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Why West is best

12/7/2003

Help me with this.

In the NFL, three-fourths of the way through the season, as this is being written, only four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs. Which means teams with 4-8 records still have a mathematical chance of making the postseason. The AFC North's division leaders are each 7-5. In the NFC, a .500 record puts you smack in the middle of the wild-card race. Parity is great. The NFL is wonderful.

In the NBA, the Atlantic Division leader is .500, and the worst team in the league, the 1-17 Orlando Magic, is still only 7½ games out of first place. Just about everybody beats everybody else on a regular basis. The NBA stinks.

In Major League Baseball, small-revenue Florida shows grit and pluck, beats all contenders in its league to make the championship series and, led by a crusty old skipper, beats the team from New York and wins the world championship. God, baseball is great.

In the NBA, small-revenue San Antonio shows grit and pluck, beats all contenders in its conference to make the championship series and, led by a crusty old coach, beats the team from greater New York and wins the world championship. God, the NBA stinks.

In Major League Soccer, 14-year-old Freddy Adu signs a contract to play professionally with D.C. United and is treated to fawning press coverage in a whirlwind media tour of New York. Even though no one expects him to be a superstar next season, or maybe even the year after that, no one begrudges him the opportunity to play in the league that best fits his talents. It is wonderful, everyone agrees, that young Freddy will be able to take care of his mom. Is this a great country, or what?

In the NBA, 18-year-olds routinely sign contracts to play professionally and are not treated to fawning press coverage. Even though no one expects them to be superstars in their first season, or the season after that, they are routinely blamed for destroying the league with their lack of skills. Even LeBron James gets criticized for taking so much money from a shoe company, for not making the Cavaliers a title contender right this minute, and because the media pays so much attention to him. He is not celebrated for joining the league that best fits his talents. And his mom is given the blues for, well, not being Freddy Adu's mom, for one thing. Does the NBA stink, or what?

No doubt, the league has its share of problems. And they should be duly noted and, hopefully, solved. But this constant carping ... well, it's a bit much. There's no one who can shoot, and the games are boring, and everybody's playing zone, and the West is too good, and blah, blah, blah.

Isn't anybody watching the Kings?

Isn't anybody watching the Pacers?

Isn't anybody watching the Nuggets and Jazz and Bucks?

This criticism of the West's superiority is purely geographic. When people say "the NBA stinks," a lot of them are saying "the NBA teams in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and Chicago stink." Which is not all true, either. The point is, there is an Eastern bias in the land's media. Sacramento's team doesn't stink. Neither does Dallas' team. Or Minnesota's, or San Antonio's. But they're all west of the Mississippi.

For two, the criticism is misplaced. There are perfectly good reasons why the West has all the good teams now. When the Commish started looking for a harder salary cap, he said one of the benefits was that all teams would be on a more even footing and more accountable to their local fans. And he's been proven right. There's no secret to why the West is best:

  • Good teams have good owners. Good owners aren't just rich; they're willing to spend their money to create an environment for winning. They spend not just on players, but on scouting and training facilities and in their own arenas. Mark Cuban isn't the greatest judge of talent in the world, but he doesn't involve himself in that. He concentrates on his marketing skills; nobody works harder to make his building a fan-friendly place that creates a true home-court advantage. It's no coincidence that a lot of the forward-thinking owners are out west: Cuban, the Maloof Brothers, Denver's Stan Kroenke. And good owners are patient. Minnesota's Stan Taylor hasn't pulled the plug on Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders despite seven straight first-round exits. San Antonio's Peter Holt allowed Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford to continue to sign players and make deals even when a new arena deal was far from a certainty. Not that it hurts when you're No. 3 on the Forbes' 400 list of the Richest People in America -- Paul Allen, come on down!

  • Good teams have good management. The guys who were early on the potential of the international player were almost all general managers and coaches from Western teams. The Nelsons pere et fils were on the international bandwagon at Golden State with Sarunas Marciulionis in the late '80s, and never wavered. When Big Nellie arrived in Dallas, he said that Dirk Nowitzki would be great and nobody believed him. The Blazers took fliers on Drazen Petrovic and Arvydas Sabonis. Sacramento's Geoff Petrie took an unknown Peja Stojakovic in the first round in 1997. The Spurs' Buford used a first-rounder in 2001 on a Frenchman and a 1999 second-rounder on an Argentinian named Ginobili, for Maradona's sake!

    While teams in the East snickered or ignored them, the West teams were building rosters with new stars who could shoot and pass. Now, Denver (Nene), Memphis (Pau Gasol), Utah (Andrei Kirilenko, Aleksandar Pavlovic) and Seattle (Vlad Radmanovic) are joining the fray. Name one significant international player on an Eastern Conference roster. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mehmet Okur are the start and the end of the list.

