Can anyone beat the New Jersey Nets? Just wanted to see how that looked on paper. Yes, the Nets are the class of the conference. Yes, there must be hope for the Cubs. With the addition of Dikembe Mutombo at center and Rodney Rogers off the bench and with Kenyon Martin on the verge of stardom, the Nets are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

What's next, the Cubs winning?

So can anyone chase the Nets down? The Detroit Pistons are the NBA's Anaheim Angels. Quick, name a Pistons starter. Two? Gotcha! But they'll win a lot of games playing defense and playing unselfishly.

Don't count out the Philadelphia 76ers either. It would be easy after a season of injuries led to an early playoff exit. But if Allen Iverson goes to practice and Larry Brown remembers he is there, they could make a run.

From there it is a lot of ifs. If the Pacers can make a trade for a point guard (Gary Payton?) … if the Magic can magically rebound the ball … if the Hornets can keep Jamal Mashburn healthy (and stay off of Bourbon Street) … if the Celtics can again get the magic from Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker … if Vince Carter plays like Michael Jordan … if Michael Jordan plays like Vince Carter ...

Yes, it's an iffy conference.

(In predicted order of finish)

Central Division

Detroit Pistons

Last season: 50-32, lost to Celtics 4-1 in conference semifinals.

Probably not built to go far in the playoffs without a true star, but they should win a lot of games, as they did last season, surprising everyone. They defend harder than most with the versatile Cliff Robinson, and they have the league's best rebounder in Ben Wallace. They gave up on their best scorer, Jerry Stackhouse, but believe they can get enough from Richard Hamilton and free agent Chauncey Billups. Their go-to guy is sixth man Corliss Williamson, who heads up a second unit that could beat the team's starters.

Indiana Pacers

Last season: 42-40, lost to Nets 3-2 in first round.

They have all the pieces, assuming Ron Artest doesn't go to pieces. The problem is a rash of early injuries, with questions about Reggie Miller's ankle and Artest's bothersome finger. Brad Miller has emerged as a top center in the East … what? And Miller still makes the big shot, especially in the playoffs. They've got depth, with Ron Mercer in an ideal backup position and tough Jeff Foster. If they can pull off a deal for Gary Payton, they can jump the Eastern competition and go to the Finals. For now, Jamaal Tinsley has to realize everyone else should be shooting.

Milwaukee Bucks

Last season: 41-41, missed playoffs.

So you think you had a bad few months? George Karl's lament goes on. Not long ago he was thought of as one of the elite coaches in the game. But in a six-week stretch, his Bucks failed to make the playoffs and his USA Basketball team suffered three losses at the world championships, leaving Karl more depressed than usual. The Bucks blamed their failure on Glenn Robinson and traded him, but divisive Anthony Mason remains. And he might play center at 6 feet 8 inches. Toni Kukoc will help, but he could break down. Tim Thomas gets his chance to start, but can he endure a full season? Re-signing Michael Redd didn't solve their interior problems.

Atlanta Hawks

Last season: 33-49, missed playoffs.