East Still Least? Small Wonder

The small, the mediocre, the East (cont.): Yes, we're still waiting for that turnaround that David Stern assures us should be along any day.

Stern, the traditionalist with the bad ratings, still pooh-poohs suggestions that he seed the final four teams. However, it's interesting he just added two more games to the first round, perhaps to make up for the two he has lost in the Finals.

You remember the NBA Finals? They used to be best-of-seven series but nowadays, it doesn't come to that. Now we think of it as a series in which the over/under is five games.

Since the Bulls' run ended in 1998, the West has won all four, 4-1, 4-2, 4-1 and 4-0, with TV ratings just above what they'd get for a test pattern.

Back in Smallville, they don't like hearing what smurfs they are. Indiana President Donnie Walsh insists it isn't really a mismatch, it's just that nobody could match up to the Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal.

Of course, that may not be the East's problem this spring.

Things started to look exciting this season when the East jumped to a fast start. Three weeks in, the Junior Circuit was 10 games over .500, which was fairly startling, since it was 54 under last season.

Of course, form and the West began reasserting themselves and there went the excitement.

The Little People started this weekend 49 games under. Before Friday's games, the best record any East team had against the West was New Jersey's 12-9. Meanwhile, Dallas was 21-4 against the East, Sacramento 15-6, San Antonio 15-5 and Portland 17-6.

But perhaps this is a statistical anomaly. Let's see where all the best big players are.

Oh, the West?

One conference has Shaq, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, Rasheed Wallace, Yao Ming, Elton Brand, Michael Olowokandi, David Robinson, Vlade Divac and Amare Stoudemire.

The other started Ben Wallace, who has to comb his hair out and put a headband around it to reach his listed 6-9, at center in the All-Star game.

Before 1996, O'Neal was back there and East general managers made it their business to stock big guys. The Pacers started a front line of 7-4 Rik Smits, 6-11 Dale Davis and 6-10 Derrick McKey, backed by 6-9 Antonio Davis and 6-9 Sam Perkins.

Then Shaq signed with the Lakers, the Wizards gave away Wallace and Webber, Alonzo Mourning got sick, Patrick Ewing got old and before the East knew it, it had Instant Miniature Conference and was starting Walter McCarty, Shawn Kemp, Derrick Coleman, Jelani McCoy, Dan Gadzuric and Jason Collins at center.

Under current rules, one of these teams must get to the Finals. Let's see if we can figure out which of them is dead meat, er, which it will be:

Detroit -- The Pistons are gritty, but when your front line is Wallace, Cliff Robinson, who's 36, and Mike Curry, who's 6-5, gritty isn't always good enough. On the plus side, they can get better with $5 million in cap space and the Grizzlies' No. 1 pick, unless it's No. 1 overall. On the minus side, the Pistons will have to use their current roster this spring, when they play the Finals.

Indiana -- The Pacers actually have talented big guys (6-11 Jermaine O'Neal, 6-11 Brad Miller, 6-11 Jon Bender, 6-8 Al Harrington), but they're young and wacky. It's hard enough to grow young players if they don't have any issues, aside from being young. The Pacers have an attitude, with opponents accusing them of being the reincarnated Bad Boys, which trips them out, leading to more accusations and complaints about the conspiracy arrayed against them.

Ron Artest has slumped since returning from his latest league suspension. The Pacers just lost six in a row and no longer defend him as being misunderstood. After he smashed his picture on the dressing room wall last week, the team suspended him.

Said Walsh, "It's got to end."

As Miller noted, "It's not going to be peaches and gravy all the time."

Nor, obviously, will be it be peaches and cream.

New Jersey -- The Nets aren't bad, but they're even smaller than last spring, when they splattered against the Laker windshield. They tried adding Dikembe Mutombo but struggled (10-6) before he was hurt. They run a fluid motion offense. Mutombo has bad hands and takes three seconds to figure out what to do with the ball, if he does catch it.

Could be they're not perfect for each other.

Philadelphia -- Larry Brown has tossed out the first hint he has had enough, they lost Todd MacCulloch and just won eight in a row. It would take an even greater miracle -- say, on the order of the loaves and fishes -- to get back to the Finals.

Boston -- It's hard to shoot your way to the Finals from the three-point line. The Celtics try an incredible 27 three-pointers a game, seven more than the next-closest team, Dallas.

New Orleans -- After dumping Elden Campbell and Lee Nailon, the Hornets don't look as deep and powerful on paper. They never did look that powerful on the floor.

Orlando -- After upgrading from Kemp and Pat Garrity, Drew Gooden must look like the second coming of Shaq. Happily, they have all they can do to make the playoffs and won't have to worry about running into the real thing.

Milwaukee -- Ervin Johnson leads them with 0.8 of a block a game. Kobe Bryant gets more than that.

So if you'd like to make vacation plans for June but are afraid of missing some epic NBA basketball, you still look OK for another year, or three.


Faces and Figures

Trouble in paradise: After Sacramento's Vlade Divac and Webber joked they would pay King fans to get on their buddy, Jon Barry, who was returning as a Piston, the fans booed every time he touched the ball. Scot Pollard, doing a radio interview at halftime, called the fans "morons," tore off his headset and stomped off, starting a new controversy.

Wrote a fan named Dennis Socha to the Sacramento Bee: "It also makes me wonder if Phil Jackson wasn't half right about our level of sophistication here in the valley. That [joking about booing Barry] is like daring your dumb cousin to lick the eggbeater while it's still on."

Half right?

Congratulations to the producer of the new ABC pregame show for best imitation of an MTV video, altering the audio track of Ahmad Rashad's interview with Duncan so it sounded as if they were under water. It was definitely a landmark in sports journalism.

Can't win for losing: The Knicks, about to honor Ewing, weren't happy to hear he wanted to bring former Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts, former general manager Ernie Grunfeld and former coach Jeff Van Gundy. After callers burned up WFAN's lines in support of the old regime, the Knicks said OK, claiming that had been their intent all along.

Earth is still on the line: The Toronto Raptors are 6-5 since Vince Carter returned, so he can't understand why anyone's disappointed he's averaging 17 points.

"I'm not out there trying to put up 30 or 40 points because it's just not needed," Carter said. "The world is going to get caught up in highlight dunks and who scores more points, but why are people complaining when we're winning games? Those types of comments I just let fall by the wayside."

Along with his career.

Noted Coach Lenny Wilkens in a low-key demurral: "I think Vince is a little different there. The points don't mean that much to him. But I do think he also needs to be a little selfish. If you have a chance to go to the hoop on someone, then go."

Young is young (cont.): Gilbert Arenas, the Golden State Warriors' emerging star, upset at Antawn Jamison's complaint about not getting the ball, took one shot the first three quarters at New York, then scored 14 points in the fourth.

"Gilbert is an enigma, even to himself," said teammate Adonal Foyle. "He has the ability to do anything he wants on the court. He can turn it on any time. As to why he didn't shoot for three quarters, I couldn't tell you what was going on in his head. And I'm not sure I'd want to be there, either."

Who's better, Bryant or Tracy McGrady?

"I would put him ahead of me," McGrady said. "But I'm pretty sure he wouldn't put me ahead of him."

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