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03-10-2003, 09:58 PM
Breaking down Week 19
by Chad Ford

Michael Jordan's fuming. His uninspired Wizards are quickly becoming the poster child for the L-eastern Conference. Once MJ moves upstairs this summer, will he fire them all and start again from scratch?
While we're at it, will the Pacers, Nets and Pistons follow the Wizards down the yellow brick road to hell? With just four games separating the top seed from the sixth seed, and just seven games separating the top seed from the eighth seed ... anything goes for the last 18 games of the season.

Of course, the way the Western Conference's fab four are playing, does it even matter? The Mavs, Kings, Spurs and Lakers are all rolling as we move into the last month of the season. However, one of those teams could be heading for disaster. Keep reading to get the inside scoop...

Jordan to blow up the Wizards?

Michael Jordan was livid. Battered and bruised. Tired and old. Playing on one leg. Bleeding from the chin. Walking uphill in the snow both ways. The old guy slumped into his locker Sunday afternoon and looked around. His leading scorer, the one for whom he traded away promising upstart Richard Hamilton, was on a soap box crying to reporters. Jerry Stackhouse wasn't as upset about the Wizards' 97-96 loss to the Knicks on Sunday as he was about his season-low seven shots from the field.

"I can't do anything if I don't have the ball," Stackhouse told the Washington Post. "Just play, man. I'm just playing. Man, talk to the coach. Talk to the coach. I ain't got the answers. That ain't how I play. I've been in the league seven years. They've seen me play. They know what I do to get off. What we're doing right now ain't for me."
Jordan saw things much differently. He's been doing a lot of that this season.

"Jerry got into a really passive state when he got those two fouls," Jordan said. "He really never got into a rhythm, and it started on the defensive end. He never really got out of the blocks. It is important for him to be offensive-minded and take more shots, but it's important, too, to focus on the defensive aspect." In another corner of the locker room sat Jordan's first and only No. 1 pick, Kwame Brown. His 28 minutes and nine points against the Knicks were a major aberration. For the month of March, he's been averaging 5.3 ppg in just over 18 minutes a night. That's down from the 16 ppg and 12 rpg he averaged in October. The talent exuding from Brown is almost as palpable as the passiveness.

Everywhere Jordan looked, he saw disappointment. Larry Hughes, Brendan Haywood, Christian Laettner, Bryon Russell -- all disappointments.
In a locker room full of players, coaches and reporters, you wonder if Jordan had ever felt so alone. "It's going to take a lot better play from other players on this team and not just a one-man situation" to make the playoffs, Jordan said. "It's very disappointing when a 40-year-old man has more desire than 25-, 26-, 23-year-old people, diving for loose balls, busting his chin, doing everything he can to get this team in the playoffs, and it's not reciprocated from the other players. I can look in the locker room and see a couple guys willing to do those things, but I can look and count a lot more on my fingers who won't do that.

"Until those guys let go of that macho, cool attitude and all that and do the necessary things it takes to play the game of basketball, it's going to be tough for Washington to make anything. I'm doing everything I can to try to verbalize as well as physically show what it takes to win. It's up to them to receive that."

They're not getting it. Nothing could frustrate Jordan more. With his fledgling Wizards now two games out of the final playoff spot in the East and a brutal schedule (including nine of 10 on the road from March 21 through April 8) coming up, the Wizards are on the verge of collapse.

"It's frustrating because I know what these players are all capable of. In a sense, I know more about them than they do," Jordan said. "I believe they can perform, and they've done it, there have been situations where they have played exceptionally well. It's why we can't do it consistently that baffles me." Which is why Jordan looked at a reporter incredulously when they asked whether the Wizards' woes would prod him into returning for yet another season.

"Are you nuts?" he asked, laughing. Instead, Jordan promised to throw the babies out with the bath water when he resumes his role as president of basketball operations. "All it has motivated me to do is know that some of these guys may not be here next year when I go back upstairs." How sad is that. Two years ago, Jordan said he was returning to the game, in part, to teach the young kids on his team how to play basketball.

Two years later, Hamilton and Courtney Alexander are already gone. You can be sure that if Stackhouse decides not to exercise his opt-out, he'll be be the next Wizard kicked to curb. Brown may follow him out the door this summer before the little trade value he has left dissipates. Hughes, Haywood, Jared Jeffries, Juan Dixon all have promising upsides, but none can turn this team around.

Isn't it ironic that two seasons later Jordan's one great executive insight into his team is that the players he's assembled aren't worth the effort? When Michael Jordan can't save you -- even the 40-year-old limping one -- nothing can.

Top seed in East up for grabs

For the first half of the season, the Nets, Pacers and Pistons dominated the Eastern Conference. But as each team falters in the home stretch, several GMs in the East wonder aloud whether any of them have what it takes to get to the Finals. "I think it's really wide open," one Western Conference GM told Insider. "The Nets are missing something this year. I think Jason Kidd's free agency has been a huge distraction. The Pacers were playing above their heads early on. I don't think they have the emotional maturity of discipline it takes to win a tough series. And the Pistons just don't have the talent. If the Pacers played like the Pistons, they'd be unstoppable."

