For years, the East has been the inferior conference in the NBA. Offseason moves by the Orlando Magic, however, could give the league a little more parity entering the 2007-08 season.
With a new coach and armed with one of the top free agents on the market this summer, the Magic open their most promising season in years against the Milwaukee Bucks in Orlando on Wednesday.
The Magic have improved steadily behind emerging superstar Dwight Howard over the last three seasons, but the additions of coach Stan Van Gundy and free-agent forward Rashard Lewis have raised expectations to levels unseen in Orlando since the summer of 2000, when the team traded for Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill.
That tandem didn't work out well in Orlando. Hill, who left as a free agent in July, was injured for most of his time with the Magic. McGrady, meanwhile, demanded a trade - and was granted one to Houston - after the team's 21-61 finish in 2003-04.
That dreadful season, however, helped the Magic win the NBA lottery. They chose Howard, then 18, with the first pick and won 36 games in each of his first two seasons. In 2006-07, Howard and the Magic took the next step, advancing to the playoffs for the first time in four years after going 40-42.
Despite the progress, the Magic didn't have the personnel to compete with the top teams in either conference. They committed to changing that during the offseason after being swept in their first-round playoff series against Detroit.
Replacing fired coach Brian Hill was the first priority. After University of Florida coach Billy Donovan accepted and then spurned Orlando's five-year, $27.5 million offer, the Magic turned to Van Gundy, who helped mold the Miami Heat into a championship team during his tenure there from 2003-05.
Van Gundy has implemented a fast-paced offense that he hopes will be fed by lockdown defense.
"We're going to work our butts off on the defensive end of the court and then we're going to try to run the ball up the floor," he said. "Give them freedom to play the game. We're going to try to play that way until proven we can't."
Van Gundy's offense got a major boost when the Magic arranged a sign-and-trade deal to acquire Lewis from Seattle one month after their new coach was hired. Lewis, who averaged a career-high 22.4 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting 39.0 percent from 3-point range last season, is expected to create a dynamic frontcourt duo with Howard.
"I don't know if the formula of a great perimeter player and a great inside guy has failed very often," Van Gundy said after the deal was finalized. "Those are always very good teams. There may be other ways to do it, but the most tried-and-true formula in this league is to have one great perimeter player and one great inside player."
Having Lewis draw the defense outside should only help Howard, who has already developed into one of the top young big men in the NBA. He averaged 17.6 points and 12.3 rebounds while shooting 60.3 percent from the field last season, but worked to increase his range and consistency during the offseason.
"I've been shooting all summer, trying to gain confidence in my jump shot," Howard said. "Coach Stan, he's emphasized that I try and shoot the ball instead of always forcing somebody. I think the biggest thing is expanding my game - being able to turn around and take a shot, make the defenses play me a little bit different."
The first team to get a look at the new Orlando offense will be Milwaukee, which gave up 104.0 points per game last season - fourth-most in the NBA.
Although they're coming off a miserable 28-54 season, the Bucks have reason to be optimistic. In 2006-07, four of their five opening-night starters missed significant time with injuries.
Star guard Michael Redd, sidelined for 29 games by a strained tendon in his left knee, is excited about the team's possibilities if the Bucks can stay on the court.
"We're healthy this year," said Redd, Milwaukee's leading scorer in each of the last four seasons. "It's kind of like a fresh start for the guys who've been here. We'll be alright."
The Bucks retained the core of last year's team by re-signing point guard Mo Williams to a six-year, $51.5 million contract in July. They also brought in some outside help, drafting Chinese star Yi Jianlian and signing former Bucks forward Desmond Mason. Both players will be in the starting lineup Monday.
"I think this team is a little bit more versatile and a little bit deeper," said Mason, who spent the last two seasons with New Orleans. "There's a lot of different characteristics about this team that we didn't have with the last team."
That's good news for a Milwaukee club that lost three of four games against Orlando last season. The three defeats were by an average of 22.0 points.
Copyright 2007 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited