Updated: Jan. 31, 2007, 11:41 AM ET

Now seed here: East outlook

Having recently passed the halfway point of the 82-game schedule, here's how I see the Eastern Conference finishing when the regular season wraps up on April 18 …

1. Detroit Pistons -- This team will play better. They've proven they can raise their intensity when it counts, and they are still a better defensive team than Washington.

Chris Webber gives them the frontcourt help they needed. I played with him, and I know he's a very unselfish player who loves to make guards better. The Pistons will probably get 2 or 3 more shots a game because of his ability to thread the needle. Flip Saunders told us how he's had around 15 assists blown already because guys didn't see it coming. They'll learn.

2. Washington Wizards -- It looks like Antawn Jamison could be out three weeks, which was the word from Wizards coach Eddie Jordan on Tuesday's "NBA Coast to Coast" -- that could cost the team with the East's current best record (27-17) a spot in the seedings.

One thing the Wizards have improved on this year is imposing their pace on opponents. They're committed to running and an offense geared to shooting early in the shot clock. Caron Butler's emergence has meant they don't have to rely on the big night from Gilbert Arenas to win. It doesn't hurt that Arenas has emerged to join Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony as the most clutch shooters in the game.

3. Chicago Bulls -- If they obtained Pau Gasol, even if they gave up a Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni or Kirk Hinrich (but not Ben Gordon or Ben Wallace), then the Bulls would be my pick to win the East.

As it stands now, they're very difficult to defend, with great ball movement and chemistry. Their drawback is jump-shot reliance -- so until they diversify, maintaining that the Bulls could win would be a fašade.

4. New Jersey Nets -- By default, Nets get No. 4 spot as the Atlantic champ. The Raptors were my preseason dark horse, but I still don't think they're consistent enough. The Nets are collectively better -- they just had a pretty good road trip. I am not sure if they trust or buy into Lawrence Frank, but their top three players make them their division's best.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers -- The least creative offense in the league. I see a lot of frustration in the offense in LeBron James' body language. No easy answers to improving this team because you can't move their guards. As for the 124 they put up on Warriors on Tuesday without LeBron, I thought our guys on the set Tuesday plus the cameramen could have done some damage against that Golden State team.

6. Orlando Magic -- The Magic got off to a great start, but their youth is catching up to them. Relying on Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson to be great is unwise because they're not there yet. Howard is going to be great in couple of years, but he still has to polish his footwork. Grant Hill's durability has been huge. But to go from missing the playoffs to the conference finals is not realistic.

7. Miami Heat -- They just need to get in playoffs. If they add Eddie Jones as seems likely, along with a Shaq comeback -- what team in the East would the Heat fear with those two? They're 2 games out of the No. 8 spot now.

8. Indiana Pacers -- After the recent big deal with the Warriors, a team that's still finding itself. They potentially have some great offensive strengths in adding Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy to go along with Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley, if he stays healthy.

Rick Carlisle is one of the five best coaches in the game. When I look at that eight spot, I ask: do you believe in Knicks, Raptors and Pacers? The more complete team is Indy.

Still, here's how the Knicks could move into that eight spot: deal a guard for a consistent 3-point shooter. The Raptors, meanwhile, would need to see a bigger progression from rookie Andrea Bargnani. He's not yet the complementary player to Bosh that you want him to be. If Bargnani gives you 15-16 points per night, then watch out for the Raps.

When it gets down to it, I see a familiar script playing out in the East playoffs. Miami and Detroit in the finals -- with the Heat winning a seventh game in Detroit.

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Key Injury For Team With East's Best Record
Big
AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson
Wizards forward Antawn Jamison grimaces in pain after injuring his left knee in the first quarter of a 104-99 win over the Pistons.


The Question In Every Struggling NBA Hamlet

To tank or not to tank? That is the question. To compete nobly and perhaps win too many games to get a top draft choice, or to surrender one's pride and shamelessly pile up defeats in the hope they lead to more future victories?

