Training camps around the NBA began Tuesday and already players are getting arrested and not telling their teams about a broken hand here and there. And that’s just the Knicks. Elsewhere, Gary Payton isn’t showing for practice, the Lakers have forgotten the regular season (they’re talking about the 2004 Olympics), and Michael Jordan has announced he’s coming back. Then he retired. Now he’s coming back again. Retired. Back. Retired. Back. Whatever.
Obviously, professional basketball — in America, that is (we need to start making that distinction these days) — is in full swing, and to kick the season off, here’s a preview of the muddled, incomprehensible, and most of all, hopeless, Eastern Conference from top to bottom.
New Jersey: The Nets are better. Trading Keith Van Horn for Mount Mutumbo was good. Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin are about to be All-Stars. They are far and away the favorites in the East. But they still don’t stand a chance against the Lakers.
Orlando: For the third straight season, everything depends on Grant Hill’s health. If Hill is healthy, the Magic finish second in the division and maybe advance to the conference finals. But if Tracy McGrady has to fly solo across the Atlantic again, the Magic do not leave the first round.
Washington: You can get tired of MJ’s comeback routine, but you can’t deny that the Wizards have suddenly become a force in the East, if such a thing exists. Washington is still weak in the post and could use a lot of help on defense, but how do you contain both Jerry Stackhouse and Jordan?
Boston: The Celts used to be dangerous. They used to be able to kill you on any given night with their three-point shooting alone. They used to be able to kill you on any given night with Paul Pierce alone. Then they traded Kenny Anderson for Vin Baker.
Philadelphia: It’s been said for a few years now that the Sixers are really just Allen Iverson. Finally, it’s true — there’s no one on this team except for Iverson. Seriously, Iverson’s is the only name on the roster. They’re all gone. Poof. Still, this one man team makes the playoffs because that man is A.I.
Miami: The Heat are just unlucky. I feel bad saying bad things about Miami because it’s really no one’s fault the franchise is falling apart. Hopefully, rookie Caron Butler fast-forwards Pat Riley’s rebuilding process now that Alonzo is gone.
New York: Things are looking really, really bad for the Knicks. Antonio McDyess is a solid offseason pickup, but you can’t have guys arrested (Kurt Thomas) and others not tell the team about injuries until the start of training camp (Latrell Sprewell). These guys have no discipline and even less drive.
Indiana: It’s really a toss-up between Indiana and New Orleans for first place in the Central division, but Indiana goes first just because “New Orleans” doesn’t look right. The Pacers are young and talented; perfect for the regular season but gone quickly in the playoffs.
New Orleans: The Hornets could have beaten the Nets last year had Jamal Mashburn been playing alongside Baron Davis. Now that Mash is back, New Orleans could run deep into the postseason. But only if they move back to Charlotte.
Toronto: Vince Carter has a lot to prove. After Carter went out with a knee injury toward the end of last season, the Raptors won nine straight and inexplicably made the playoffs without their superstar. Which begs the question, is Vince really a superstar?
Atlanta: Things are starting to look up in the ATL, most notably the Hawks’ new and improved front line of Theo Ratliff, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glenn Robinson. Jason Terry can light it up. All-Star Weekend is in Atlanta this season, but the playoffs won’t be.
Milwaukee: With coach George Karl coming off the worst five months in coaching history, Ray Allen needs to step it up. Allen must join the ranks of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce if Milwaukee wants to go anywhere besides the lottery.
Detroit: You can’t really blame the Pistons for trading away their star player, because Stackhouse was going to bounce after this season anyway. You can blame the Pistons for not finding someone better than Rip Hamilton in return. Detroit lost its leader and any chance of the postseason.
Chicago: The Bulls are starting to look like the East’s Clippers — a collection of really, really, ridiculously young, fun and talented players: Jay Williams, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and Jamal Crawford. Chicago is going to get a lot of excitement, a lot of Sportscenter highlights, and — like the Clips of the last two years — a lot of losses.
Cleveland: There’s nobody good on this team. You hate to doubt the integrity of those virtuous, boy scout NBA executives, but it really seems like the Cavs are just waiting to win the lottery and draft high school phenom LeBron James next year. This is the worst team in the NBA, and don’t be surprised if Cleveland becomes the worst team in history as well.
So New Jersey, Orlando, Indiana, New Orleans, Washington, Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia make the playoffs in that order. And my one bold prediction for the year: Washington over New Jersey in the East finals.
You heard it here first.