Mediocrity Is the Name of the Game in East

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006 5:21 PM

The Eastern Conference really has no business being this bad.

Of course, the NBA is perhaps more watered down than ever before -- with no truly dominant teams and few really good teams in the league this season -- but the East cannot keep doing this. Not at a time when the Detroit Pistons have the best record in the league and will enter the postseason as the favorite to win the whole thing. Not after a three-year run of great drafts (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard), awesome conference-shifting trades (Shaquille O'Neal, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber and Antawn Jamison) and free-agent movement (Gilbert Arenas) that was meant to bolster a conference that has won just one of the seven NBA Finals since Michael Jordan retired the second time in 1998.

The East duped us with false hopes as the season began. The Pistons came within 12 minutes of repeating as NBA champions and were hungry to snatch back their title. Pat Riley reworked the Miami Heat like a mad scientist, adding Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, James Posey and Gary Payton to the Shaq-Wade dynamic duo. Ron Artest was returning after an almost season-long suspension, giving the Indiana Pacers practically the same team (minus Reggie Miller) that won 62 games in 2003-04. The New Jersey Nets were going to benefit from having a healthy Jason Kidd and Vince Carter in tow for the full season. James finally had the supporting cast in Cleveland that would take him to the postseason for the first time in his career. Philadelphia was expected to improve with Allen Iverson and Webber having a full training camp to work on their chemistry. Two up-and-coming teams -- the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls -- surely were going to build on playoff runs and keep moving forward. And, the Milwaukee Bucks added an all-star center in Jamaal Magloire, the No. 1 pick in Andrew Bogut and 2003 first-round pick T.J. Ford returned from a spinal cord injury.

The East was back -- supposedly. And, most of us bought it. Now, with a week left in the regular season, the East really is back . . . to being as putrid as ever. Aside from Detroit and, of late, New Jersey and Cleveland, the rest of the conference has been an utter disappointment.

There is a good chance that three Eastern Conference playoff teams will have losing records. And, unless Caron Butler and Etan Thomas return soon, the Washington Wizards, losers of three in a row, will make it four losing teams in the postseason.

The playoffs are generally the reward for all the hard work and effort in the regular season, but with the performances of the teams in contention for the final four seeds in the East, it now looks like a consolation prize for failing to be too miserable to qualify for the lottery. The Knicks, Hawks, Raptors and Bobcats have been planning for white sands and blue waters once the regular season ends since the all-star break. These other teams are wasting our time -- and making the first round of the playoffs look like a joke. Does anyone seriously believe that any of the lower seeds -- with the exception of the Wizards -- has a chance to win a first round series, much less make it competitive?

It's as if Indiana, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chicago are afraid to face either Detroit, Miami or New Jersey in the first round and would rather take their chances at a lottery pick than exert a lot of energy to get bulldozed in the first round.

The league has never seen four teams from the same conference enter the playoffs with losing records -- if the Wizards go 1-4 the rest of the season, they can help make history. But in the past 20 seasons, there have been three occurrences when three losings teams from one conference advanced in the playoffs: in 1997, when Minnesota, Phoenix and the Los Angeles Clippers made it in the then-weak Western Conference; and 1986, when both the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference had three teams (That season, the Bulls went to the playoffs with 52 losses! 52! NBA action really was fantastic, huh?!). We should get that this season, because the teams battling for sixth through eighth already have at least 40 losses and none of them are exactly burning it up.

Philadelphia beat the Wizards on Monday, improving the Sixers to 7-13 in their past 20 games. Indiana has lost seven of 10 games. The Bucks have lost four in a row and five of six. The Wizards have lost three in a row. Chicago, the team that has battled back from a horrific start, has won just half of its past 12 games.

The only bottom team (sort of) in playoff contention that is playing its best basketball as the season comes to an end is the Orlando Magic, which has won nine of its past 10 games, including back-to-back wins against Detroit and Miami. But the Magic mailed in the first five months of the season, so this could be too little too late.

Why is everyone so bad? Milwaukee has been up-and-down all season, never establishing a consistent identity. Iverson and Webber have managed to put up great individual numbers but their teammates have been subject to being passive spectators. The Bulls have been searching for some offense practically the entire season. The Pacer, by far, have the biggest disappointment of the season.

Forget about the highly paid embarrassment coached by the highly paid Hall of Fame coach -- the Knicks -- few expected them to be in the playoffs. Indiana, however, entered the season as a favorite to win the NBA Finals. Now they are fighting for their playoff lives. The Pacers' collapse began -- where else? -- with Ron Artest. Looking back, though, the Pacers may have overreacted a bit when they deactivated Artest for making a trade demand. It definitely was the last straw in an already strained relationship, and Artest needed to be punished, but it dragged on for more than six weeks. While he sat for 24 games, the Pacers slipped down the middle of the pack. His replacement, Peja Stojakovic, kept them afloat for awhile, but they have been sinking ever since Jermaine O'Neal returned from a groin injury.

It can't help matters when they look over their shoulder and Artest has reinvigorated the Sacramento Kings, is leading them to the postseason and made the Western Conference stronger in the process. The Pacers have withstood so much turmoil, from suspensions to injuries, in the past two seasons. But to watch them crumble is more troubling. The failings this season could result in a major roster overhaul. Team president Larry Bird said Coach Rick Carlisle will be back, but O'Neal, Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley and the free agent Stojakovic could all be wearing different uniforms next season.

After a humiliating 25-point loss to Detroit on Sunday, Jermaine O'Neal said, "We don't deserve to be in the playoffs."

He's right. And neither do Philadelphia, Chicago or Milwaukee, the way they have been playing. Unfortunately -- or fortunately for them -- they play in the Eastern Conference.

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