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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Is It Too Late to Take Away East's Berth in Finals?

June 02, 2002|Mark Heisler

Meanwhile, back in the junior circuit....

It has been a terrific postseason, with some of the most exciting series in years. Both conference finals have been epics with TV ratings up more than 10%.

What could go wrong now?

Oh yeah, the usual.

Unfortunately for the "renewal" David Stern keeps pushing, his league doesn't have parity but parities. Two of them. One in the powerful West, another in the deflated East.

Anyone watching the Nets and Celtics, outside of New Jersey and Boston, had to be thinking: One of these teams is actually going to the NBA Finals?

Since Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls, the East has fallen, 4-1, 4-2 and 4-1. Last spring, Philadelphia at least looked respectable, having led the league most of the season with explosive Allen Iverson, 7-foot Dikembe Mutombo and a hard-nosed defense, but the Lakers took them out in five.

The Nets don't look that imposing. If they had played in the West, they would have had a hard time just getting into the playoffs as the seventh- or eighth-seeded team.

Against common opponents in the East, the Nets had a .648 winning percentage, compared to .643 for Seattle and Utah, well below Portland's .750.

And who took all their big guys?

The West has the greatest concentration of big men the league has seen since the 1960s, when the East had most of them and Bill Russell ran over the Lakers' Ray Felix, Jim Krebs, Leroy Ellis and Darrall Imhoff annually in the finals.

At center the Celtics had willowy Tony Battie, of whom Celtic great Bob Cousy noted, "He's a power forward and power may not be the word. His game is basically finesse." The Nets start Todd MacCulloch, the Krebs of his day.

And is there anything else good on TV?

To get a good rating, the NBA needs a series that goes at least six games, and not the way it did in 2000, when Indiana won Game 5 after the Lakers had taken a 3-1 lead.

Of course, the East welcomes the challenge, it says.

"Shaq [O'Neal] distorts the difference," Indiana President Donnie Walsh says. "If you take Shaq out of it, then I don't think Sacramento is just going to knock over anybody in the East."

My solution is to reseed the final four.

This season, that might have matched the Kings and Lakers in the finals, rather than the annual Western-finals-everyone-calls-the- real-finals.

Today's game may get a better TV number than anything in the real NBA Finals.

Stern keeps explaining patiently this is cyclical. Of course, he has been saying this for three years and the end of the cycle is nowhere in sight.

The most promising East teams, in terms of talent, size, youth and cap space, are actually No. 8 Indiana and No. 15 Chicago, which is about to draft Duke's Jay Williams and rejoin the living.

Meanwhile, the Nets could lose Jason Kidd, a 2003 free agent, who recently repeated he wouldn't sign an extension now.

"This year completely--finals, winning the championship--has nothing to do with me re-signing here or not," he said. "I have the luxury to wait and play it out. You never know what happens next year."

The 76ers are old and creaky, and then there are Iverson and Larry Brown.

Pat Riley is back to square one with the Miami Heat.

The Orlando Magic has to get Grant Hill back and find a big man.

The Detroit Pistons must prove they're for real and lure a premium free agent to the Motor City.

Baron Davis, another '03 free agent, may leave the Hornet hive, wherever it's situated.

The Toronto Raptors are built around Vince Carter, still wowing them in Nike commercials, if not the NBA.

Worse, some East teams are doing short-term rebuilding on such dubious assumptions as "This is the East, where you don't need to be so big," and "Let's just try to get to the finals, where anything can happen."

Meanwhile in the West, everyone gears up annually, trying to get bigger to deal with O'Neal and importing athletes to guard Kobe Bryant.

Take the Celtics ... please.

Young and promising, they have a problem: This is their team. They have no size, no cap space and no No. 1 pick in this draft, having traded it to Phoenix with still-promising Joe Johnson for journeymen Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk.

The Celtics' rationale? After years of desperation, they wanted to take their shot, while it was here.

Rogers is huge, around the middle anyway, but he's still only 6 feet 6 inches high and about half as productive as he was as sixth man of the year for the Suns in 2000. He averaged 8.9 points against the Nets.

Oh, and he and Delk will be free agents so they'll have to give them $50 million or so.

Not that the East finals weren't interesting, in a minor league way.

Paul Pierce made three of 20 from the field in Game 3, after the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan wrote that when he talked, "I could have sworn I was listening to No. 33."

Ryan presumably meant Steve Kuberski, not Larry Bird, since he coauthored Bird's first book and understands there are many good players but only a few who are transcendent.

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