So if the Nets, Pacers and Pistons aren't the ones, who are the best candidates to come out of the East?

ARE THE SIXERS THE TEAM TO BEAT?

Start with the Sixers, winners of 11 of their last 13. The team is now only three games out of the top seed in the East. They're the only team in the East with a winning record on the road this season. And with a balanced schedule for the rest of the season, and the injection of some inside toughness from Tyrone Hill -- the Sixers are back. "We're smelling it. We're like wolves right now," Aaron McKie told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

After a rocky start, the Sixers have gotten back to playing Larry Brown basketball. Great defense, unselfish play and lots and lots of Allen Iverson (averaging 31.6 ppg on 49 percent shooting in March). "I wondered, at times, what we were going to do," Brown said Sunday night after the Sixers fell to the Lakers 106-92. "But I'm proud of my guys, proud of what I've been seeing. We're competing every night, putting ourselves in a position to win and playing like a team." Lakers coach Phil Jackson agreed.

"I really liked them a lot," Jackson said. "They're playing really good defense. They're in sync. They've got an inside-outside game that's effective, and Iverson is playing as well as I've seen him play. I've seen New Jersey and Indiana, and I think [Philadelphia] has a great shot at winning the East."

THE BUZZ IN NEW ORLEANS

Not far behind the Sixers are the Hornets, winners of eight of their last nine. Could the Hornets (a preseason favorite) finally be ready to make a run at the top spot in the East? "It's not out of the realm of possibilities that we can make it," coach Paul Silas said. Of course that last loss came at the hands of the Nets on Sunday night in a sloppy 102-92 defeat. But the Hornets have a reason to be optimistic. They've made their latest run without their all-star point guard, Baron Davis.

Davis is expected back next week, but he'll find a different team from the one left. Davis missed 19 consecutive games to recover from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. With Davis out, David Wesley and Kenny Anderson have been running the point and defensive stopper George Lynch has set a new tone at the two guard position. Davis has looked great in practice, but coach Paul Silas and the rest of his teammates are understandably concerned about upsetting the chemistry that seems to be working. Without Davis in the lineup the team is 13-6. Still, no one is arguing that Davis was hurting the team.

"The way Baron has been practicing, he's exactly what we need to finish out these final 20 games," Lynch told the Times Picayune. "He deserves his starting spot, but we just have to figure out a way to continue our defensive pressure." With Davis gone, Jamal Mashburn has done most of the heavy lifting for New Orleans on the offensive end, averaging 25.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists in February. The team is also using its height to dominate opponents. A starting lineup of Lynch (6-foot-8) at shooting guard, Mashburn (6-8) at small forward, P.J. Brown (6-11) at power forward and Jamaal Magloire (6-11) at center is one of the biggest in the East. "There aren't too many teams that have that type of size," Brown said.

FEELING THE MAGIC IN ORLANDO

While the Magic currently stand in the seventh seed, seven games back of the Pistons in the East, they are quickly becoming the proverbial team no one wants to meet in the first round of the playoffs. And for good reason. The Magic have won seven of their past nine games since the mid-February trade that brought Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek into the fold. Who needs Grant Hill (or Mike Miller for that matter) with the way Gooden and Giricek have played since arriving in Orlando.

Gooden's 17.4 ppg and 11 rpg on 51 percent shooting combined with Giricek's 17.6 ppg and 5.4 rpg on 50 percent shooting have given the Magic a major boost on offense. But it's been the awakening of the Big Sleep, Tracy McGrady, that makes the Magic perhaps the most dangerous team in the East. Since the Feb. 20th trade, McGrady's averaged 37.8 ppg, 7.9 apg and 5.9 rpg.

"Whoever they were going to put on me, they were just at my mercy because I was in a rhythm all night," McGrady told the Orlando Sentinel. "Once I get that rhythm I feel like nobody can stop me. I was just in a rhythm where I felt like if I pulled up from half court I was going to make the shot." In Sunday's win over Denver, McGrady made 13 of 24 shots, six of his 12 three-pointers and 11 of 14 free throws on his way to 43 points. Thirty-seven of those points came in the first half. He didn't play a minute in the fourth quarter.

While all mid-season trades don't work out this well, the Magic knew they needed to shake things up after a so-so start to the season. "A midseason trade can really serve as a springboard, a catalyst to good things," Magic assistant coach Johnny Davis told the Sentinel. "That's what has happened here. It brought a new infusion of intensity, a passion, and everyone has picked up on it. You hope to keep riding it."
The news should just keep getting better for the Magic. The team plays seven of its next 10 at home before embarking on a tough three-game Texas road trip at the start of April.

Are Lakers ready to hit a pot hole?

