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03-31-2003, 03:11 PM
Who will limp to the finish line in the East?
by Chad Ford

For the second straight year, Eastern Conference teams have forced us to endure a season filled with defensive stinkers, flat-out mediocrity and an endless stream of NBDL jokes. So it's only fitting that with 10 games to go in the never-ending NBA season, once again the Western Conference is seeking to supply the punch line.

The top three teams in the West have been bludgeoning the East this season. The top eight playoff teams in the East are 2-12 versus the Spurs, 3-10 versus the Kings and 4-10 versus the Mavs.

Consider this a warning. Avert your gaze while you can. This isn't just ugly. It's Jerry Krause in a thong.

As we head into the final homestretch, we know you have a lot of burning questions about the East playoff race. Insider is here for you. We'll tackle the West Tuesday.

First, let's start with a mailbag question from Peter in Boston.

Q: Why do you keep writing about the East? Does anyone really care?

A: Good question. Got the same one last year. I'll pull a little kung-fu on you here and answer your question with a question. Why do folks still go to Bulls games? There's something compelling about crap. Of course, that's not the only reason. There's that whole ESPN East Coast bias thing. It could be worse. Just imagine if the Red Sox, Yankees or Duke played in the NBA. BTW, Dickie V is picking Duke to win the NBA East this season. "If Coach K can't cut down the nets in the tournament, I'm sure he can cut down the Nets in the NBA East, baby!"

Q: Are the Pistons the worst No. 1 seed ever?

A: No. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Like I always say, there's nothing like winning first place in an ugly pageant. The Pistons are getting it done with great defense, teamwork and consistency. No team in the East has been steadier this year. Just because they don't have any "stars" doesn't mean they're not talented. They have the best defender in the league in Ben Wallace, and a number of guys (Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Clifford Robinson) who, on any given night, can give you 20 points a game. They have a solid bench, a great coach and veteran leadership. With 10 games remaining, the Pistons appear to be a lock for the first seed in the East. That's good news considering the team is 28-8 at home this season.

Insider prediction: Pistons finish season 53-29. First place in the East.

Q: It seems like everyone can't wait to get off the Nets bandwagon this year. Is this team really that much worse than the team that went to the NBA Finals last year?

A: No, they're just different. The Nets, whether they want to admit it or not, have really missed the outside shooting of Keith Van Horn this year. They thought Rodney Rogers would step in and play a similar role. However, his 30 percent shooting percentage from downtown has left the team in a lurch. The good news is that Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson are playing much better in the second half and Dikembe Mutombo is finally healthy. Jason Kidd is still playing at an MVP level this season. The Nets are as dangerous as ever. The team is looking at a fairly easy schedule the rest of the way. It should be able to easily lock up the second playoff spot in the East

Insider prediction: Nets finish the season 51-31. Second place in the East.

Q: At the All-Star break, the Sixers were teetering on the edge of the lottery. Now they're chasing the Nets for the Atlantic Division title. What happened?

A: Allen Iverson. After a very slow start, Iverson has kicked his game into high gear since the All-Star break. Iverson's averaging 28.8 ppg and 6.4 apg. Here's the real kicker, he's shooting 45 percent from the field since the break. That's the best Iverson has shot from the field since his sophomore season. The team is also getting a career year from Eric Snow. Derrick Coleman and Tyrone Hill have turned into a formidable one-two punch in the paint and the combination of Keith Van Horn and Kenny Thomas at small forward gives the Sixers the best of both worlds. They still have major questions in the middle without Todd MacCulloch, but considering that they're playing in the East, it shouldn't keep the Sixers from advancing as far as Iverson can take them.

Insider prediction: Sixers finish 50-32. Third place in the East.

Q: Have the Pacers finally stopped the bleeding?

A: Almost. The team is still waiting for Jamaal Tinsley to return. He's taken the loss of his mother very hard and the team still isn't sure when he'll rejoin it. When he does, will he be focused enough to lead Indiana deep into the playoffs? The Pacers brough in Tim Hardaway to help, but realistically, Tinsley will have to be the guy. The good news is that Ron Artest has now played three consecutive games without incurring a flagrant foul. His 20-point, six-rebound, six-assist, five-steal, three-block masterpiece against the Suns on Sunday is what the Pacers have been missing since the All-Star break. When Artest plays like that, the Pacers are as tough as anyone in the East. Brad Miller is healthy again, Reggie Miller seems to have re-discovered his stroke and Jonathan Bender appears poised to give them some help down the stretch. In other words, don't count the Pacers out just yet.

Insider prediction: Pacers finish 49-33. Fourth place in the East.

Q: I seem to recall you picking the Hornets to win the East in your preseason predictions. What happened?

A: The Hornets admittedly got off to a slow start, but I still believe they're poised to pull off an upset in the first round. Jamal Mashburn is playing at an MVP level this year. Baron Davis looks like he's back and ready to roll. George Lynch has given them a key defensive presence on the perimeter. And Jamaal Magloire has been playing much better since the All-Star break. Along with P.J. Brown, the Hornets have one of the best rebounding frontcourts in the East.

Insider prediction: Hornets finish 47-35. Fifth place in the East.

Q: The Magic have been awesome since the Drew Gooden trade. Any chance of them pulling an upset in the first round?

A: The Magic are the proverbial team no one wants to play in the first round of the playoffs. First, they have a virtually unstoppable star in Tracy McGrady. As good as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan have been this season, McGrady has put together arguably the best second half of the season. McGrady's averaged 36.1 ppg, 6.7 apg and 6.4 rpg on 48 percent shooting since the All-Star break. No one wants to play against someone that hot come playoff time. Rookies Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek are taking some of the scoring pressure off McGrady. Darrell Armstrong continues to be the heart and soul of the team. You have to worry a bit about a team that relies on two rookies (and remember Gooden's injured) and has no real center to speak of. But with T-Mac, anything is possible.

Insider prediction: Magic finish 44-38. Sixth place in the East.

Q: At the rate the Celtics are playing, are they even going to make the playoffs this year?

A: A couple of big wins over the weekend helped. Given the poor play of both Milwaukee an Washington, I don't think they have anything to worry about. A couple of games versus the Heat should catapult them to the 42-win mark. I don't think they'll need any more to get in. The problem with the Celtics is obviously depth. Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, as good as they are, can only do so much. Right now the two are leading the team in scoring, assists and rebounding. After Pierce and Walker, the Celtics' next-leading scorer is Tony Delk with 9.9 ppg. Losing Tony Battie and Vin Baker really hurts. And you wonder if undrafted rookie point guard J.R. Bremer has what it takes to lead the Celtics into the next round. Right now it looks like the luck of the Irish ran out in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.

Insider prediction: Celtics finish 43-39. Seventh place in the East.
Q: In retrospect, did the Bucks make a mistake swapping Ray Allen for Gary Payton and Desmond Mason? I thought they were supposed to be better defensively with Payton?

A: After a slow start the Bucks seemed to be headed in the right direction heading into the February trade deadline. They had gone 14-5 since the start of the year, were finally healthy and seemed poised to make a move in the unstable East. Since acquiring Payton, the Bucks are just 8-13. Their defense has been awful. And they haven't gotten consistent play from anyone other than Payton. Now for the good news, Bucks fans. The Bucks have one of the easiest schedules left down the stretch. They have games against the Heat, Cavs, Bulls, Clippers and Raptors left on their schedule. Assuming they don't completely choke like they did in Denver earlier this week, it's tough to see them slipping out of the playoff completely. Of course, after last year's nose dive, you never know.

Insider prediction: Bucks finish 41-41. Eighth place in the East.

Q: Please don't tell me you're still counting out Michael Jordan and the Wizards. You've been preaching against them since the preseason. Don't you think MJ will find a way?

