The Central is clearly the stronger of the Eastern Conference's divisions. Atlanta, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Indiana and Detroit all could be contenders for the NBA Finals.
Atlanta may be the most intriguing team in the conference. After New York swept the Hawks in the second round, Atlanta's management decided to make wholesale changes, the biggest coming at guard. Team leader and point guard Mookie Blaylock was sent to Golden State for Bimbo Coles, and the Hawks also acquired Isaiah Rider and Jim Jackson from Portland, making for a talented -- and crowded -- back court.
Charlotte should be much improved a year after missing the playoffs. Although the Hornets do not have a superstar, they have good team chemistry and will be deeper with the return of F Anthony Mason, who missed last season with a ruptured biceps tendon, and the addition of rookie G Baron Davis, who figures to be the team's sixth man.
Indiana has fallen a bit from its usual perch atop the Eastern Conference on most NBA prognosticators' lists. The Pacers, whose roster lists six players who are at least 33 years old, appeared to lose steam at the end of last year's abbreviated season. An 82-game schedule and the fact that they have essentially the same lineup this season does not bode well for the defending division champions.
The story in Detroit is much the same: The Pistons are a team that can be very good at times, then lose to an also-ran the next night. They are led by G Grant Hill, who led the team in points (21.1), rebounds (7.1) and assists (6.0) per game last season. But he has yet to ascend to a Michael Jordan-type status -- a player who can carry the team. The Pistons also are waiting to hear whether C Bison Dele is definitively retiring. Although Dele had an off year (10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game), his departure would leave the Pistons without a proven center.
The Bucks can be dangerous, led by two of the NBA's better one-on-one players, F Glenn Robinson and G Ray Allen, and G Sam Cassell is healthy after missing 42 games a year ago. Chicago, Toronto and Cleveland will have trouble making waves in this tough, physical division.
Last season: 31-19 (2nd)
Lost to Knicks in second round.
Added: G Isaiah Rider, G Jim Jackson (trade with Blazers), G Bimbo Coles (trade with Warriors), C Lorenzen Wright (trade with Clippers), G Jason Terry (Arizona), F Cal Bowdler (Old Dominion), G Dion Glover (Georgia Tech).
Lost: G Mookie Blaylock (traded to Warriors), G Steve Smith and G Ed Gray (traded to Trail Blazers), F Tyrone Corbin (free agent, Kings), F Grant Long (free agent, Grizzlies), C Mark West (free agent).
Coach: Lenny Wilkens, seventh season, 282-178.
Keys to success: The Hawks, playing in the new Philips Arena, need to find a leader to succeed Blaylock. Other questions: Can Terry adjust quickly to the NBA, and can Rider avoid controversy? Forwards are crucial: Alan Henderson played in only 20 games last season, and LaPhonso Ellis is recovering from a serious eye injury.
Last season: 26-24 (5th)
Did not make playoffs.
Added: C Todd Fuller (free agent, Jazz), G Baron Davis (UCLA), F Eddie Robinson (Central Oklahoma), F Lee Nailon (Texas Christian).
Lost: F Charles Shackleford (free agent, Bucks), F Chuck Person (free agent, SuperSonics), F Chucky Brown (free agent, Spurs).
Coach: Paul Silas, second season, 22-13.
Keys to success: How easily Davis makes transition from college to pro game. Return of F Anthony Mason, who missed last season with a ruptured biceps tendon.
Last season: 13-37 (8th)
Did not make playoffs.
Added: G B.J. Armstrong (free agent, Hornets), C Will Perdue (free agent, Spurs), G Fred Hoiberg (free agent, Pacers), Gs James Cotton and Hersey Hawkins (trade with SuperSonics), C Chris Anstey (trade with Mavericks), F Elton Brand (Duke), G Ron Artest (St. John's).
Lost: G Brent Barry (traded to SuperSonics), F Mark Bryant (free agent, Cavaliers), C Andrew Lang (free agent, Knicks), C Bill Wennington (free agent, Kings), G Ron Harper (free agent, Lakers), F Keith Booth (free agent).
Coach: Tim Floyd, second season, 13-37.
Keys to success: Whether Brand, Artest and Hawkins can help an offense that ranked last in the NBA in points and rebounds per game.
Last season: 22-28 (7th)
Did not make playoffs.
Added: F Lamond Murray (trade with Clippers), G Andre Miller (Jazz), G Trajan Langdon (Duke), F Mark Bryant (free agent, Bulls).
Lost: G Derek Anderson (traded to Clippers), F Johnny Newman (traded to Clippers, then to Nets).
Coach: Randy Wit0tman, first season.
Keys to success: Whether F Shawn Kemp can repeat last season's performance, one of the best of his career, and whether 7-foot-3 C Zydrunas Ilgauskas can return to form after a broken foot sidelined him for most of last season.
Last season: 29-21 (3rd)
Lost to Hawks in first round.
Added: F Michael Curry (free agent, Bucks), C Terry Mills (free agent, Heat), G Derek Harper (trade with Lakers).
Lost: G Joe Dumars (retired), F Korleone Young (free agent, 76ers), F Charles O'Bannon (free agent), G Khalid Reeves (free agent).
Coach: Alvin Gentry, third season, 45-42.
Keys to success: Whether F Grant Hill, among the best one-on-one penetrators in league, can get even better. And with a healthy Christian Laettner, who missed most of last season with an Achilles' tendon injury, Detroit has a strong front court.
Last season: 33-17 (1st)
Lost to Knicks in Eastern finals.
Added: F Jonathan Bender (Picayune, Miss., high school), F Jeff Foster (SW Texas State).
Lost: F Antonio Davis (traded to Raptors), G Fred Hoiberg (free agent, Bulls).
Coach: Larry Bird, third season, 91-41.
Keys to success: How well Fs Al Harrington, Bender and Foster will make up for the loss of Davis. G Reggie Miller should benefit from league's crackdown on physical play.
Last season: 28-22 (4th)
Lost to Pacers in first round.
Added: F Danny Manning and F Dale Ellis (trade with Magic), F J.R. Reid (free agent, Lakers), F Charles Shackleford (free agent, Hornets), G Rafer Alston (Fresno State).
Lost: G Michael Curry (free agent, Pistons), G Dell Curry (free agent, Raptors), F Chris Gatling and F Armen Gilliam (traded to Magic).
Coach: George Karl, second season, 28-22.
Keys to success: How well the back court, led by a healthy Sam Cassell, who missed nearly the entire '99 season with an ankle injury, will respond to team's lack of skilled center.
Last season: 23-27 (6th)
Did not make playoffs.
Added: F Antonio Davis (trade with Pacers), G Dell Curry (free agent, Bucks), G Muggsy Bogues (free agent, Warriors), C Alek Radojevic (rookie from Yugoslavia).
Lost: F John Wallace (free agent, New York), G Micheal Williams (free agent).
Coach: Butch Carter, third season, 28-55.
Keys to success: Addition of Davis bolsters front line that already includes Kevin Willis and Charles Oakley. Signing of point guard Bogues fills team's biggest need.