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02-27-2003, 05:38 AM
The least are still in the East
by Chad Ford
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Sportswriters are always looking for angles, and all of us thought we had one in early December. The Lakers were floundering, the Spurs didn't look so hot, the Blazers were combusting early -- all hell was breaking loose in the Western Conference.

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the NBA's tracks, the blue collar Eastern Conference teams looked great. The Pacers and Nets were playing elite basketball. The Sixers and Celtics were rolling. And let's not forget that some of my colleagues were still convinced that the Wizards were going to win it all.

Oh, what a difference three months make.

The Lakers are steamrolling everyone. The Spurs have won nine of their last 10. Since starting the season 10-11, the Blazers are 26-9. The Mavs and Kings are still the teams to beat out West. And while we're at it, the T-Wolves look like they wouldn't have a problem thumping anyone in East.

Then there's the East. The top three teams are all in funk. The Pacers have lost their last five and eight of their last 12. The Pistons are on an 0-4 streak. And last year's Eastern Conference champs, the Nets, have lost their last three and six of their last nine.

Their closest competition, the Sixers, Celtics and Hornets, all look incredibly fragile. The Sixers have no low-post presence. The Celtics have only a shooter's chance. And the Hornets are so desperate for some point guard help after losing Baron Davis that they're referring to Kenny Anderson as a savior down in the Bayou.

The Bucks suddenly look a lot tougher with Gary Payton and Desmond Mason, but they're still soft in the middle. Michael Jordan is playing like 48 minutes a game in Washington, which is pretty good sign that things aren't going well there. And did we mention that the Magic no longer believe that Grant Hill will return in time for the playoffs?

Now that games start to really matter, is there any question that the best four or five teams in the NBA all reside in the West? It's not just that the East's top teams are struggling. It's how they're struggling.

Five of Nets' last six losses were to sub .500 teams. Three of the Pacers' last five losses were also to cellar dwellers. Only the Pistons have an inkling of an excuse. Their losses over the last week include beatings by the T-Wolves, Kings and Hornets.

Here's another shocking statistic. The Pistons are the only team in the Eastern Conference with a winning record on the road. The Nets are a terrible 12-17 away from home. The Pacers aren't much better, going 13-16. In contrast, all four of West's top teams sport winning records when they aren't at home.

East teams are also struggling to win games against their Western Conference foes. Only four teams, Detroit, Boston, Indiana and New Jersey, have winning records against the West. But the best any of them can do is 12-9.

The West, on the other hand, has nine teams with winning records against the East. Dallas is 21-4 when they play the East. Golden State is a remarkable 14-6. Now you know why coach Eric Musselman claims that the Warriors would not only make the playoffs, they'd have home-court advantage in the first round if they switched conferences. Even the Grizzlies are a respectable 8-8 versus the East. Only the Nuggets and Clippers have been badly outplayed by Eastern Conference teams.

What's going on? Insider takes a look at the Nets, Pacers and Pistons today in search of answers . . .
O'Brien is insistent: Place isn't the thing
Peter May / Boston Globe
Cutting down the Nets

Rock bottom. That's what happens when you lose to the Cavs this season. GM Jim Paxson has made no secret of his team's desire to land the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. For Paxson, that simply means that the Cavs need to lose games.

Jason Kidd
Point Guard
New Jersey Nets

56 19.9 6.0 8.5 .424 .835

No one is accusing the Cavs of losing games intentionally. No NBA team does that. But teams certainly can play with an arm tied behind its back. The Cavs tried, on several occasions with the game winding down Tuesday night, to let the Nets back into the game. But at the end of the night, the Nets were staring at their third straight loss to a sub. 500 team.

"This is one of the lowest losses," Lucious Harris told the N.Y. Post. "You've got to take pride. We're not playing with pride out there. To let them come out and jump on us the way they did? Basically we [stunk]. Period. Top to bottom. Everybody. We're not playing the way we started off the season. I have no idea [why] I can't put my finger on it."

"We know we're not playing our best," Jason Kidd told the N.Y. Times. "So we have to just get out there, turn it around, and do what we do best. Maybe it's time for us to refocus instead of just relying on talent. But the morale's good, everybody's ready."

The Nets played without Kenyon Martin Tuesday night. They've been without Dikembe Mutombo (though some think that's a good thing) for months. But injuries aren't the only problem.