A: When I went against the grain this fall and predicted that the Wizards would fail to make the playoffs (remember many had them winning the East) I did so believing that there was no way Michael Jordan could last the season. Not only has he lasted, he's been one of the best players in the NBA, even at the ripe old age of 40. I believe in MJ. I just don't believe in his teammates. They Wizards have no front line, no point guard and no one who can sink a big three when the team needs it. Given how poorly the Bucks are playing, it's possible the Wizards can sneak into an eighth seed, but I think their schedule down the stretch (a loss to Denver Sunday night really killed them) will make it tough to catch the Bucks.

Insider prediction: Wizards finish 40-42. Ninth place in the East.

Bulls looking forward

The Bulls have their center and power forward of the future in Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. They have their point guard of the future in either Jay Williams or Jamal Crawford (depending on what day it is). And the have an all-star-caliber two guard in Jalen Rose.

So take a wild guess where the Bulls are going to try to improve this summer. Yes, we know Bulls fans love Donyell Marshall. We know that Jerry Krause is spending a fortune on Eddy Robinson. And we know that Trenton Hassell is the sentimental favorite to push Rose back to small forward.

But as Sam Smith writes in today's Chicago Tribune, the Bulls still need a big, athletic small forward with a sweet outside jumper. Smith breaks down the three guys the Bulls will likely go after this summer.

First, is the Kings' Hedo Turkoglu. Turkoglu, a 6-foot-10, 230-pound swingman from Turkey, is buried on the bench behind Peja Stojakovic, Doug Christie, Keon Clark and a host of other Kings. He's patiently waited his turn to play in Sacramento, but most believe he took a step back this year.

With Turkoglu set to hit the free-agent market in the summer of 2004, and with young prospect Gerald Wallace also progressing, would the Kings be interested in a Turkoglu for the Bulls No. 1 pick (provided it's not in the top 3 -- LeBron and Carmelo would both fit the bill) swap? The Kings continue to insist that they don't have any intention of trading Turkoglu. However, a lottery pick and perhaps another interesting player, Smith suggest Dalibor Bagaric, may be enough to push them over the edge.

Smith also resurrects a Mike Dunleavy-for-Jay Williams rumor that has been making the rounds since before the draft. That would be a hard sell in Chicago considering how much the Bulls have hyped Williams and how poorly Dunleavy's played this season. A more likely scenario, should Gilbert Arenas bolt this summer, is a Jamal Crawford-for-Dunleavy swap. Crawford's improved play over the second half of the season should give him enough trade value to make the swap believable.

The final deal Smith discusses is Shane Battier and the Grizzlies' No. 1 (via the Rockets) for Marcus Fizer and the Bulls' No. 1. Battier doesn't have the offensive game that the other two players have. However, his leadership, defense and unselfishness are exactly what the Bulls need.

If the Bulls can't address their needs via a trade, there's always free agency (they still have their $4.5 mid level exception) and the draft (Mickael Pietrus and Anderson Varejão both could be good fits). But if the Bulls want to win now, a big trade this summer could be just what the Bulls need to get back on the winning track.

Knicks refusing to rebuild

A strong run at the playoffs this season combined with the expectation of a healthy Antonio McDyess next year mean that once again GM Scott Layden and company are still consumed with the now, not the future.

The Knicks will likely have a late lottery pick this summer, two second round picks, and Milos Vujanic (the top point guard in Europe) joining the squad.

"We'll be a much better team, but it's sort of an open door there simply because we'll probably make additions -- with the draft pick and free agency and even trades -- so it's kind of hard to say how good we will be," coach Don Chaney told the N.Y. Times. "But I think we will definitely be better."

Last year the Knicks shipped Marcus Camby and the draft rights to Nene Hilario to Denver for McDyess. Layden quickly drew fire for the move. The Knicks don't have any promising young players on the roster. To many the trading Hilario for another veteran was just another step backward, not forward.

However, the Knicks latest orientation has raised speculation that the team may again try to package their first round pick and a veteran (read Latrell Sprewell) for more playoff help.

