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Thursday, February 27, 2003
Updated: February 28, 12:19 PM ET
East lowdown: Motown magic

By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

As the regular season rushes toward the playoffs (more than 1,600 of 2,358 scheduled games have already been played), let's take a look at where each team in the Eastern Conference is, and what, if any, their prospects are for the postseason. Teams are listed in order of current standings and evaluated on how they have progressed (or regressed) compared to their preseason expectations.

After you've scoped out the East, check out Charley's take on the wild, wild West.

Detroit Pistons (37-20): Overachieving
Detroit is rough and tough enough to succeed in the NBA's tournament of champions. Don't look now, but the Pistons are tied for the NBA's fourth-best overall record and are the only East team with a winning record on the road (17-14). Their characteristic slam-bang defense and precision offense are perfectly suited to the special requirements of playoff basketball.

Where are their trouble spots? At small forward -- where Michael Curry can't score with a pencil, and where zone defenses make a lap-sized pussycat out of Corliss "The Big Nasty" Williamson. At center -- where Ben Wallace is willing and powerful, but undersized.

Richard Hamilton
Richard Hamilton is Detroit's top scorer, but can his frail physique withstand the rigors of the tough postseason?
At power forward -- where 36-year-old, 6-foot-10, 225-pound Cliff Robinson is already wearing down. Can Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton fill the bill and the basket? If not, can Chucky Atkins and Jon Barry come off the bench and lubricate the Pistons offense?

Bet on coach Rick Carlisle to plot a winning course, and bet on his squad of veteran players to turn their games up another notch round-by-round.

New Jersey Nets (38-21): On target
Jason Kidd and his playmates have been surprisingly inconsistent. Sporting the league's best home record (26-4), they play too young on the road (12-17). That's why it's imperative for New Jersey to beat out Detroit and Indiana and thereby gain the homecourt edge throughout the conference playoffs.

At home or away, the Nets' biggest edge is Kidd -- but there are signs that their best rebounder, defender, passer, pivotman and clutch-scorer is wearing down. After torching the Pacers for 31 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists (a total that includes 18 fourth-quarter points) at home on Feb. 20, Kidd shot a paltry 2-for-13 the following night as the Nets lost in Washington. The problem is that Kidd has to do too much for the Nets to win.

The Nets' dynamic up-tempo game sputters and stalls whenever Kidd isn't operating in overdrive. Expect him to be properly rested and geared for the playoffs. However, discounting his occasional outbreaks of ennui and fatigue, there is a glaring weakness in Kidd's game -- his outside shooting. Sure, he's as reliable a shot-maker as anybody in the league whenever a game's up for grabs. But if his erratic jumper isn't falling for the first three and a half quarters, chances are that the game clock will expire without ever tolling clutch time.

And even though getting rid of Keith Van Horn was addition by subtraction, the Nets do miss Richard Jefferson's energetic play off the bench. Rodney Rogers has not provided the expected answer. In fact, there's no question that Double-R is excessively thick-bodied, slow-legged, immobile and defenseless. That means that except for Lucious Harris' streak shooting and Aaron Williams' relentless hustle, the Nets' subs don't offer much.

Jason Kidd
If Kidd wants to return to the Finals, he'll need more help from his teammates; just don't expect any from Dikembe Mutombo.

What about Dikembe Mutombo? Won't his late-season activation from the injured list lengthen the bench and seal any holes in the defense? Here's what an assistant coach for a rival Eastern Conference team says about Mutombo's return: "The guy's older than Methuselah. He's done. Washed up. He's slow off his feet, and he can't guard anybody straight-up. All he can do is sometimes block a shot from the weak side. Even worse for the Nets, Mutombo wants to park in the left box and never move. He's bound to jam up their quick-hitting, back-door-cutting offense. As far as I'm concerned, the sooner Mutombo gets back, the better it is for Indiana and Detroit."

Because Rogers is the team's only wide-body, and because playoff basketball is always slower and much more physical than regular-season play, the Nets are liable to get beaten to a pulp in the paint.

