Nearly a month into the young NBA season, the balanced Eastern Conference has already had its share of surprises and disappointments.

Last year’s Eastern conference champions, the Philadelphia 76ers, have retained the nucleus of a team that won 56 games a year ago.

But, like last season, Philadelphia has been plagued with injury problems.

Starters Aaron Mckie and Eric Snow can never seem to stay healthy and 35-year-old all-star center Dikembe Mutombo has been hampered recently by back and knee injuries.

Last year’s league MVP Allen Iverson has tons of heart and talent, but is also very fragile. Frequently injured when in the lineup, he routinely plays at less than full strength.

Last year head coach Larry Brown and the 76ers put together a magical season. But with a starting lineup that is almost never intact, it’s unlikely Philadelphia will enjoy the same success they did last year as conference champions.

Last year the Milwaukee Bucks were on the cusp of greatness, falling a game short of reaching the NBA Finals. Lead by the “Big Three” of Sam Cassell, Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson, the Bucks are a team that is just beginning to realize its potential.

The acquisition of power forward Anthony Mason has given Milwaukee the forceful inside presence that they so sorely lacked last season. Forward Tim Thomas has also provided scoring in a bench role. With the addition Mason, the Bucks picked up right where they left off last season and will be in the thick of the conference title race.

The Toronto Raptors are ready to build on last season, when they made the first playoff appearance in franchise history. Vince Carter leads a team that returns all-star Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Alvin Williams.

Veteran Hakeem Olajuwon has been solid at center for Toronto and guards Dell Curry and Morris Peterson give the Raptors a serious three-point threat.

In order for the Raptors to win the East, Carter will have to make the jump from being just a highlight player to a crunch-time performer.

The best surprise of the early season thus far has been the incredible play of the New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons.

The Nets performed a major team overhaul this off-season by making a simple two-player swap. They wisely shipped prolific point guard Stephon Marbury to the Phoenix Suns for Jason Kidd, and are reaping the benefits. Arguably the best pure point guard in the league, Kidd instantly makes everyone around him better. Forwards Kenyon Martin and Keith Van Horn have benefited most from the change.

Rookie Richard Jefferson has contributed and, if he can stay healthy, Kerry Kittles will continue to be effective. Kidd has New Jersey out to a quick Atlantic Division lead and has shown no signs of letting up anytime soon.

After finishing last season with one of the conference’s worst records, rookie coach Rick Carlisle has the Pistons playing team basketball and winning games.

All-star Jerry Stack-house is no longer a one-man show, getting help from a strong supporting cast that includes rebounding and defensive specialist Ben Wallace and veterans Cliff Robinson, Jon Barry and Corliss Williamson.

Stackhouse, who averaged nearly 30 points per game last season, has seen his points and shots per game each fall by seven.

With a more balanced scoring attack and strong team defense and rebounding, Detroit has the potential to make some noise in the playoffs.

In addition to the blossoming Nets and Pistons, the Eastern Conference has seen its share of disappointing teams as well.

In the summer of 2000, the Orlando Magic shelled out nearly $200 million to sign star forwards Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady.

Hill was sidelined almost all of last season by an ankle injury while McGrady emerged as one of the brightest young talents in the league.

Now, Hill is healthy and both are teaming up for the first time in a Magic uniform to form one of the most potent one-two punches in the NBA (after Shaq and Kobe, of course). But, like last season, the Magic has stumbled to a dismal 7-8 record out of the gate and has a lot of ground to make up to get where they can be considered a playoff-caliber team.

The Washington Wizards are an interesting team that, despite the addition of legend Michael Jordan, has shown little sign of improvement. While Jordan has maintained a solid scoring average of 26 PPG, the rest of the team has struggled big time, causing Washington to drop 10 of its first 13 games.

In addition, coach Doug Collins has been forced to play Jordan an average of 39-41 minutes per game, nearly ten more than he had initially hoped to keep the point-forward on the floor.

If the rest of the Wizards fail to step up, and Jordan continues to log heavy minutes on a nightly basis, it could be a long season in the nation’s capital.

While the West is dominated by the mighty LA Lakers, the East is much more wide open and without a clear favorite. Things will surely heat up as the season progresses, as teams like the underachieving Magic make a run at the new kings of the East, New Jersey and Detroit.

Gerton can be reached at

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