One of the most interesting rumors, floating around at the trade deadline in February, had the Bucks shipping Sam Cassell and Tim Thomas to the Knicks for Sprewell and Kurt Thomas. While the Bucks denied that there was any serious talk about the trade, the did acknowledge that the Knicks have been after Cassell for a while. With Kurt Thomas wearing out his welcome in New York and Cassell and Thomas expendable with the addition of Gary Payton and Desmond Mason.

The Knicks have also talked with the Mavs and Sixers about Sprewell trades in the past.

Will the team really consider trading their lottery pick for more playoff help? "That's what they do," one NBA GM told Insider last week. "They don't want to rebuild. They don't have a lot of room for rookies. The lottery pick is just bait to get something they want. I wouldn't be surprised if they move Vujanic as well if the get their hands on a guy like Cassell."

Now, Knicks fans. Just pray that McDyess is healthy this year.

In or Out of the NBA Draft: Carmelo "hints" that he's staying in school

Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony gave a handful of NBA GMs a heart attack on Sunday after his team thumped Oklahoma 63-47. Said Anthony: "This is my first time going to the Final Four and, hopefully, not my last."

Coach Jim Boeheim quickly chimed in, "I'll second that one." And when pressed later in the locker room, Anthony told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, "Take that as a hint."

A hint? Try a heart attack for NBA GMs who feel that Anthony is currently the third-best prospect in the draft this year. Anthony, who flirted with going pro after high school, was considered a lock for the NBA draft this year.

Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson actually said Anthony should be taken ahead of LeBron James and Darko Milicic.

"He's the LeBron James of college basketball and he might be a better player," said Sampson told the Chronicle. "What does LeBron James do that Carmelo doesn't?"

Still, Anthony's mother, Mary, has been pleading with her soon to stay in school at least one more year. "I can't describe the emotions I'm feeling," Mary Anthony said. "I told Carmelo, 'Aren't you glad I talked you into going to college? You would have missed out on all of this.' . . .I'd like him to stay in college, but I'm going to let him make that decision."

Several other top-tier draft prospects, including UConn's Emeka Okafor, Texas' T. J. Ford and Georgia Tech's Chris Bosh, have all indicated that they will likely return to school as well. If all of them were to stay in school, the draft could become thin in a hurry.

However, one veteran NBA scout said it's not time to panic yet. "My experience is that highly rated kids change their mind the closer they get to deadline [to declare for the draft]," the scout told Insider. "They start reading about their draft stock, the agents get in their ears and the money and prestige overwhelm them. My rule of thumb is that if a kid's a lock for the high to mid lottery, he should come out. If not, why not stay and play yourself into a better position?"

Michael Jordan is about the only guy left still not on LeBron James' bandwagon.

"He may think he's great enough to be on this level now," Jordan told the Denver Post. "But when he gets on this level and plays against guys who've been competitive and very good on this level, he's going to find it's a big difference from that 5-10 high school kid."

"I think he's talented for 18 years old," he said. "Once he gets to this level, I don't think he's in the upper echelon of two guards or small forwards. I think he's toward the bottom -- respectively so because there's so much about this game that he's going to have to learn to adapt to. He has unbelievable potential. That's what everybody is looking at, everybody is raving about. But he hasn't played against competition consistently, college or pros. He's played against high school kids who are probably your size and maybe your level of talent. You have to give that some credence.

"When you look at the skill level and his maturity at his age, he's definitely talented enough. Five years from now? If he takes on the dedication of being the best basketball player he can be, and continues to improve and accept challenges and not get comfortable with what's been given to him or what the expectations may be, he could definitely be a good pro."

A good pro? Don't read too much into that folks. "Good pro" from Michael Jordan is the equivalent of gushing.

Speaking of underclassmen declaring for the draft, the Salt Lake Tribune reported this weekend that Oregon guard Luke Ridnour had begun interviewing agents. That's usually the best sign there is that a kid is going pro.

