Not even a 10th of the way into the season and already the contenders and the pretenders are starting to emerge in the NBA.

In the Eastern Conference, the defending champion Boston Celtics and the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers are the early frontrunners. Joined by the surprising Atlanta Hawks who are undefeated through their first six games the Detroit Pistons provide depth atop the conference. Dwayne Wade (if he can stay healthy) and Dwight Howard should keep the Heat and Magic in the mix throughout the season.

In the highly talented Western Conference, the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Hornets have established a tier above the rest. Unfortunately, they are only competing to see who will be second fiddle to the L.A. Lakers, who so far are in a class by themselves atop the West.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic: The Celtics are already pulling away from the weak Atlantic division, just as they did last year. They finished the season 25 games ahead of second-place Toronto and 26 ahead of Philadelphia both of which made the playoffs. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are as solid as ever, Paul Pierce is playing with the confidence of an NBA Finals MVP, and the young tandem of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins are beginning to play like veterans. To no surprise, the Celts are my early pick to win it all.

Central: Depending on how Allen Iverson fits into his new home in Detroit, the division will almost certainly be a two-way battle between the Cavs and the Pistons. LeBron has already dropped over 40 points twice, and his backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West has been solid especially because their primary charge is to get the ball to James. The jury is still out on Detroit awaiting a few more games by Iverson in a Pistons jersey but I am looking forward to the Cavs’ trip to Auburn Hills Nov. 19.

Southeast: It’s great to have a selective memory in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks have apparently forgotten their sub-.500 record last season (37-45) and are playing like the team that pushed Boston to seven games in the first round of last year’s playoffs. A core of young talent, including Al Horford, Joe Johnson and Josh Smith leads the Hawks this year. Mike Bibby adds a dangerous veteran presence, but an injury to Smith will really test the young Hawks over the next two to four weeks. The Heat and the Magic are just behind Atlanta, waiting for their chance to pounce which I imagine might happen soon.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Northwest: The Utah Jazz are off to a great start, but an injury to their young star Deron Williams might change their luck. Utah was my early pick in the Northwest, but that is now contingent on the health of Williams. There is a lot of hype about the very young Portland Trailblazers, but they might be a few years away from being a threat in the West. With the exception of Raef LaFrentz (who is probably out for the season), the entire Portland lineup is under 30. Another injury to Greg Oden has Blazer fans questioning last year’s top draft choice, but they have to be excited with the impressive play of their one-two punch: 24-year-old Brandon Roy and 23-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge.

Pacific: The Lakers are off to an impressive start, but strong play by Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns make the Pacific more interesting than people thought. The Lakers, though, are a cut above the rest. Through their first six games all of which went in the “W’ column L.A. had a remarkable 19.8 point average margin of victory.

Southwest: This division is the most muddled in the NBA. The New Orleans Hornets and Houston Rockets have been good, but not great. Perennial contenders San Antonio and Dallas have been so bad that they are behind Memphis in the standings. Of course, it is still early, but there has to be concern for Spurs and Mavericks fans.

Although Houston’s trio of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest have been solid thus far, I expect Chris Paul and the Hornets to pick up where they left off last season and pull away with the division. The addition of James Posey, plus solid play by David West and Peja Stojakovic, might be enough to make the Hornets a serious challenger for the Lakers.

Starr’s column appears weekly. Starr is a member of the class of 2009.



Comic: UR sus

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