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Heat big favorites, but rest of East has different flavor

By Steve Popper, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) –

The new order

Miami may still be at the top but the pack chasing directly behind the Heat may take a drastic turn this season. Orlando is basically disbanded. The Bulls are facing a season without Derrick Rose, along with almost all of the bench help he had last year. And the Knicks and Nets have surfaced as contenders on paper. But they figure to have as much luck as the last pack had, pursuing without a chance.

The MVP

Come on, what does LeBron James have left to prove? Well, now that he’s got the championship ring to go with the Olympic gold and the individual honors, he can set out to chase the Michael Jordan trophy case.

The dark horse

What would you think if I told you the Bulls could still be a troublemaking team come playoff time? Well, if they lose Rose, the only player equal to James in talent and work ethic, for nearly the entire season, they do have the best coach in the East — Tom Thibodeau. They will work and grind and find a way.

Life after Linsanity

The Knicks let the greatest phenomenon in NBA history walk away when Jeremy Lin left as a free agent for Houston. And they replaced him with a player who admittedly was out of shape last year.. Disaster, right? Well, except that Raymond Felton is probably a better talent than Lin and definitely a better fit for the Mike Woodson Knicks. Addveterans Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni and the Knicks are far better at point guard.

Surprise player

You gotta have heart, right? Well, Jeff Green does — proof comes from his time on the operating table undergoing heart surgery that cost him nearly all of last season. But he looked ready and able in preseason, providing the Celtics with a much-needed athletic presence.

Rookie to watch

The Bobcats’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the sort of tenacious worker any team would love to have. Jared Sullinger showed hints in the exhibition schedule that the Celtics may have struck gold with a player who dropped in the draft. But there is some fascination in the Knicks’ third-best point guard and the oldest rookie in the game, Pablo Prigioni, who shows flashes of Jason Kidd.

Most improved

The Nets might be the most improved team just by being healthy in their move from Newark to Brooklyn. But the player who is ready to take a step forward is the player they wanted to give away: Brook Lopez.

The Eastern champ is …

The Knicks are better. The Nets are better. The Sixers and Pacers might be better and the Celtics might have one more run in them. But they are all still chasing the Heat and James.

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