Even so, if Kidd can keep his body parts together and his chops up, if Mutombo's PT can be tightly controlled, and if New Jersey can run itself into one of the two top seeds, the Nets might still be cutting and slashing in June.

Indiana Pacers (37-21): Overachieving
The Pacers depend on lots of scoring power, a deep bench, adequate size and bulk, and a belligerent attitude on both ends of the court. Jermaine O'Neal is long-limbed and talented, a forceful point-maker in the low post. Brad Miller is a body-breaker who can also pass, shoot and run. Reggie Miller still has a few game-breakers left in his popgun. And the league's most potent sixth man, Al Harrington, can make a scoreboard flash and light up like a pinball machine.

Yet, as competitive as they've been so far, the Pacers they have three major flaws that will most likely doom their chances of surviving the Eastern Conference playoffs: Point guard Jamaal Tinsley makes too many bad decisions -- dribbling headlong into crowds, forcing shots, gambling on defense. Also, five of Indiana's core players -- Tinsley, O'Neal, Harrington, Jonathan Bender and Ron Artest-- are still making boneheaded rookie mistakes. Finally, although Artest is capable of playing tenacious defense, and pile-driving to the hoop with the same furious determination as Jim Brown did when the end zone was in sight, his game plan has a significant downside: Artest's in-your-face-D is neutralized by speed.

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From farther than 15 feet, Artest can't shoot the ball out of a cannon. And most significantly, there's still too much street in his game. (This is why the league's refs simply don't like the young man. According to one veteran official, "Artest is too close to the edge.")

Indiana plays with extreme confidence in Conseco Fieldhouse (24-4), so overcoming New Jersey and Detroit in the home stretch is crucial to their postseason chances. Yet, unless the Pacers can grow up in a hurry and climb out of their current funk, they appear to lack the overall maturity to overcome the ordinary vicissitudes of playoff basketball.

Philadelphia 76ers (32-24): On target
Allen Iverson + Derrick Coleman + Keith Van Horn = a coach's worst nightmare.

Sure, Iverson is talented and quick and tricky and fearless and more. But, to Larry Brown's despair, Iverson simply does not know how to play winning basketball. Watch AI shoot. Watch him miss. Watch him shoot some more. Watch his teammates standing around watching him shoot.

Allen Iverson
He shoots, he misses: Iverson is averaging 27.3, but shooting barely 40 percent.

Sure, Coleman can shoot 3s, rebound and handle. But only when the spirit moves him. Oh, and I can't remember ... is he in or out of shape this year?

Sure, Van Horn has good legs, good hands, and is a deadly shooter one-on-none. But his shot release is too low and too slow. He lacks strength in the middle of his body. He commits too many unforced turnovers. His delight is to spin blindly into heavy traffic. He cannot pass on the move. And his defenseless, generic game is another source of frustration for coach Brown.

The Sixers rely on their defense-extended guard pressure and wing overplays to create turnovers and generate their uptempo offense. A wise strategy, since scoring points in their halfcourt sets is always a struggle for the Sixers. Also, with a roster full of unreliable shooters, the Sixers are especially vulnerable against zone defenses. So, to force Philly into starting their offense from scratch, their frenetic defense must be neutralized with ball fakes, ball reversals and accurate passwork.

The Sixers win just enough games to break their fans' hearts. Only in the City of Brotherly Love could such an unbalanced, undersized team of unevolved players be regarded with affection.

Boston Celtics (32-25): On target
Even though their record is almost identical to where the Celtics were a year ago, their success now, as it was then, is accomplished mostly with smoke and mirrors -- shoot unconscionable 3s, play outside-outside ball, dribble before shooting, talk about playing defense, beat some good teams, lose to some bad teams, and play in an arena named for a bank.

On defense the Celtics play a variety of extended traps and routinely look to double-team post players. Yet, because their recovery rotations are slow, they yield bucketsful of open shots if their initial pressure doesn't force turnovers.