Based on their play the past six weeks, it's become pretty clear the Mavs, Kings, Spurs and Lakers have set themselves apart from the rest of the pack. Yes, the Blazers and T-Wolves continue to play well in the West, and the Sixers and Hornets are surging in the East, but none of them have anything on the West's Fab Four at the moment. With the Lakers now passing the Jazz and securing the sixth seed in the playoffs, can anyone beat L.A.?

The Lakers have won nine of their last 10, but their run may be a little misleading. The Lakers have played an incredible 10 of their last 12 games at the Staples Center. They've played just one road game (a loss to Seattle) in their last eight. We'll let the conspiracy theorists do what they will with that posh schedule. But now the real challenge begins for the Lakers. They play eight of their next 10 on the road, including games against the Kings, Spurs, Pistons, and T-Wolves. Fortunately, they also get to play the Bulls, Clips (only technically a road game) and Hawks during the same stretch.

Still, given the Lakers' anemic 11-16 road record this season are they in for trouble? Remember the Lakers are still closer to the West's ninth seed (the Rockets) than they are to the fifth-place T-Wolves.
"I think we're in position," coach Phil Jackson told the L.A. Daily News, "to do what we want to do."

Most GMs agree. Road-trip or not, the Lakers are finally clicking again. Kobe has been going for a while, but it was the Lakers' recent rediscovery of Shaquille O'Neal that has put them over the top. "A lot of guys can step up and hit shots in this league," Sixers coach Larry Brown told the L.A. Times on Sunday. "And I don't want to take anything away from any other player. But Shaq, the way he's playing now, when he's healthy and happy and feeling good, Shaq's presence is something nobody else can offer."

Sixers star Allen Iverson agreed. "Shaq's the hardest man in the league to guard," Iverson said. "You can't guard him. Nobody can guard him. You can't guard him one-on-one. If you double him, you have so many guys out there licking their chops for the opportunity to hit a wide-open shot. "Coach said something earlier, at halftime. He said he doesn't understand why the Lakers don't just throw him the ball every play. By not doing that, you allow teams the chance to keep playing with them. Just imagine if they kept throwing him the ball on every play. Nobody could do anything."
International draft dealings

Exactly when are young international players eligible for the NBA draft? That question has been the source of some confusion since David Stern announced at the All-Star Game that the league and the Players Association had agreed to a new interpretation of the rule.

For the past month agents have been going on the assumption that any international player who turns 18 this year (from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2003) will be eligible for this year's draft.

That belief was supported, in part, by Stern's comments at the All-Star Game about players turning 18 in a "calender year" and "making our agreement consistent throughout." The current CBA uses a "calender year" interpretation when determining the last year international players are eligible to be drafted.

However, NBA spokesperson Tim Frank told Insider this morning that the most popular interpretation wasn't correct. According to Frank, international players must turn 18 by draft day to be eligible for the draft. Players who turn 18 after that date are still ineligible.

While that won't affect the draft status of players like Darko Milicic and Sofaklis Schortsianides, it will affect the draft status of at least one popular international player, 7-foot-4 Korean center Ha Seung Jin. Ha was reportedly mulling putting his name in this year's draft.


Peep Show

Atlanta Hawks: The good news is that DerMarr Johnson, who cracked four vertebrae in his neck in a car accident in the preseason, may be cleared to practice soon. "It's all very premature," Babcock said. "It's just encouraging. He may very well be able to practice before we finish the season. If he's able to practice, is he going to be able to play in a game? That much is unknown." The bad news is that center Nazr Mohammed is out for the season with a stress fracture in his right foot.

Chicago Bulls: Michael Jordan isn't the only one who's upset with the lackluster play of younger players. Coach Bill Cartwright went nuts on the Bulls after they were burned by the Clips on Saturday. "Dive on a loose ball," Cartwright told the Chicago Tribune. "Take a charge. Block a shot. We're averaging 93 points a game. It's plenty. All this [garbage] about offense. Guard somebody."

Cleveland Cavaliers: Wesley Person is just the latest former Cav to question GM Jim Paxson's gutting of last year's team. "Everyone wants to know what direction they're going in," Person told the Morning Journal. "I'll take it one up and say I don't understand what they're trying to do. 'We had a good nucleus here last year. Tyrone Hill never got healthy last season. We missed his inside presence. We were one stretch of good basketball away from making the playoffs. In the East you always have a chance. If Tyrone and (center Zydrunas Ilgauskas) had played half the games together last year, we would have been fine. I'm glad it's past me now."

LRB
03-11-2003, 12:18 AM
Thanks for the article OP. I seriously wonder though if there is any team in the east that would be good enough to crate the top 6 in the west. If so, why do the media fixate so on the Leastern Conference?

jayC
03-11-2003, 12:45 PM
I will go one farther top ten teams in the west would give an eastern conference team all it could handle. Golden State is playing really well, along with seattle, and everyone else.

More insider please.