The team has been shooting terribly. Tuesday night the Nets shot just 35.6 percent from the field against the second-worst defensive team in the NBA. Since the All-Star break, the Nets have shot above 43 percent from the field only once, a win against the Pacers. They've shot below 40 percent from the field in six of their last nine games.

The Nets also aren't getting enough scoring from players like Martin, Richard Jefferson and Kerry Kittles. Kidd has led the team in scoring 27 times this season. The team's record is just 14-13 in those games.

"If Jason's primary focus has to be scoring," one Eastern Conference scout said, "then he isn't doing what he does best. Kidd is so great at getting players easy baskets. He's had to shoulder an unusual amount of the scoring burden this season and it just isn't a good thing. I think that's why San Antonio appeals to him. He wouldn't have to carry the load all by himself."

Rodney Rogers
Power Forward
New Jersey Nets

45 7.1 4.2 1.8 .394 .677

Coach Byron Scott has turned to his bench for answers, but there aren't many there. Harris and Aaron Williams have been solid. But the team's biggest disappointment may be Rodney Rogers. Rogers was supposed to give the team instant offense off the bench. Instead, Rogers is averaging just 7.1 ppg on 39 percent shooting from the field.

"It comes down to trusting our bench that they'll keep the score or make a move if we're down," Kidd told the Post. "We rely on our bench to come through and that hasn't happened. When we play defense, we're one of the best teams, and that's just not the starting five, but our bench, because we use our depth to hound guys and wear people down. That's what we haven't done. We haven't used our strength, our bench. And our bench, one-through-12, we have to play defense and we haven't done that."

Scott has been at a loss for words during the Nets' latest stretch. Earlier this week he wondered aloud if his young team had forgotten what got them to the NBA Finals last year.

"I think we are thinking about winning a championship, but I think we are forgetting about the other steps you got to take first," Scott told the Times. "I think we are just a little ahead of ourselves as far as getting to the finals. I don't think we are discarding the regular season or our division or the Eastern Conference for the best record. I think we are jumping ahead of ourselves instead of going back and seeing what you got to achieve first to get to the next step."

Skidding Nets Smell Up Court
Fred Kerber / New York Post
Nets Seem Stuck in Finals Fog
Steve Popper / New York Times
Bench Marks Not High For Nets
Brian Lewis / New York Post
Can Indiana keep up the pace?

The Pacers claim a five-game losing streak isn't reason to panic. But with a brutal schedule coming up, the Pacers better start getting things fixed now, before the team really hits rock bottom.

"You can't panic because you lose a couple of games," coach Isiah Thomas told the Indianapolis Star. "This is the NBA, and you're not going to go out on the road and consistently beat good teams in their building. You have a lot of teams right now that are going through some tough times and that's a part of this league."

Ron Artest
Indiana Pacers

49 14.9 5.3 2.8 .425 .721

Still, there's reason for concern. Ron Artest just hasn't been right since he was nailed with a four-game suspension before the All-Star break. He's had several small outbursts since then, but now things seem serious again. The team flew to Boston for tonight's game without Artest.

"Coach just told me to stay," he told the Star. "He said he didn't want me to go on the trip." Thomas claimed that Artest's exclusion from the trip was for "disciplinary reasons."

Artest, the team's second-leading scorer, is averaging just 11.1 ppg on 32.5 percent shooting in February. A sore elbow and a few messed up fingers are part of the problem, but the Pacers' decision to leave him behind will surely raise eyebrows.

Michael Jordan has his own theories about what's happening to Indiana. "They've lost their continuity," Jordan said. "When you lose your rhythm, things don't come easily. But everybody goes through it and it's tough to overcome. They're having a bad time, but I think they'll be OK."

GM Donnie Walsh is trying to lower expectations. The Pacers, to this point, have overachieved. Walsh expected his team to come back to Earth a little.

"At this point, I think it's important to know that we've lost nothing," Walsh said. "We haven't won anything either. We're right back where we were when the season started. It's hard to stay at that level we were at up to this point unless you have a great, great team, which this team could be someday. It's these kind of moments that you go through, I think, that get you there eventually. You just have to find a way to get through times like this, and find a way to do it without breaking apart."

It doesn't get any better from here. The Pacers have a brutal schedule coming up. Ten of their next 11 games are against playoff teams. That includes a brutal four-game Western Conference road trip against the Warriors, Lakers, Blazers and Kings. Jermaine O'Neal knows it.