On offense, the Celts are a circus act led by Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, a pair of point-less forwards.

That's why, come the playoffs, Boston is not to be taken seriously.

New Orleans Hornets (32-27): On target
Ex-players always coach the way they played. Paul Silas was the ultimate role player, a ferocious offensive rebounder and defender who compensated for limited physical skills by playing with intelligence and diligence. No surprise, then, that the Hornets aim to hang their headbands on defense and rebounding.

Offense is their problem. If, and when, Baron Davis plays again, he's the juice in their backcourt. A powerhouse post player and erratic shooter with a strong first step, Davis looks to force the ball coast-to-coast. But Davis is also careless with the ball and tries to turn routine passes and shots into spectacular highlights. Also, despite his aggressive posture and his penchant for steals, Davis is a poor defender who can be beaten off the dribble, and who can be absolutely chumped in screen/roll situations.

Jamal Mashburn
Jamal Mashburn and the Hornets are scrambling to move up in the conference standings.

With Davis out, Jamal Mashburn is the Hornets' primary offensive threat -- a bountiful scorer rather than a shooter. The trouble is that Mashburn needs plenty of space and time to maneuver.

David Wesley is another option on offense, a pusher and a shooter who drives right and pulls up left. Let him set his feet, and Wesley will hit 3-balls until his right arm gets tired.

Except for Mashburn, the Hornets generally have trouble scoring when they can't get out and go -- a bad omen for bump-and-grind playoff basketball. Even worse, New Orleans has one of the poorest road records in the league. If they can't leapfrog Philadelphia and Boston and grab the fourth seed, the Hornets' postseason will be short and sour.

Orlando Magic (29-29): Underachieving
Another go-go team. On offense, they want early action with lots of slices, pin-downs and post-ups. On defense, they pack the paint, drop and dig, discourage penetration, and look to create turnovers with their quick hands. They give up outside jumpers and encourage quick shots so they can get out and run.

OK, Mike Miller had a chronically sore ankle, but -- besides T-Mac -- he was the Magic's only consistent scorer. Why trade Miller for the soft inside game (and even softer brain) of rookie Drew Gooden?

It says here that Orlando will lose the last playoff spot to Washington.

Milwaukee Bucks (28-29): Underachieving
The problem here is that a certain national sports magazine picked Milwaukee to be one of last season's NBA finalists. In truth, even in the "glory" days of Sam Cassell, Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson, the Bucks were an unintegrated collection of scorers, whose total was less than the sum of the parts. Up until the trading deadline, the team chemistry was even worse. And with the recent trade (essentially Allen for Desmond Mason and Gary Payton), the Bucks are still lost in the same wilderness.

As long as George Karl is in the command seat, the Bucks' game plan will remain unchanged: a manic defense that incorporates traps, jump-switches and quick rotations, as well as fronting and double-teaming the post. All this to disrupt their opponents offense and turn mistakes into run-outs and easy baskets. But when the ball hits the floor, Ervin Johnson and Payton are the Bucks' only effective man-to-man defenders.

On offense, the Bucks have little power in the trenches and rely on isolations, S/Rs, picks-and-pops, drives-and-kicks.

And what's all this media flap about Karl and Payton being buddy-buddy? "When George was in Seattle," says a former Sonic, "he never barked at GP, because GP would bark right back at him. Hey, there were plenty of times when GP was on the verge of going after Karl's throat. It was clear to all the players that Karl was afraid of GP."

In any case, the Bucks are on the fast track to oblivion.

Washington Wizards (27-29): Overachieving
In just about the same spot they were last season before MJ hurt his knee.

Michael Jordan
Will MJ get one last shot at playoff glory?

Strictly a perimeter-shooting, penetrate-and-pitch team with plenty of role players. Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes (currently injured) do most of the scoring, while everybody else works at both ends to get them the ball. Yet the Wizards' fortunes depend upon a 40-year-old jump shooter who's all heart and no legs.

This is MJ's fare-thee-well. For him, leading Washington into the playoffs would be the equivalent of a seventh gold ring. Don't bet against it.

