- Adrian Wojnarowski
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The Eastern Conference had been down for so long, there were times it was hard to believe the NBA's balance of power would ever equalize again.
All the talent and all the size kept going West. Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan kept going to the NBA Finals and doing chin-ups on championship series rims. Resistance was futile for the East.
Slowly, this has been changing, a fluid redistribution of talent and possibilities working its way back East. Once Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat a year ago, everything tilted a little more. For the first time since the Michael Jordan Bulls, there's perhaps a genuine expectation that the champion will come out of the East.
As the amnesty cuts play out, and as free agents linger unsigned, here are 10 reasons the Eastern Conference has found its way back to NBA relevance.
Shaq's Selflessness: Well, yes, Shaq's giving back $10 million for next season to sign a five-year, $100 million extension doesn't make him an international aid worker, but it did spare the Heat cap space for Antoine Walker and Jason Williams. Together, they make the Heat the favorite to reach the NBA Finals and perhaps give Miami president Pat Riley that long-promised parade on Biscayne Bay.
More than ever, Shaq needs the help. The days of his most destructive dominance are done, yet he's still a largely unmatchable force. If Stan Van Gundy has, say, 10 minutes of trouble getting the self-absorbed Walker and Williams to play well with others, the ever-looming shadow of Riley's taking back his old job back will continue to undermine Van Gundy's coaching authority.
The Mirror Programs in Detroit and Indiana: For the first time in years, there are three legitimate championship contenders in the Eastern Conference. Make no mistake: The Pistons and Pacers are too tough and too resilient to fade far behind the Heat.
The Pistons' core is young enough, talented and committed to Detroit general manager Joe Dumars' old-school belief in team play -- never mind the "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" regime of the deposed Larry Brown.
And the best move the Pacers made toward a championship drive was no move at all: They kept Ron Artest.
Grant Hill's Ankle: The Magic are the East's wild card, because if Grant Hill's ankle can make it through another full season (remember, it was his shin that cost him the final weeks of the regular season), they'll be a playoff force again. Dwight Howard has the makings of a 20-10 star, and Steve Francis allows Hill to be the best third option this side of Richard Jefferson in the conference.
Two of the underrated moves of the offseason have been Orlando's bringing back Brian Hill to coach and the signing of Miami guard Keyon Dooling. Coach-killing Penny Hardaway is long gone from Hill's first Magic incarnation, leaving him most grateful for a chance to return to the job that he never wanted to leave, to the city that he had still called home. Dooling gives Francis a chance to play away from the ball, which is where he belongs anyway.
At Last, Visions in Washington and Chicago: The Wizards and Bulls found the perfect blends for forlorn franchises with executives Ernie Grunfeld and John Paxson and coaches Eddie Jordan and Scott Skiles. These two franchises give the Eastern Conference a rapidly improved and intriguing second tier, the kind of exciting, watchable young teams the Eastern Conference had gone so long without.
Grunfeld has fit the pieces together in Washington, where his latest move -- dumping Kwame Brown to the Lakers for Caron Butler -- gives the Wiz a small forward, back-to-the-basket presence in the place of a lost-cause No. 1 draft bust. Grunfeld had the ability to see past Gilbert Arenas' and Antawn Jamison's losing pasts in Golden State to find the winners within. This summer, Antonio Daniels was an ideal signing, addressing backcourt defense and wear-and-tear worries on Arenas. Jordan blended the disparate parts, accelerating the maturity of Arenas and the departed Larry Hughes.
Paxson undid the lingering Jerry Krause mess, wisely letting the Knicks' Isiah Thomas burn $50 million on Jamal Crawford while the Bulls rebuilt with Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich. Skiles masterfully brought along a young, impressionable core of players with discipline and direction, getting them to the playoffs in 2005 when no one originally believed it possible.
Rod Thorn Prevents Nets' Breakup: After new ownership let Kenyon Martin leave for Denver, this franchise was on the brink of implosion. Jason Kidd wanted a trade, Alonzo Mourning wanted blood, and the fans' revolt was unlike anything since the selling of Julius Erving.
Nevertheless, Thorn decided against resigning, staying to transform the franchise for a second time as president and GM. He used Mourning's contract and draft picks to bring a reborn Vince Carter, one heck of a trick. This summer, the Shareef Abdur-Rahim signing blew up, but Thorn still has two No. 1 picks in the 2006 draft -- including Denver's unprotected No. 1 (via the Clippers) for out-of-the-league Kerry Kittles -- to bring that one frontcourt force the Nets need to move into legitimate championship contention.
LeBron James: If the Cavaliers had simply put anyone around him, they were a playoff team a season ago. Yet, they had nothing. Yet James almost willed them to the playoffs. It's laughable the way some suggest that Dwyane Wade has surpassed James, because let's face it: He's had the good fortune to play with Shaq.
Listen, Wade has been spectacular for the Heat, and most would now take his total package of talent, attitude and intangibles over Carmelo Anthony, the No. 3 pick of the 2003 draft. But over LeBron too? Get lost with that garbage. With ownership and coaching unrest, the injuries and no-talents and knuckleheads surrounding him, it was remarkable how James carried Cleveland over the final weeks of the season, and how close he did come to getting them the eighth seed.
If he has anything resembling competency accompanying him to the floor -- and free-agent signings Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall deliver that -- LeBron James gets the Cavaliers to the playoffs.
Larry Brown: Larry Brown will make the Knicks a tougher out every night next season, but he won't make them a playoff team. He's good, but in this improving East, he's not that good.
Everyone wants to throw Stephon Marbury on trial with Brown's arrival, but I worry less about the self-proclaimed best point guard in the league's ability to be selfless than I do about Brown's. Count on Brown to be especially drunk with power and ambition, given the way New York treated his arrival like that of a conquering hero, and the way ownership made him the highest-paid coach in sports history.
Just how long will it take for Brown to use his press row flunky friends to turn on Thomas, blaming the man who brought Brown to his "dream job" for a flawed, troublesome roster? How long until Brown is ultimately trying to usurp control on player personnel? Brown is the classic "I coached great, someone played/drafted/traded lousy" leader, maybe the most Machiavellian character this sport's ever seen.
Even so, he'll make the Knicks -- one of the league's softest, most unprepared teams since the departure of Jeff Van Gundy -- accountable again.
The Celtics' Baby Steps: Doc Rivers has to hate this teenybop movement, but the Celtics couldn't pass on spectacular prep star Gerald Green in the first round of June's draft. He was freakish in the summer league. Al Jefferson, a brute force, has turned out to be a wise choice as Danny Ainge's No. 1 pick of a year ago, and it will be frightening to watch this core develop. And Brian Scalabrine is an underrated signing -- even at $15 million for five years -- what with his versatility and an unparalleled work ethic that will bode well with so many impressionable young minds on the roster.
This isn't the old Eastern Conference in which Paul Pierce's gunning can get the Celts into the postseason, but you have to love Ainge's plan to get young and talented through the draft, get under the cap, and then ultimately go for it in free agency.
Charlotte's Expansion Blueprint: Charlotte is offering a model for expansion success, fortifying itself with tough, hard-working, winners like Emeka Okafor and Sean May. The Bobcats are constructing competence from the inside out, beginning with defense and rebounding. They'll get good sooner rather than later.
The Stabilizing of the Atlanta Hawks: All right, all right: The Eastern Conference still has a ways to go, but it is slowly, surely, closing the gap on the West.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His best-selling book "The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty" can be purchased in bookstores nationwide and on Amazon.com.