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EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

No One Here Will Be Cutting Down Nets

October 27, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

Seeming to disappear before our eyes, the East, the conference of Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, has lost five NBA Finals in a row.

Nor is there any reason to believe next spring won't make six, which would be the worst showing for any conference since the Celtic-dominated days when the West went 0-13 from 1958 to '70.

Nor is there a new power rising in the East, or at least one you can see with the naked eye. Most of the best teams changed coaches over the summer, or general managers, or both, and are reorganizing.

That leaves the East pinning its hopes on ...

The New Jersey Nets?

Yes, the gritty two-time defending conference champions, the only team in the conference that looks better.

Of course, that took some doing.

You may have missed this -- most of America did, according to the TV ratings -- but New Jersey actually took San Antonio to a Game 6, the East's best showing since 2000.

Not that the summer seemed like a victory parade. The team still can't get an arena deal, has pulled out of its partnership with Yankee Entertainment Sports and is up for sale, amid reports it may be moving to Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island or a garage near you.

On the personnel front, two newspapers reported that Jason Kidd tried to get Coach Byron Scott fired before telling the Nets he'd come back. According to the New York Post, Kidd was so upset after the Game 6 loss to the Spurs, he told friends that his toddler, T.J., "could have coached better."

Kenyon Martin, who is easily upset, went off anew when Net management refused to extend him a maximum contract offer and was all but apoplectic after management then spent $25 million to dump Dikembe Mutombo.

Nevertheless, Kidd not only re-signed, he talked Alonzo Mourning into joining him so they still look like the best in the East. Of course, that may only require 45 wins.

Here's a team-by-team look in predicted order of finish:

*

NEW JERSEY

2002-03 record: 49-33, second.

Offense: 95.4 (14). Defense: 90.1 (2).

Coming: Alonzo Mourning.

Going: Dikembe Mutombo.

Outlook: Even for the Nets, whose history has more intrigue than "Hamlet," this was a disturbing off-season, with Jason Kidd trying to get Coach Byron Scott dumped as his price for re-signing. Team President Rod Thorn didn't feel like cashiering Scott after two trips to the Finals, so now what they have is a shotgun marriage: Kidd and Scott, together again. Amazingly, with all these subplots, the Nets played great last season. Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson are comers. Mourning gives them a reason to hope, assuming he's healthy, they get off to a good start, and Kidd doesn't start giving off distress signals again.

Prediction: Well, it could work.

1

NETS

Projected Starters

G Jason Kidd

G Kerry Kittles

F Richard Jefferson

F Kenyon Martin

C Alonzo Mourning

*

INDIANA

2002-03 record: 48-34, third.

Offense: 96.8 (T9). Defense: 93.3 (13).

Coming: Coach Rick Carlisle, Scot Pollard, Kenny Anderson.

Going: Coach Isiah Thomas, Brad Miller, Erick Strickland, Ron Mercer.

Outlook: The Pacers don't have a history of intrigue, or didn't until last summer when team President Donnie Walsh brought in Larry Bird, who offed Thomas, replacing him with Carlisle, who is one of Bird's favorites but has had trouble getting along with everyone else. What Carlisle lacks in charm, he makes up for in his ability to coach. Jermaine O'Neal is pouting over Thomas' firing. They're still giving Ron Artest last chances, and instead of Miller at center, it'll be journeyman Pollard.

Prediction: Carlisle needs a lot of backing, but he has it with

2

PACERS

Projected Starters

G Jamaal Tinsley

G Reggie Miller

F Ron Artest

F Jermaine O'Neal

C Scot Pollard

*

NEW ORLEANS

2002-03 record: 47-35, 5th.

Offense: 93.8 (19). Defense: 91.8 (5).

Coming: Coach Tim Floyd, Darrell Armstrong, Sean Rooks.

Going: Coach Paul Silas, Kenny Anderson, Jerome Moiso.

Outlook: Silas, who ridiculed his bosses in the newspapers, was so upset when they fired him, he went to owner George Shinn's house, knocked on the door -- with a TV crew behind him, filming away -- and demanded an explanation as Shinn cowered. This is still one of the East's biggest, deepest rosters. However, although they have never fallen out of contention, as soon as anyone gets excited about them they fall back.

Prediction: Floyd went bonkers in Chicago, where he had an impossible task; this is possible, if he's good enough.

3

HORNETS

Projected Starters

G Baron Davis

G David Wesley

F Jamal Mashburn

F P.J. Brown

C Jamaal Magloire

*

DETROIT

2002-03 record: 50-32, first.

Offense: 91.4 (T25). Defense: 87.7 (1).

Coming: Coach Larry Brown, No. 1 pick Darko Milicic, Elden Campbell, Bob Sura, Lindsey Hunter, Darvin Ham.

Going: Coach Rick Carlisle, Cliff Robinson, Michael Curry, Jon Barry.

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