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NBA Eastern Conference preview 2013-14

Paul Pierce (34) and Kevin Garnett (2) have made their way from the Celtics to the new-look Nets.

Stuart Ramson/AP

Paul Pierce (34) and Kevin Garnett (2) have made their way from the Celtics to the new-look Nets.

Gary Washburn examines what to expect from each team, with squads listed in predicted order of finish:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. Brooklyn Nets

Last season: 49-33, lost in first round. Coach: Jason Kidd.

Starting five: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez.

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Outlook: The Nets are going to play this season with an attitude, as Garnett and Pierce each want to prove they aren’t washed up, and Williams, Lopez, and Johnson want to rebound after the embarrassing first-round playoff loss to Chicago. The questions are whether the Nets can blend defensively, whether Pierce can accept a lesser scoring role, and whether Garnett can contribute at age 37. If those things happen, it could be a special season.

2. New York Knicks

Last season: 54-28, lost in conference semifinals. Coach: Mike Woodson.

Starting five: Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani, Tyson Chandler.

Outlook: Not sure whether the Knicks have improved from last season. Amar’e Stoudemire had another knee surgery and will be coming off the bench. Bargnani, acquired after failing to meet lofty expectations in Toronto, has to do more than shoot spot-up 3-pointers. The Knicks also will be playing with the realization that Anthony will opt out of his contract and be a free agent next season. So this could be his last season in New York.

3. Toronto Raptors

Last season: 34-48, missed playoffs. Coach: Dwane Casey.

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Starting five: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas.

Outlook: This is a potential breakthrough season for the Raptors, who added Gay last season to an already talented bunch. The key, however, is the development of Lithuanian center Valanciunas, who had an impressive summer league and is looking to become a scorer in the paint. DeRozan must do more than just score, and Lowry has to stay healthy and avoid shooting too much.

4. Boston Celtics

Last season: 41-40, lost in first round. Coach: Brad Stevens.

Starting five: Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Kelly Olynyk.

Outlook: Not exactly the roster fans envisioned a few months ago, but the Celtics are in rebuilding mode with a new coach and a slew of new players. The key will be whether Green can flourish in a primary scorer role and whether Olynyk can fulfill his vast potential and learn the NBA game quickly. The Celtics will struggle until Rajon Rondo returns from a knee injury, which could be another two months.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

Last season: 34-48, missed playoffs. Coach: Brett Brown

Starting five: Michael Carter-Williams, James Anderson, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes.

Outlook: Well it’s a fresh start for the 76ers, who tried to run with the big boys last season by acquiring Andrew Bynum for a deep playoff run. But the season turned out to be a disaster and this one could be the same. The 76ers will run out a bunch of retreads, rookies, and others, trying to win the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. It’s going to be a long season.

CENTRAL DIVISION

1. Indiana Pacers

Last season: 49-32, lost in conference final. Coach: Frank Vogel.

Starting five: George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, Roy Hibbert.

Outlook: The Pacers are no longer considered dark horses. Anything short of a conference final appearance would be a disappointment, so the Pacers will be one of the biggest games for their opponent all season. Can they handle that pressure? Is Granger finally healthy? Is George ready for superstardom after his contract extension? Is Hill good enough to lead this team through a minefield of point guards? If those answers are yes, the Pacers could return to their ABA glory with a title.

2. Chicago Bulls

Last season: 45-37, lost in conference semifinals. Coach: Tom Thibodeau.

Starting five: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah.

Outlook: Much is expected from the Bulls with Rose coming back from a missed season because of a knee injury, and they will have payback on their minds. Rose will elevate this team to another level, and Butler will serve as a shutdown defender and capable scorer. Chicago kept its roster mostly intact, and if the Bulls remain healthy, they will compete fiercely with the Pacers, Heat, and Nets for East supremacy.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

Last season: 24-58, missed playoffs. Coach: Mike Brown.

Starting five: Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Earl Clark, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao.

