a while now. Unless a few of them graduate from interesting to something, starting with Al Jefferson, it won't be long before the Pierce trade chatter fires up again.


8. ORLANDO MAGIC

The Magic have been quiet lately, but that's fairly understandable. February's ambitious trade swoop for Darko Milicic -- and the knowledge that they'll be major free-agent players next summer, with Vince Carter believed to be their top target -- explains any recent silence. Strong play at the World Championship by Dwight Howard, Carlos Arroyo and Milicic, furthermore, makes it a productive summer for the Magic even though they didn't make any significant roster upgrades ... and even though we can't forget last summer's Fran Vazquez fiasco.

Now to see whether last season's 16-6 finish, with Jameer Nelson at the controls, actually means something. We'll also find out whether the Dukies old and young, Grant Hill and J.J. Redick, can add anything to that promising young nucleus. (One warning, though: Orlando is going to seriously regret not signing Milicic to an extension this summer. The way he's progressing, Darko's price is bound to keep rising.)


9. WASHINGTON WIZARDS

On the surface, it looks as though the Wiz absorbed a significant free-agent defection for the second successive offseason.

On this scorecard, they've responded to Jared Jeffries' exit smartly, reminiscent of their counter to Hughes' big-money move to Cleveland. The Wiz decided they were better off replacing Hughes with two more affordable players (Caron Butler and Antonio Daniels) and have swung a similar two-for-one by using some of the money earmarked for Jeffries to bring in forward Darius Songaila (a good fit for Eddie Jordan's offense) and swingman DeShawn Stevenson.

They also extended Jordan's contract and, in perhaps the biggest development, should benefit from a Team USA snub that figures to have Gilbert Arenas starting the season at his chip-on-the-shoulder best. The Wiz still have to get bigger up front and drastically improve their defense -- chores that likely will require some creative (and lucky) trading -- but I see a better team than the one that lost three playoff games to the Cavs at the buzzer.


10. NEW YORK KNICKS

Knicks fans who blame Isiah Thomas for everything can't lose now. Larry Brown's ouster and Isiah's, uh, promotion to team president/coach will either spark a drastic improvement in the standings or lead to Thomas' dismissal at season's end. What a deal.

The growing consensus seems to be that Thomas can indeed coax a playoff-contending 40 wins out of these misfits by playing a lot of guards and going up-tempo. That's still the way I'm betting, too, figuring that Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis are so desperate to spruce up their reputations that they'll find a way to coexist. For 82 games, anyway.

(As for the only roster newcomer of note: New York definitely didn't need to add Jeffries to a group already teeming with swingmen, given that Thomas also just drafted Renaldo Balkman, but what's a little more payroll overkill for a better defender than anyone else on the books?)


11. DETROIT PISTONS

I'd love to join the Better Off Without Ben chorus. But I can't. If the Pistons still had Milicic, perhaps. If the Pistons had signed Bonzi Wells as their Wallace replacement instead of Nazr Mohammed, maybe. But they don't and they couldn't, thanks to an unlikely chain of events.

The Pistons knew it eventually would be too expensive to re-sign Milicic and Wallace but only consented to trading Darko in February because they believed Big Ben was staying. Yet worse, in my view, was to follow Wallace's exodus: The Pistons quickly signed Mohammed as Big Ben's replacement, only for Wells -- a free agent they loved -- to fall unexpectedly into Mohammed's price range. When Sacramento withdrew its $7 million-a-season offer, Wells was suddenly available for the $5.2 million midlevel exception. But by then, Detroit's emergency fund was gone, robbing the Pistons of an ideal addition to their new 'Sheed-at-center plans.


12. NEW JERSEY NETS

They haven't done a lot, but they weren't expected to. Bringing back Clifford Robinson, after Uncle Cliffy's drug suspension in the playoffs, shows just how limited the Nets' flexibility is. They simply won't be able to do anything drastic to the roster unless Rod Thorn decides to move Richard Jefferson, and I concur with Thorn's sense that it's not quite time to break up the three-man core of Jason Kidd, Carter and R.J.

So I can understand why the Nets went for pedestrian tweaks, such as signing Eddie House and trading for Mikki Moore, while maintaining hope that Nenad Krstic continues to develop and that rookie center Mile Ilic (another Serbian big man) and rookie point guard Marcus Williams (to lessen the toll on Kidd) have a bigger-than-expected impact.


13. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

If you're itching to see what Michael Jordan does in his reincarnation as a chief of staff, you'll have to be patient.

The Bobcats continue to spend as little as they have to, preferring to focus on the development of their youngsters as opposed to splashing out on a so-so class of free agents. The immediate goal is integrating Adam Morrison and Argentinean forward Walter Herrmann with Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace and a back-from-injury Emeka Okafor.

And then next summer (assuming he sticks that long) is when we'll get a better read on MJ's ability to get penurious owner Bob Johnson to finally spend. Jordan keeps saying he can and the 2007 free-agent pool is much deeper, with whispers already circulating about the Bobs joining Orlando in the free-agent chase for another UNC high flier of some renown: Vince Carter.

14. ATLANTA HAWKS

Billy Knight bashing is one of the NBA's most popular pastimes, but the Hawks actually have added a few players who might make them marginally better. Speedy Claxton is a legit NBA point guard; Lorenzen Wright was signed to back up Zaza Pachulia; and No. 5 overall pick Shelden Williams joins the Hawks' long line of frontcourt lottery picks.

You certainly can't call it a great summer, especially after the Hawks decided they didn't want anything more than a future first-round pick for Harrington, but at least it wasn't as nightmarish as last summer. That's when Knight bypassed Chris Paul in the draft -- you might have heard here once or twice that Paul wanted Atlanta to take him -- and happily banished Boris Diaw to Phoenix in the Joe Johnson trade ... only for Diaw to blossom into a multipositional wonder the Hawks never knew they had.


15. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

It has been what you might call a Seinfeldian summer in Philly. A summer, in other words, about nothing. How else to describe what the Sixers have done to change a team environment that, when we last saw them, couldn't have been more toxic.

Philly has consummated zero trades and signed zero free agents -- unless you count Alan Henderson -- amid suspicions that Allen Iverson was yanked off the trading block only because the team is now up for sale. It can't be too surprising that a team has gone quiet on the personnel front while looking for new ownership, but the inactivity means Iverson, after bracing himself for a new start, soon must return to work knowing he was shopped harder than he ever has been shopped before.

Nearly getting traded to Detroit in 2000 sparked Iverson into an MVP-worthy fury in the 2000-01 season, but you're expecting a ton if you think he'll respond like that again. Don't forget that those Sixers had an idyllic blend of role players to bring out Iverson's best. These Sixers, remember, don't like each other, can't guard anyone and are coming back with the same group that ended last season so unhappily.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.