View Full Version : The mysterious success of Nets, Pistons, Celtics

04-21-2002, 11:11 AM
Here's the story (http://espn.go.com/nba/playoffs2002/columns/may_peter/2002/0419/1371007.html)

Friday, April 19
The mysterious success of Nets, Pistons, Celtics
By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com

For those of you who went to Vegas last fall and had New Jersey, Detroit and Boston as the 1-2-3 picks in the Eastern Conference, well, you can put down your pina colada, call the limo driver, make sure the Gulfstream V is fueled and ready to go and also make sure the help at the beachfront estate knows the yacht is well stocked.

You can go through the NBA archives back to Les Harrison, Tri-Cities and Bobby Wanzer and never find a season like the one that just concluded in the wild, whacky, Anything Goes Eastern Conference. Three teams, out of the playoffs last season and apparently destined for another trip to the lottery this year. Three teams, two of which got little to no help in the one area that was supposed to help them -- the draft -- and still enjoyed a spectacular turnaround.

The only plausible answer: Phoenix.

Yup, if there is a common thread to the surprising successes of the Pistons, Nets and Celtics, it may lie in the Valley of the Sun. Last summer and winter, the Suns made deals with each of the three Eastern leaders, and the results are there for all to see.

New Jersey, of course, is the most visible beneficiary, receiving the estimable Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury. Who knew? Kidd promised the Nets would win at least 40 games and make the playoffs. Everyone chuckled. Did this fellow know nothing of the Nets' history, a sorry and occasionally sordid tale of airballs and injuries? Did he know nothing of Yinka Dare, Ed O'Bannon and the tragedy of Drazen Petrovic?

Kidd was wrong. The Nets won 52 games, doubling their win total from the year before, when they went a more Net-like 25-57. Kidd was a virtuoso from the outset, getting the ball up the floor and, unlike Marbury, getting it into eagerly awaiting hands. Players discovered that they'd be rewarded if they kept up with The Kidd. They did and they were. He may be the league's Most Valuable Player. If we say anything more about the Nets, a computer virus will materialize with an alert. The systems are still not ready.

But the Suns didn't stop with the Nets. Determined to eradicate all the apparent evil-doers, they also shipped veteran Cliff Robinson to Detroit for two Pistons who were, to be charitable, spare parts: John Wallace and Jud Buechler. Robinson always has been a much-appreciated, if sometimes overlooked, defensive stalwart. He allowed new coach Rick Carlisle to move the intimidating Ben Wallace back to power forward while also giving Detroit a bona fide scoring presence inside and outside.

The Pistons did a mirror image on last season, going from 32-50 to 50-32. Robinson blended seamlessly on offense with the re-focused Jerry Stackhouse on offense and the intimidating Wallace on defense. Detroit proceeded to win its first division title since the glory days of the Bad Boys, an atmosphere and ethic which basketball boss Joe Dumars has tried to re-create. (He should know. He was one of them.)

The Celtics are the last ones to benefit from the Suns' largesse. They were moving along at a pretty good clip (31-23) in February when they looked at the hapless East and decided they had as much a chance as anyone to win it. They still do. So in came Rodney Rogers, who gives the Celtics a third scoring option and a new look as a center. In came Tony Delk, who hopefully will give them scoring and defense. Out went a rookie who'd fallen faster than Enron, Joe Johnson, as well as a No. 1 pick the Celtics didn't want (for luxury tax concerns) and two cap bodies, Milt Palacio and Randy Brown.

It took some time for the trade to reap fruit. The Celtics went 10-9 in the first 19 games after the deal but then won eight of their last nine. Coach Jim O'Brien loves to use the smaller lineup with Rogers in the middle, a lineup which we will see a lot of in the first round of the playoffs against the taller 76ers.

So if the Suns try to promote Bryan or Jerry Colangelo as Executives of the Year, now you might know why. They made three teams better. Of course, their own team didn't benefit, falling out of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.

But there were other extenuating circumstances as well. Who could have forecast the Eastern Bloc-ish collapse in the East, where three of the top four finishers last year not only struggled but flamed out. Milwaukee, Miami and New York, who finished 2-3-4 last year, didn't even make the playoffs. They all had their reasons. Did anyone foresee that collective collapse? If they did, please call before the next Powerball drawing.

The No. 1 Sixers, meanwhile, fell to No. 6 due to an unsparing rash of injuries. They are going to have their hands full with the healthy Celtics.

The Pistons and Celtics also made huge strides without any substantive help from the draft, which usually is the case for an upgrade from Secaucus-bound entry to playoff entry. New Jersey had a decent pick (No. 7) but traded down for bodies, and two of them, Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins, had meaningful roles in their 180. Jefferson is a candidate for the All-Rookie first team.

The Pistons had the ninth pick in the draft last year and took Rodney White. He helped them as much this year as he did last year, when he was at North Carolina-Charlotte. Another rookie, Zeljko Rebraca, did help them. But he wasn't a lottery pick.

The Celtics had three No. 1s and went to great lengths in June to tell everyone how these lads were going to really, really help. Well, Joe Johnson was Mr. November and then dropped like a stone. He still had enough cachet in February, however, to be the lure for Phoenix in the Rogers/Delk deal. Kedrick Brown, who went No. 11, one slot after Joe Johnson, is still a human pogo stick, while Joseph Forte made White look like a gamer. Forte, who went 21st and ahead of Tony Parker, whom the Celtics looked at closely, had one basket all season.

You figured it out yet?

You can also add to the list of wonders the fact that these teams didn't exactly draw on vast reservoirs of experience. This is only the Nets' second playoff appearance since 1994. The Pistons are back after a two-year lull, while the Celtics have not tasted playoff wine since 1995. None of the three has won a playoff series since 1992. The Nets have won only one in their NBA incarnation, a best-of-five upset of the 76ers in 1984.

As the playoffs start, the three are now being recognized in a roundabout way in that they are favored to advance, although all face stern tests. But the mere fact that we're writing about the Nets, Celtics and Pistons in April along with the word "playoff" instead of "lottery" indicates how far, and how fast, they've come.

Maybe all three privately believed it would end this way. But the next person who tells you, 'I told you so' is going to be the first. And you'd better find a specimen cup.

04-21-2002, 01:29 PM
always appreciate the articles MFFL.....thanks.