"We've got a helluva schedule coming up in March. Hopefully, having our backs against the wall and pistols to our heads makes us come out fighting like caged animals. We have to go back to Stage 1."

Jordan's Wizards keep Pacers in fall
Mark Montieth / Indianapolis Star
Pacers see no reason to panic
Sekou Smith / Indianapolis Star
Pistons not hitting on all cylinders

The good news for the Pistons is that their coach, Rick Carlisle, feels that his team is still giving maximum effort every night. Tuesday night the Piston held the high-octane Kings to just 81 points. Unfortunately, the Pistons could only muster 75.

"I thought our effort was exceptional," Carlisle told the Detroit Free Press. "I thought we played hard, though not always well. The Kings are No. 1 in the league in field goal percentage defense (they are actually second). They make it hard on you."

The bad news is that the Pistons still have road games left versus the Lakers, Warriors and Blazers. After that, as my colleague Marc Stein pointed out in his Daily Dime on Tuesday, the Pistons have a much easier schedule.

However, there are still are some serious areas of concern. Starting center Zeljko Rebraca still has no timetable for his return. Rebraca has been suffering from an irregular heartbeat. There was actually talk today in the Detroit Free Press about heart surgery for Rebraca. That doesn't sound good.

Michael Curry
Detroit Pistons

53 3.0 1.7 1.4 .395 .767

Carlisle has also been mulling a change at small forward, where Michael Curry continues to be invisible on offense. The problem is that he doesn't have many options. Rookie Tayshaun Prince has played well, but, he's a rookie. Corliss Williamson is the main guy off the bench, and the team doesn't want to change that. Cliff Robinson is an obvious choice, but he's starting at center right now in Rebraca's absence.

No wonder Carlisle isn't sure what to do. "I am stubborn when it comes to change," he said. "There have been times when we've had to look at the bench for answers. Tayshaun Prince did a great job on Peja, and if it's something we have to look at down the road, we will."

Pistons bow to Kings
Perry Farrell / Detroit Free Press
Rebraca faces big dilemma
Perry Farrell / Detroit Free Press
Let the waiving begin

The Denver Nuggets gave Chris Whitney some love on Tuesday. Can he now find some Magic in Orlando?

Chris Whitney
Denver Nuggets

29 9.6 1.6 4.3 .360 .807

The Nuggets will waive Whitney today and, assuming he clears waivers on Friday, he'll sign with the Magic by this weekend. Whitney asked the team to let him go after the Nuggets traded for Shammond Williams last Thursday.

Whitney wanted to catch on with a playoff contender. The Lakers and the Pacers both showed initial interest in Whitney, but backed off Tuesday. That's fine with Whitney. According to the 6-foot-1 point guard, he wanted to be reunited with friend and Magic coach Doc Rivers all along.

"There's more of a need there for me," Whitney told the Orlando Sentinel. "I just think it's the place for me to go. They made some good moves before the trade deadline. [Drew] Gooden is a good player. Tracy McGrady is an MVP candidate. They play hard. In the East, anything can happen."

It will be interesting to see how Whitney fits into Orlando's point guard rotation. Currently, Jacque Vaughn and Darrell Armstrong have been splitting minutes at the point. Both guards have been playing well.

Whitney was thrilled that the Nuggets granted his request. Sometimes teams are reluctant to let veterans walk away from a losing team. They feel that it makes guys like Whitney less tradeable as the trade deadline approaches. If a team believes that a guy will be waived anyway, why give up something in return for him?

Whitney wasn't the only one packing his bags Tuesday. Bimbo Coles reached a buyout agreement with the Cavs on the remainder of his contract, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. He's expected to be officially waived today. Coles, like Whitney, is hoping to land with a playoff-bound team.

According to the Plain Dealer, the Sonics, Nets, Pacers and Lakers have all shown interest. The Cavs are also trying to work out something with forward Tyrone Hill. Several teams have shown interest in the 6-foot-8 power forward.

"Philly is a front-runner but New Jersey is always a possibility," Mark Bartelstein, Hill's agent, told the Newark Star Ledger. "They're a great team, no question. We'll just have to see."

Cleveland won't cut Hill unless he is willing to walk away from at least part of the money they owe him -- like the $280,000 he would stand to get from another team.