New York Knicks: Overachieving
Credit Don Chaney for holding this bunch together. Another unbalanced squad, the Knicks field a power forward at center (Kurt Thomas), a No. 2 at small forward (Latrell Sprewell), as well as a pint-sized No. 2 (Howard Eisley) and a free safety (Charlie Ward) not-so-cleverly disguised as point guards.

With their offensive fire-power and streaky 3-point shooting, the Knicks are dangerous at home. Don't be surprised if they squeeze into the playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks (21-37): No surprises
Forget about Pete Babcock's expectation of his team's playing beyond April 16, the Hawks are exactly as bad as they're supposed to be. Babcock didn't count on Glenn Robinson and Shareef Abdur-Rahim consistently misstepping whenever a ball game was on the line.

For a veteran ballclub, there's no excuse for being 5-25 on the road.

Sure, Lon Kruger was in over his head, but the word is that he had to have a knife surgically removed from his back.

Chicago Bulls (21-38): Overachieving
How young are the Bulls? So young that they're 18-9 at home and 3-29 elsewhere.

Under Bill Cartwright's stern guidance, however, the Bulls are headed in the right direction, and Tyson Chandler (sooner) and Eddy Curry (later) will eventually become big-time players. And could Jamal Crawford be better than Jay Williams?

With a little bit of this and a lot of that, the Bulls are only two years away from seriously contending for a playoff berth.

Miami Heat (19-38): No surprises
Aside from the personal tragedy, Alonzo Mourning's absence is a mixed blessing for Miami: He's not on the court to rebound, block shots, score, play in a frenzy and make the Heat at least respectable. On the other hand, he's not on the court to commit foolish fouls, or to miss field goals and free throws in crunch time.

The Heat still play aggressively on defense, looking to deny one pass away, sink on post passes, and still get out to the shooters. Eddie Jones is a charter member of the NBA's All-Finesse team, but he's the Heat's most dangerous scorer -- and scoring is their downfall.

Why is Pat Riley hanging on? Because if he lasts one more season after this, his contract calls for his being rewarded with 20 percent of the team! That can buy Riley all the Brylcreem he'll ever need.

Toronto Raptors (17-37): Underachieving
The Raptors have plenty of veteran talent -- Alvin Williams, Antonio Davis, Mo Peterson and Vince Carter -- but the players have not embraced their roles nor made a commitment to play hard every game. The only effective role players are Jerome Williams, who provides defense, offensive rebounding and all-around energy, and Davis, with his admirable work ethic on the boards and in the low post.

Carter is another overblown Duper-Star who'd rather dunk and pose than get serious about his game. It's a grave mistake to put Carter in a position where his dipsy-do is expected to generate the bulk of the offense. When defenses wall him away from the basket, Carter is revealed as a mediocre but conscienceless shooter.

Indeed, the keys to Toronto's success (such as it is) are the scoring of A. Williams and Peterson. If these guys can get off, then Carter can adequately fill in the empty spaces. But the Raptors settle too easily into a one-on-one game plan.

Has Lenny Wilkens been around too long? Or are the Raptors just a poorly constituted and therefore uncoachable ball club? Or both?

Cleveland Cavaliers (11-46): Underachieving
The Cavs are a horrible team that should only be a bad team. The Big Z can score but can't move. Chris Mihm and Darius Miles are Mister Softees. Ricky Davis is a talented yet extremely selfish scorer. Ditto for the undersized Dajuan Wagner, whose idea of team basketball is playing 2-on-2. Plus there isn't an NBA-quality point guard in sight. (Why didn't they keep Anthony "No Neck" Johnson?)

On the plus side, Carlos Boozer is a definite comer and will be given all the playing time he can handle. And Jumaine Jones can hit open jumpers. Period.

A note to long-suffering Cavaliers' fans: Don't get caught in the LeBron James pipe dream. The best King James can ever be is an average NBA player.

Friday: A look at the West.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."