Outlook: Mike Brown returns for a second stint as coach to much different circumstances than when he left following the LeBron Decision. Irving is the franchise player, and Varejao is returning from an injury-marred season. The Cavaliers have playoff-level talent if the younger players mature quickly. Clark was a nice pickup after he finally developed into a capable player in Los Angeles.

4. Detroit Pistons

Last season: 29-53, missed playoffs. Coach: Maurice Cheeks.

Starting five: Brandon Jennings, Chauncey Billups, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond.

Outlook: The Pistons used their money wisely to sign Smith and then took a chance on the mercurial Jennings. If it all works out, the Pistons will snap their playoff drought. Drummond could be a star in the making, and Monroe is quietly a potential All-Star power forward. If that duo continues to improve, Smith becomes a leader, and Jennings stops trying to be Allen Iverson, the Pistons will be a factor in the East.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

Last season: 38-44, missed playoffs. Coach: Larry Drew.

Starting five: Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders.

Outlook: This is a very interesting team with some pieces that should give other clubs fits. Will Mayo finally live up to his potential? What about Sanders after a contract extension? Is Brandon Knight really a point guard? The Bucks will find all that out, and if the group can mesh quickly, it could make a playoff push. General manager John Hammond has some intriguing players coming off the bench such as Gary Neal, John Henson, and rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

1. Miami Heat

Last season: 66-16, won NBA Finals. Coach: Erik Spoelstra.

Starting five: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, LeBron James, Chris Bosh.

Outlook: The Heat definitely have enough to three-peat but the question is whether the remaining players besides LeBron James have enough to help the four-time MVP out. Miami was a few seconds from losing in the Finals to San Antonio, and Wade and Bosh both had sub-par seasons. And what will Michael Beasley and Greg Oden bring to the table? If either can stay healthy and focused, it could be another special season in South Beach.

2. Washington Wizards

Last season: 29-53, missed playoffs. Coach: Randy Wittman.

Starting five: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene, Marcin Gortat.

Outlook: Owner Ted Leonsis has demanded the playoffs or coach Randy Wittman and general manager Ernie Grunfeld could be gone. And their recent trade with the Suns to acquire Gortat further exemplifies their desire to win now. They are good enough for one of the three projected playoff spots up for grabs, especially if Beal continues to improve. He and Wall could be one of the league’s best backcourt tandems in the coming years.

3. Atlanta Hawks

Last season: 44-38, lost in first round. Coach: Mike Budenholzer.

Starting lineups: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Elton Brand, Al Horford.

Outlook: It’s hard to determine what the Hawks are trying to do. They really didn’t go young because they signed Brand and Millsap. They have a couple of good young players but still didn’t get the legitimate center they needed. So, without Josh Smith, things will largely remain the same. The Hawks will be average, fighting for 35 to 40 wins, nothing more.

4. Charlotte Bobcats

Last season: 21-61, missed playoffs. Coach: Steve Clifford.

Starting five: Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, Al Jefferson.

Outlook: While perhaps the most fruitful draft in 11 years is approaching next June, the Bobcats want no part of the lottery again. It’s time for winning. They want to take a major step forward this season, and while they will be headed for another high draft pick, this team will be improved. Jefferson is Charlotte’s first legitimate low-post threat. Cody Zeller has nice skills and Walker is improving. The goal should be 30 wins.

5. Orlando Magic

Last season: 20-62, missed playoffs. Coach: Jacque Vaughn.

Starting five: Victor Oladipo, Arron Afflalo, Tobias Harris, Glen Davis, Nikola Vucevic.

Outlook: The Magic figure they need one more lottery pick to officially take the next step in rebuilding, so this will be another transition year with players such as Oladipo, Harris, Maurice Harkless, and Andrew Nicholson getting plenty of playing time. Orlando will be interesting because it has talent but it is painfully young. Davis, the former Celtic, could be dealt because he may not fit into Orlando’s long-term plans.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe

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