- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Fear not, friends. Even if dear Martha Burk cannot save the WNBA season, a crisis of State-of-Emergency proportions here in the land of Diana Taurasi, there is a handy alternative.
The W-NBA playoffs start Saturday and run through mid-June.
We know you know what the W stands for. But just in case: It stands for West. As in Western Conference. It's a reference to the tournament within a tournament: Eight teams, on the left half of your map, playing for one spot in the NBA Finals and a certain championship.
Sorry, East. No one is rooting harder for a narrowing of that mammoth gulf between the conferences than us here at Stein Line Inc., but we just don't see it any time soon. Can't see anyone in the Least -- yes, that dreaded moniker is back -- taking more than a game in the Finals.
The only way that'll change this June is if the West champ is so battered by the time it reaches the Finals that it surrenders an extra game or two. Which isn't an impossibility, given the way representatives from some of the West heavies describe the landscape on the Wild Side.
"The conference is definitely (stronger this season) one through eight," Sacramento's Chris Webber says. "That's why you just can't sit around thinking about the Lakers. ... In that first round, they're not going to be thinking about us. They better not be.
"The West is a lot better. I think everyone's better. We're better -- Dallas, San Antonio. Even that eighth spot, the way Phoenix put it on Dallas (last week). If you concentrate on one team when you're playing another, you're not going to make it out of that round."
There was a time not long ago when it appeared that the Kings and Lakers might actually have to meet in that first round. Instead they wound up on opposite sides of the bracket, lined up to set up a conference finals rematch if they're good enough, with the Mavericks now drawing Portland and the unlucky Wolves forced to celebrate the first-ever taste of homecourt advantage against the thrice-defending champions.
"It's way harder than last year," Mavericks coach Don Nelson said before knowing which team he'd be facing in Round 1. "Look at Golden State, Seattle, even Memphis. There's no easy games at all."
The proof is everywhere.
The Mavericks jumped to a 14-0 start, won 60 games for the first time in franchise history, led the entire league for 76 games and didn't slip to No. 3 in the conference standings until the season's second-to-last week, with Michael Finley injured and the Spurs simply relentless. Dallas' reward for its breakthrough season? It was so nearly a Lakers-Kings-Spurs road to the Finals, until the Lakers and Portland swapped positions at the regular-season buzzer, but the physical Blazers are yet another team the Mavs would rather not see so soon.
The champs don't have it any easier, since the Lakers won't have homecourt advantage in any series. Fifth in the West was as high as L.A. could climb, even after a furious rally since Christmas Day that netted a record of 39-13. Phil Jackson's Zen Men potentially have to go through San Antonio and Sacramento, after Minnesota, to reach the championship round for the fourth successive spring.
The Kings, meanwhile, have to open against Utah for the third time in five seasons. It's also a rematch of last spring's extremely tight first-round series in which Sacramento prevailed ... but also failed to score more than 91 points in four games. The Jazz made the Kings play the game at their speed, and a 40-year-old point guard named John Stockton proved to be the only point guard in those playoffs who could hang with Mike Bibby. "And I think Utah," Adelman said, "is a much better team this time."
Even the No. 1 seed in the West guarantees nothing. Kings center Vlade Divac contends that "San Antonio is playing the best of any us" right now, but the Spurs' payoff for a roaring 41-9 finish is a first-round matchup with Phoenix. The Spurs are a heady 4-0 against the Lakers ... and 1-3 against the Suns, largely because Tony Parker has been overpowered by the quick-and-strong Stephon Marbury.
The Wolves and Blazers also won 50 games, accounting for twice as many 50-win teams in the East by themselves. All but three teams in the West had winning records against East, including Memphis, and the West also fielded three non-playoff clubs that made a legitimate run at the top eight. Houston, Golden State and Seattle formed this season's We'd Be A Playoff Team If We Were In The East club. The East's 15 teams only won 40 of their head-to-head matchups with the power conference, a record of 170-250.
It's no secret how the divide got so wide. Shaquille O'Neal launched the shift by bolting Orlando for Hollywood in the summer of 1996, which happens to be the same summer that Kobe Bryant's agent, Arn Tellem, helped orchestrate a draft-night trade from Charlotte to the Lakers for Divac.
Divac soon wound up back in the West, as a free-agent signee by Sacramento, after the pre-MJ Wizards had handed Webber and Rasheed Wallace to the West for scant return.
There's more. Milwaukee participated in a draft-day exchange with Dallas in 1998 that ranks among the worst trade blunders of all-time, landing Dirk Nowitzki in Texas and Robert "Tractor" Traylor in Cheese Country. Boston lost a lottery it was favored to win one year earlier, which put Tim Duncan in San Antonio. More recently, the East was stripped of its two most fearsome big men, when age and health problems forced Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning into exile. As recently as last May, the Rockets won the lottery -- in spite of the league's sixth-worst record -- and scored a potential franchise player in Yao Ming.
Even when the West tries to help the East out, something happens. Phoenix sent Jason Kidd to New Jersey in the summer of 2001, in what appeared to be a catastrophic swap when Kidd took the Nets to the '02 Finals. A year later, with Marbury playing better than he ever has and Kidd flirting with a free-agent defection to San Antonio, you can't hear anyone bashing the Suns. Especially after a draft pick they quietly reacquired from Orlando, amid the height of Kidd Mania, turned into Amare Stoudemire.
Some of those dark moments are recounted to commissioner David Stern, along with the idea that Kidd might be leaving the East as well, and still the commish dismisses any "question that (suggests) the world is near the end."
Call that a very hopeful outlook, with a capital V. You can also go ahead and throw an extra letter, with hyphen, onto that league logo, assuming the women can't settle their labor dispute. If the ladies don't need their W, the NBA could make good use of it. Just ask those eight teams from the East, to whom the W(est) must look as big and majestic as Wimbledon by now.
1hMichael C. Wright