Peep Show

New Orleans Hornets: Paul Silas' days in New Orleans appear to be numbered. The latest had him calling George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge "crazy-ass owners." When asked whether that was on the record, Silas replied, "they're going to hear it from me anyway." If Silas, whose contract expires this summer, does leave New Orleans, there will be plenty of interest. The Raptors, Cavs and Clippers will likely have vacancies. And don't forget Charlotte's new team. Rumors have been swirling for months that Silas will join owner Robert Johnson with the NBA's newest expansion team.

Philadelphia 76ers: George Karl thinks Philly should be the favorites in the East. "I think Philadelphia is the front-runner," Karl told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Their size, their defense and [Allen] Iverson is in that personality that makes them kind of dangerous," Karl said. "Tyrone Hill is back, and he knows them. [Kenny] Thomas can help them a little bit, [Greg] Buckner can help them a little bit [and] Eric Snow is having the best season he's ever had. And they're big. Not big for [the West], but they're big for the East."

Toronto Raptors: Vince Carter says he'll work overtime to get a top free agent to sign with Toronto this summer. "Antonio (Davis) and I have spoken about it, not even by them asking us to, it's what we want to do," Carter told the Toronto Star. "It's not like we're in a position where we have to beg guys to come; in the past maybe we've only got some guys by default. We've got a good nucleus of guys ... and then you start to add to it." That's why Carter says the Raptors can't afford to tank the rest of the season. "That's one of the reasons why I can't see us lying down for a draft pick or anything," Carter said Sunday. "If players around the league see us playing well and finishing strong, they'll want to come here regardless of what's gone on this season."

Indiana Pacers: No one seems sure when Jamaal Tinsley will be returning to the Pacers. Tinsley, who lost his mother last week, is still struggling to deal with her death. Tinsley's agent has told the Pacers several times that his client would be returning, but then Tinsley doesn't show. "It's a very difficult situation," Thomas told the Indianapolis Star. "But we'll give him the time that he needs. It's important for him to spend time with his family and be the type of man everybody needs and wants him to be." Even if Tinsley does show up, will he be ready emotionally to take on the rigors of the season? "Our job is to get (Tinsley) ready emotionally and physically, and to try to get our team acclimated to each other again," Thomas said. "Emotionally, you try to keep spirits up and get (him) in the right place where he can go out and play basketball. But it's going to take a while with him."

Golden State Warriors: Troy Murphy may have the quote of the year. Murphy on the team's inconsistency: "It's beyond explanation. It's mind-boggling. There are some things you can't understand -- the Kennedy assassination, where the aliens are hiding and our ups and downs. Oh, and Stonehenge."

Seattle SuperSonics: If Murphy's quote doesn't win the award, maybe Jerome James can. James on being professional in the locker room: "We've got to stay in this business, whatever you have to put up with, just to stay on board," James said. "That's the main thing. There's a million and one guys that would kill their mama to step in this position."

03-31-2003, 03:20 PM
<< Seattle SuperSonics: If Murphy's quote doesn't win the award, maybe Jerome James can. James on being professional in the locker room: &quot;We've got to stay in this business, whatever you have to put up with, just to stay on board,&quot; James said. &quot;That's the main thing. There's a million and one guys that would kill their mama to step in this position.&quot; >>

Well well well... call me a minority 'coz I'm sure as hell ain't killing my mama to play in NBA.

03-31-2003, 04:00 PM
The knicks are the dallas cowboys trying to go back to their big name players. Like spreewell who is marginal had one great playoff thats it. That is exactly what the knicks are of the nba. Or daboys used to be.

keith van horn suddenly isn't so horrible after all. If T-mac is one and out in the east will he finally demand a trade? T-Mac and Dirk not as good as kg but T-mac is a freak guard at 6ft 8 and gets to the line 10 times a game.

As for AI my favorite non maverick shows he is very jordan like carrying spares through the playoffs and might come out of the east. Nah Tyrone Hill sucks doesn't he.

Where is baron davis for new orleans they could be a great playoff team?