Same team, next year

Updated: November 28, 2003, 12:39 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Every Wednesday, senior NBA writer Marc Stein gives his take on the league in "Slams and Dunks."

The Nets made it to the Finals without getting anything from Dikembe Mutombo. So the Nets can make it to the Finals again, with essentially the same team they had before, even though Alonzo Mourning was taken away from them so quickly.

Sure they can. Anything's possible.

Of course, it's also quite possible that the pitiful punching bag known as the Leastern Conference is not the same as it was. Weak as it looks as a 15-team unit, New Jersey has to confront the reality that the few teams belonging to what passes for the East's elite are possibly stronger than they were, meaning that the Nets better not wait any longer to start playing hard.

Indiana lost Brad Miller but has upgraded its coaching and defense with the hire of Rick Carlisle. Plus Ron Artest is playing like a composed All-Star, which gives the Pacers a whole new dimension. If Artest stays at his current level, the Pacers can survive without Miller.

Detroit is better, too. Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton suddenly form one of the league's best backcourts, Ben Wallace is still Ben Wallace and Larry Brown has an array of 7-footers to tutor Darko Milicic ... and lord over Jersey.

Iverson still playing Brown's game
Allen Iverson
Iverson

Larry Brown
Brown
As we await the traditional Philly, uh, welcome that will greet Larry Brown on Wednesday, let's step away from the furor over Larry's statement about not being able to coach a------- anymore and seek out the positive influence that the coach and Allen Iverson had on each other.

Not easy, we know, but there is some warmth to this story.

On the player's end, even though it's happening now with Brown in another city, Iverson is playing as fine an all-around game as he ever has ... in spite of injuries, salary-cap constrictions and the inevitable veteran decay that have left the Sixers with a skeleton team around AI.

Playing hurt, as usual, Iverson is averaging 27.9 points and 3.2 steals -- he's leading the league in both categories -- along with his best assist numbers (6.8 per game) since his rookie season in 1996-97. It appears that the Brown influence, after their six seasons together with the Sixers and a meaningful summer with Team USA, is still seeping into AI's consciousness.

Brown, meanwhile, appears (somewhat) more willing to give freedom to his No. 1 ball-carrier in his new city. Detroiters were inevitably wondering whether Brown would seriously clamp down on Chauncey Billups' love of hoisting from outside. It's still early, true, but it could be that Brown is a bit more open-minded after all those years coaching Iverson. It also helps that Billups, long considered one of the NBA's foremost streak shooters, is playing with more consistency than we've ever seen from him.

New Orleans, meanwhile, remains a bit of an X-factor, in spite of Baron Davis' brilliant start, but Tim Floyd is hushing doubters on a daily basis with another team that has more quality size than Jersey with Jamaal Magloire and P.J. Brown.

So ...

No matter how badly Mourning was obviously struggling, the Nets will miss him. They needed 'Zo to be healthy enough to give them something in the playoffs and they needed him in the locker room as a positive veteran influence all season.

Losing him now is yet another big jolt for a franchise in full flux. Re-signing Jason Kidd in the summer was supposed to produce stability, but it's tough to pinpoint any with the franchise for sale ... and the team's high payroll making the Nets an even tougher sell ... and the lack of a contract extension for coach Byron Scott undermining Scott's authority ... all while Kidd and Kenyon Martin are playing hurt because so many other guys have missed time because of injuries.

Yes, anything's possible. And the Atlantic Division is so weak that the Nets, even in their current state -- 2-5 at home and lacking size, depth and shooters -- are favorites to win it and thus claim a top-two playoff seed.

In terms of probability, though, the Nets are going to have problems securing so much as home-court advantage in the second round against the Pacers, Pistons or Hornets unless they rally around Mourning's sad plight. Even if this is the worst Leastern Conference of all time, 20 percent of the Least doesn't look so bad.

  • What's so weird about the Least is that its offseason was actually decent. Least teams secured four of the top five picks in the draft and held onto the two biggest free agents: Kidd and Jermaine O'Neal. Guys like Miller and Gary Payton departed, but guys like Gilbert Arenas and Lamar Odom crossed over.

    Perhaps it's more accurate to blame most of this on the Leastern Seaboard and the Southleast. Philadelphia, New Jersey, Washington, Boston and New York are all under .500. You can throw Toronto into that group, too, and Atlanta is another straggler. Florida's teams, lest we forget, are a combined 5-24.

  • Frankly, I thought Mike Dunleavy was taking the standard Month O' October Pre-Season Optimism to an extreme when he told us six weeks ago that "when I looked at Q, I felt like I could basically pencil in Bonzi."

    Q, on the off chance you didn't know, is Quentin Richardson. Bonzi, of course, is Bonzi Wells.

    "They're different players," the Clippers' new coach continued, "but it's close enough."

    So far, surprisingly, it's actually not that close. Richardson, one of last season's least improved players, has scored 30 points or better three times already to help L.A. hang in without the injured Elton Brand. He's averaging a team-best 19.9 points per game for the season, and the worst thing Richardson has done is twist his ankle Monday night against Houston ... on top of giving the Clippers' another free-agent conundrum next summer when Q is a restricted free agent.

    Wells? So far, his season has featured flipping off a fan, berating his coach, getting suspended by his coach, getting stripped of his co-captaincy and making himself one of the league's co-leaders with Cleveland's Ricky Davis in the Hard To Trade standings.

  • Pat Riley and Alonzo Mourning retiring before Thanksgiving. Not what I had in the office pool.

  • One postcript to last week's Kobe-to-the-Clippers idea:

    If it ever gets to the point that Kobe Bryant convinces the Lakers he is really ready to bolt to the Clips as a free agent next summer, which would leave the Lakers faced with losing Bryant without compensation, at that point they would have to start considering trade scenarios.

    But ...

    If there's one team and one GM that Mitch Kupchak wouldn't want to deal with in a hypothetical sign-and-trade, don't you think it'd be Memphis and his mentor Jerry West?

    Kupchak is grateful for everything West taught him, but not that grateful. Trading Kobe to Jerry, no matter whom the Lakers could get back, is an idea fraught with peril.

    Should the Lakers ever find themselves in the position of having to trade Kobe to prevent losing him for nothing, look for them to do anything they can to move him to the East. Not to a West rival and certainly not to Mr. West himself.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    Marc Stein | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
    • Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
    • Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
    • Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics