Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington previews

Sorry the season preview stalled for a couple of days. Here’s a three-for-one to finish with the Eastern Conference teams.

If we’re making predictions on Sept. 20, I’ve got the East playoff seedings thusly: 1. Miami, 2. Chicago, 3. Detroit, 4. New Jersey, 5. Cleveland, 6. Milwaukee, 7. Indiana, 8. Washington. I wish I could pick one team from last season’s top eight to fall out and one team from the bottom seven to move up. But I just don’t see it happening.

The 76ers aren’t going to finish ninth again this season. It’s too hard to see Orlando making up six games on Washington, even if the Wizards slip to eighth. I think the Celtics and Knicks will fight for ninth, followed by Orlando, Philadelphia, Toronto, Charlotte and Atlanta.

The Knicks will be a dozen games better than last season – - and probably save Isiah Thomas’ job – - but not the 17 games they would need to be the No. 8 seed. The Hawks and Bobcats will play a home-and-home on Jan. 18 and 19 with major implications in the Greg Oden derby. Washington has the best chance of being back in the draft lottery in the future.

The playoffs could be very interesting thanks to the NBA’s new seeding system. The Nets could wind up as the No. 4 seed if they finish with a worse record than the Central Division top dogs. There also is no guarantee about New Jersey having home-court advantage for a first-round series.

I can see the Cavaliers beating the Nets, as well as Milwaukee giving Detroit all it can handle. The East champion, however, seems destined to be the Heat again, unless you like betting against Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.

The list of first-time All-Stars starts and ends with Dwight Howard, although Kirk Hinrich could also get consideration if the Bulls have a strong first half behind Ben Wallace. Joe Johnson probably will put up All-Star numbers, albeit on a bottom-feeding team.

Philadelphia 76ers
Coach: Maurice Cheeks
Starting five: PG Kevin Ollie, SG Allen Iverson, SF Andre Iguodala, PF Chris Webber, C Samuel Dalembert
Off the bench: SG Kyle Korver, SF Rodney Carney, C Steven Hunter
Most underpaid: Its hard to imagine how bad the Sixers would be defensively if they didnt have Andre Iguodala. As it was, they gave up 101.3 points with Iguodala playing all 82 games last season and averaging nearly 38 minutes. Iguodala ranked among the league leaders in steals and was one of the few players to hold Kobe Bryant in check for even one game. Iguodala also averaged 12.3 points even though he was getting barely eight shots a game playing alongside Allen Iverson. Iguodala was a $10.3 million player who made $2.1 million on his rookie contract. He can start talking extension with the Sixers after this season.
Most overpaid: Its a shame teams arent allowed to chip in more than $3 million to facilitate trades involving mega-salaried players. Chris Webber is owed $43 million the next two seasons, a contract that makes him all but impossible to move. Yet Webber is still a productive player at age 33 – - he averaged 20.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and played in 75 games last season – - and could be a valued contributor elsewhere. Even so, the Sixers are a better defensive and rebounding team without Webber on the floor. He was a $5.91 million player who made $19.1 million.
Outlook: Allen Iversons contract runs through 2008-09 but this could be his last season in Philadelphia. He has been linked in trade rumors everywhere from Denver to Atlanta to Boston but seems destined to stay until Comcast sells the team. The Sixers went 7-13 to close last season, which projects to a 29-53 season.

Toronto Raptors
Coach: Sam Mitchell
Starting five: PG T.J. Ford, SG Anthony Parker, SF Morris Peterson, PF Chris Bosh, C Rasho Nesterovic
Off the bench: PG Jose Calderon, SG Fred Jones, SF Joey Graham, PF Andrea Bargnani
Most underpaid: The last game Anthony Parker played in the NBA came as a member of the Orlando Magic on March 6, 2000 against Washington. He went on to become a star for Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he played five seasons for the Israeli powerhouse and was twice Euroleague MVP. Now Parker is coming back to the NBA at age 31 with Toronto. He needed no introduction to Raptors fans after scoring 24 points and hitting 10 of 15 shots, the last to win an exhibition game for Maccabi against Toronto last October. He signed a three-year, $12 million contract and could start in his first season back. The success of Parker will be closely watched by general managers around the league.
Most overpaid: The Raptors made a low-risk move in acquiring Rasho Nesterovic from San Antonio for Matt Bonner and Erik Williams. They were able to find a 7-footer to play center alongside Chris Bosh, even though Nesterovics productivity does not match his contract. Nesterovic can block shots and make a team better defensively but he sat more than he played last season with the Spurs. He still owns career averages of 7.0 points and 5.7 rebounds. Nesterovic was a $2.39 million player who made $6.7 million.
Outlook: The Raptors have gone a combined 93-159 since Boshs arrival yet still convinced him to sign a contract extension through 2009-10. The jury is still out on No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani, as well as the decision to trade Charlie Villanueva.

Washington Wizards
Coach: Eddie Jordan
Starting five: PG Antonio Daniels, SG Gilbert Arenas, SF Caron Butler, PF Antawn Jamison, C Brendan Haywood
Off the bench: SG DeShawn Stevenson, SF Jarvis Hayes, PF Darius Songaila, C Etan Thomas
Most underpaid: The Wizards probably couldnt help but smiling when Gilbert Arenas voiced his displeasure at being the “16th man at USA Basketball training camp. The story of Arenas career is defined by the slights he perceives. He vowed to punish USA assistant coaches Mike DAntoni and Nate McMillan by lighting up their NBA teams this season. Arenas was the leagues fourth-leading scorer (29.3 points) after Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and LeBron James last season, and played more minutes than anybody in the NBA. He also took nearly seven 3-pointers a game and led the league in turnovers. Arenas was a $16.06 million player who made $10.2 million.
Most overpaid: By late March, Washington coach Eddie Jordan had made the decision to start Etan Thomas over Brendan Haywood, hoping Thomas could bring a physical presence inside. But Thomas suffered a lower back strain, missed the last three games of the regular season and barely played against Cleveland in the playoffs. Thomas averaged 4.7 points and 3.9 rebounds for the season, with a contract that owes him $26 million through 2009-10. He was a $1.2 million player who made $5.4 million.
Outlook: The Wizards made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1987 and 1988. They have now let Larry Hughes and Jared Jeffries leave the past two summers while making only minor moves – - like signing DeShawn Stevenson for the league minimum – - to replace them.

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