  • Good teams spend money wisely. The Spurs had cap room before last season. They had cap room before this season. They'll have cap room before next season. That's not by accident. The Nuggets and Jazz are in position to be players in free agency for the next couple of years because they bit the bullet and made hard decisions. This past summer, Denver spent $54 million on Andre Miller, but it's cheaper guys like Chris Andersen, Francisco Elson, Jon Barry and Earl Boykins that are finishing, and winning, games for them. Donnie Walsh in Indy is the East's best at getting good players at reasonable prices; no coincidence that the Pacers are perennial playoff participants.

  • Good teams do the right thing. How different would things have been if New Jersey had done what it wanted to do in 1996 and taken Kobe Bryant with the eighth pick in the first round, instead of acquiescing to the threats of his agents? Or if Charlotte had kept Bryant after taking him at 13 instead of trading him to the Lakers? There were those who said Houston shouldn't take Yao Ming with the first pick last season, but the Rockets stuck to their guns and took the guy they knew could ultimately make a difference. This is where I think the East has some hope. Joe Dumars could have taken Carmelo Anthony with the second pick, but he did the right thing and took 7-foot-1 Darko Milicic because Detroit already had a young talent in Tayshaun Prince at small forward. Because of that, in three years, the Pistons won't be like everyone else in the East, desperately looking for size in the middle.

  • Good teams have the Logo. 'Nuff said.

    Personally, I'm not as mortified about the West's dominance as others. Ten years ago, who were among the laughingstocks of the league? Dallas, Sacramento and Minnesota. How did they become good? They drafted well, they made good trades, they developed young players and they gave the big money to the right people. It didn't happen overnight, and it won't happen overnight for the Miamis and Atlantas and Clevelands and Washingtons. Nor is there any guarantee that Indiana and Detroit and New Orleans will ever break through. But they're doing it the right way.

    No magic. Just hard work.

    A rebuttal from John Paxson
    John Paxson got right to the point.

    "So, you wanted me to hire Fratello?" he asked.

    Well, yeah. But Paxson explained why he decided on Scott Skiles pretty quick. Paxson talked to a lot of people under the radar, but was sold on Skiles when he got an enthusiastic recommendation from Cotton Fitzsimmons, a Suns' consultant who was Paxson's first pro coach in 1984 and who'd seen Skiles up close in Phoenix when Skiles was head coach there. Once Paxson decided on Skiles, he got back to making the deal with Toronto that he'd started before firing Bill Cartwright. It wasn't coincidental that the trade and the coaching change occurred at the same time.

    "We needed an attitude change around here," Paxson said. "People had been comfortable around here, gotten comfortable with losing. I am trying to change how comfortable guys have been. I think you can be demanding as a coach. Look at the success coaches are having in the league. Jeff Van Gundy is very demanding. (Gregg) Popovich is demanding. Look at the job Hubie (Brown) is doing."

    Paxson didn't single any of his guys out, but it's obvious that the Jamal Crawford-Tyson Chandler-Eddy Curry triumvirate needs to grow up. He especially wants to toughen up Curry, which is one reason he was so adamant about bringing in Antonio Davis. Curry has spent the last two years practicing against Dalibor Bagaric. No slight, but Davis is an upgrade in that area.

    "We've got to get away from this sense of entitlement that these young guys have around the league," Paxson said. "That they can come in and think they deserve minutes, and deserve shots. ... Scott expects the game to be played the right way. That's what I got from talking to Scott, that he wants the game to be played the right way. I wondered why he wasn't back in the league. ... He was kind of in my era. He was always on my radar because I played against him."

    Around the League
    Keep it in the back of your head: Blazers GM John Nash is so enamored of Kenyon Martin, who was drafted on Nash's watch in New Jersey, that Nash, who breeds thoroughbreds, named one of his horses after him. Bearcat Kenyon is now 3 and finished fourth in a race last month in Louisiana Downs. ... Before the Raptors traded for Jalen Rose last week, the team's second-leading scorer (behind Vince Carter) was rookie Chris Bosh, at 10.8 points per game. No team had a second-leading scorer averaging that few amount of points. ... I Blame You for Everything Dept: Patrick Ewing, now helping Yao Ming find his inner Big Man, had no interest in coaching until he had a discussion with Orlando's then-assistant, Johnny Davis, who's now the head man down there. "My last year down there, Johnny said to me, 'You should really think about coaching,' " Ewing said. "I never thought I'd be doing this." Now, Ewing wants to be a head coach in a couple of years. ... Ron Artest doesn't have a flagrant foul in the first month of the season and is playing like an All-Star. "I thought teams would try to go at him early, try to go at him hard, thinking he'll foul and be overly aggressive," Rick Carlisle says. "I wasn't really sure (how Artest would react). I looked at him as a player, that he was a really good player outside all the other issues. This year, he's made it about basketball." But Carlisle did a smart thing: He talked to the whole team about the need to avoid confrontations, not just Artest. "There's a real strong correlation between the technicals and losing," Carlisle said. "I'm certainly not going to take the credit for what Ron's doing. He's playing great because he's playing great."

    David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.