This morning, for instance, tormented Grizzlies fans are waking wondering whether they should be happy that their team came from 10 points down in the fourth to beat Sacramento.

See the full John Hollinger story



Maybe He Can Tape Message On Forehead

Sam (Texas): Don't you think that the Suns' record is inflated? They are 0-3 against the Mavs and Spurs. Thursday night against San Antonio is a big game for them because the Suns still have to prove they can beat the elite, which they haven't done in the past.

Marc Stein: I know I've written or said this about 20 times, but I guess I have to keep writing and saying it: The Suns ARE A DIFFERENT TEAM than they were in November. Six of their nine losses came before Nov. 18. Just like Utah and Orlando are different teams now than they were early, so is Phoenix.

I don't care if the Suns were merely playing Atlanta for 36 games in a row; 33-3 would still be impressive. I'm also wondering why I keep getting e-mails about the Suns' supposed inability to beat top teams. Huh? Didn't they reach the conference finals each of the past two years in spite of major injuries to Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire and Raja Bell?

See the full Marc Stein chat


Records At A Glance



Clash Of East's Top Two Teams

Wizards top Pistons, improve to 27-17


Toe'd You We'd Win
LeBron James
AP Photo/Mark Duncan
LeBron James, sidelined with a toe injury, reacts after a dunk by Cavaliers teammate Drew Gooden in the second quarter of his team's 124-97 win over the Warriors.



Extreme Behavior
Austin Croshere

Tuesday's Best
Mavs forward Austin Croshere: A career-high 34 points in 24 minutes. Seven treys and seven boards. Austin's got powers. The Keith Van Horn replacement certainly gave the Mavs a boost in a 122-102 win over the Sonics. You may resume rubbing your eyes now.

Luke Ridnour

Tuesday's Worst
Sonics guard Luke Ridnour: Didn't think the unlucky Duck could do much worse than his 1-for-8 against the Clippers on Sunday. Well, he committed four fouls and missed all five shots in 17 minutes of hell in a 122-102 loss to the Mavs.

Quote of the Day
"We kicked their butts."
-- Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, talking some playful trash after confirming that Tuesday's win over the Pistons was in fact the two teams' last regular-season meeting of the year.

See how all 128 who played stacked up
Playoff matchups if season ended now

-- Andrew Ayres



Caught In The "Unnatural Basketball Act"
Kobe Bryant

It's not because of Kobe's past tangles with Mike Miller and Raja Bell. It's not because Manu is a master flopper, either. (I saw his face afterward and the welt under Ginobili's right eye couldn't have been more real.)

It's more about players being warned coming into the season, according to one league insider, that "you will be responsible for your elbows." Intentional or not.

The league, furthermore, classifies this hit as more than a mere elbow, which pretty much clinched a one-game ban. In an evening conference call with reporters, NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson said: "After [Bryant] followed through with a shot, he drove a stiff arm backwards in a hard motion and struck Ginobili in the head."

Jackson went on to call it an "unnatural basketball act" and made it clear that the league's justice department "did not view this as an inadvertent action."

See the full Marc Stein blog Insider



"Only Bryant Knows For Sure"

Once you see the episode from a few different angles and watch Kobe Bryant's action in slo-mo, it becomes more and more apparent that the league office probably made the right call by banning Bryant from his one and only appearance of the season at Madison Square Garden, denying him the opportunity to perform on one of his favorite stages.

The swinging of Bryant's arm appears to be an unnatural motion, no matter what he was trying to do, whether it was maintaining his balance, attempting to draw contact or taking an outright cheap shot at Manu. Only Bryant knows for sure.

Jackson noted how it was impossible to judge a person's intent from viewing a videotape, but the more he looked at it the more he became convinced the contact was not incidental.

Read Chris Sheridan's full story



Let's Make A Deal

Former Nuggets GM and current ESPN NBA analyst Kiki Vandeweghe puts his GM cap back on and either green lights or red lights some of the latest trade rumors.

Daily Dish: Deal or no deal

 

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