"The only way we would cut him is if it benefits us as well as him," GM Jim Paxson told the Star Ledger.

Magic are close on Whitney
Jerry Brewer / Orlando Sentinel
Nuggets granting Whitney's wish
Marc J. Spears / Denver Post
Pacers pass on Whitney
Mark Montieth / Indianapolis Star
Coles' career finished as member of Cavs
Branson Wright / Cleveland Plain Dealer
Hill likes thought of joining Kidd
Brad Parks / Newark Star-Ledger
Peep Show

Orlando Magic: Coach Doc Rivers thinks Grant Hill returning in time for the playoffs is a real long shot. "I'm not ready to say he's done, but I'm ready to say most likely," Rivers told Florida Today. "It's really close. If he does have to have the surgery, even if he's back practicing in four weeks, that means the season is over. If we make the playoffs, there's a chance he could play then and that would be one hell of a dilemma for us. We just don't know right now. When he first went out, we thought one week or two weeks. Then, we saw more doctors. Even the guy who wants to do surgery says that he'll be back by the end of the season. I told the guy, 'It's unrealistic. That would be eight weeks sitting. That's awful difficult to come back from.'"

Utah Jazz: Karl Malone sounds like he isn't ready to retire. "If you watch and listen to things, you're getting rushed out the door," Malone told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But they never just come out and say it. So you keep playing and you keep them at bay, so to speak. Whether it's this year or next year or the next, I don't want a farewell tour. I'd rather be here one day, be gone the next. With all due respect to all the great players who have had farewell tours, I feel that it really gets blown way out of proportion."

Chicago Bulls: Pete Newell, who runs the NBA's big man camp in Hawaii every year, thinks Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler are on the verge of becoming special players. "I like Curry; he has an NBA body right now," Newell told the Chicago Tribune. "He's a strong kid who just has to develop a more physical presence. Chandler has so much talent and quickness that he can be effective with his back to the basket once he develops a move. These kids are just out of high school and have so much to learn about movement and footwork and just general understanding of the game. But their recent games show what they're capable of."

Los Angeles Clippers: Andre Miller is starting to emerge from his funk in L.A. He's averaged 10 apg over the last three. "I think he's been beat up and hurt," coach Alvin Gentry told the L.A. Times. "I think he's finally healthy. He's not a guy who complains, so ... He is playing better. I don't think he's played the way he anticipated, but he's played better and we've played better. We just don't have anything tangible to show for it. It's the story of our season."

Golden State Warriors: The team has a ton of young prospects, but it's been the veterans off the bench who have the Warriors riding another winning streak. The subs -- Earl Boykins, Bob Sura, Adonal Foyle and Chris Mills -- have accounted for 27, 39 and a season-high 56 points in the three consecutive victories over New York, Atlanta and the Nuggets. "We've asked all year for guys to just play their minutes," Musselman told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Our bench guys have done a great job of doing that lately. They've been big especially in the second half of back-to-back games when maybe they're a little more lively than the starters."

Memphis Grizzlies: So much for Mike Miller bringing the Grizzlies some respectability this season. Miller sprained a ligament in his back, and likely will sit out a week. "It's not good," Griz coach Hubie Brown told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The Grizzlies are also waiting to get Michael Dickerson back from an abdominal strain. "(Monday) night was the first time I saw us get in your face for 48 minutes," Brown said. "I've been waiting a long time for that. . . . I still want to see us with Dickerson and Miller getting big minutes. I want to see what the toughness will bring to the table. Those two pieces at 100 percent give us an added dimension."

Washington Wizards: Center Etan Thomas could miss the remainder of the season because of a fractured left eye socket that has caused double vision and extensive swelling, the Washington Post reported. The good news is that the Wizards activated Jahidi White Tuesday. White has missed the entire season with a foot injury.

Rivers doubts Hill will return for playoffs
John Denton / Florida Today
Karl Malone, unplugged: A Q&A
Steve Aschburner / Minneapolis Star Tribune
Big future for big men
K.C. Johnson / Chicago Tribune
Pain Keeps Jackson Off the Bench
Tim Brown and Elliott Teaford / Los Angeles Times
Bench players major reason for recent surge
Brad Weinstein / San Francisco Chronicle
Newest Grizzly out with bad back
Ronald Tillery / Memphis Commercial-Appeal
Thomas Out, White Returns
Steve Wyche / Washington Post