Poor decisions haunting East
By Terry Brown
Wednesday, May 19
Updated: May 19
11:43 AM ET
The good news for the 42-40 Miami Heat is that by pushing the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to a sixth game in their Eastern Conference semifinal series, they came within six games of reaching the NBA Finals.
The bad news for the NBA is that the 42-40 Miami Heat came within six games of reaching the NBA Finals.
"Somebody from the East is going to have get competitive," said a former NBA owner. "You don't really notice the gap between the East and the West during the regular season, but when we reach the playoffs you can really see the difference, especially when you reach the Finals . . . Certain teams, I don't know, it's just embarrassing. Then you start to look at the value of the franchises and it can really hurt the league."
A team led by the former head coach of Castleton State College in Vermont and starring a vagabond forward one year removed from drug suspension, a rookie point guard and a 6-foot-9 starting center could very well have been the Eastern Conference champions.
You can call their sixthman by his given name of Rafer Alston. Or you can refer to him by his streetball name of Skip To My Lou. Or you can try and figure out how a player still active on the AND1 MixTape tour wound up with the ball for the game-winning shot in the most important game of the year for his franchise.
And it isn't so much the top-seeded Pacers making Stan Van Gundy, Lamar Odom, Dwyane Wade and Brian Grant look so good as it is the Heat making the rest of the Eastern Conference look that bad.
"I thought the Pistons were strong enough but they're struggling," the former owner said. "The Nets getting beat for a third consecutive time in the championship series wouldn't be any good for the league and if you're in the league office, you've got to be genuinely concerned with an Indiana versus Minnesota finals."
But first, we've got to get over the fact that in the last two Eastern Conference playoff games, the Pistons defeated the Nets, 81-75, and the Pacers defeated the Heat, 73-70.
That's the four best Eastern Conferences teams averaging 74.7 points per game on national television.
I know. Let's fire the coach.
When the Heat begin the next season, Van Gundy, in only his second season as a head coach in the NBA, will be tied for the longest tenure with his team in the entire Eastern Conference.
Of the 15 Eastern Conference teams, not one of them has a coach who has been with his squad for more than 82 regular-season games. Last year, there were seven new coaches in the conference to start the season with four more fired during the year, one resignation and five more let go before we even got to the conference championship.
The average time an Eastern Conference coach will have with his team when next season starts is 47 1/2 games.
On second thought, let's blame it on a player.
Let's draft a guy like Kobe Bryant, just as the Charlotte Hornets did in 1996, and trade him for Vlade Divac before he ever plays his first game. Let's draft another guy named Dirk Nowitzki, just as the Milwaukee Bucks did in 1998, and trade him for Pat Garrity and Robert Traylor. Better yet, let's trade Sam Cassell, again the Bucks, a year before he's named to his first All-NBA team despite the fact that he's one of the most underpaid players in the league.
In case you've forgotten, Shaquille O'Neal spent the first four years of his NBA career in Orlando. Chris Webber played in Washington D.C. for four years. Latrell Sprewell went from New York to Minneapolis for the likes of two players who combined for 206 points this season.
It gets worse.
In 1995, this year's MVP, Kevin Garnett, was taken with the No. 5 pick of the draft while the Wizards picked fourth and the Sixers picked fifth. In 1996, Peja Stojakovic, an All-NBA second teamer this season, went at No. 14 while the Raptors picked second, the Nets picked eighth, the Pacers picked 10th and the Cavs picked 12th.
Tony Parker was picked No. 28 in 2001 while the Boston Celtics decided on Joseph Forte at No. 21 that year. Forte played a grand total of 25 games in the NBA with a scoring average of 1.2 points per game.
And how can we forget about Carmelo Anthony, the No. 3 pick of last year's draft who went on to lead the Denver Nuggets to their first playoff game in 10 years. He scored 1,725 points this year. The No. 2 pick, Darko Milicic of the Detroit Pistons, scored 48.
And there's at least one more.
Pau Gasol, the best player for the Memphis Grizzlies, was actually drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2001 and traded. That was the year the Wizards took Kwame Brown No. 1 and the Chicago Bulls took Tyson Chandler No. 2 and Eddy Curry No. 4 after trading Elton Brand to the Clippers.
Since then, the Grizzlies, Hawks and Bulls have all had changes at the general manager and head coaching positions.
The difference is that Jerry West, this season's Executive of the Year, and Hubie Brown, this season's Coach of the Year, both work for the Grizzlies.
"Naturally, running an NBA franchise is incredibly difficult," said the former owner. "And while general managers don't get a lot of exposure, they are the real decision makers in the whole process. He's the guy who is going to have the biggest impact on the franchise. And the guy who works the hardest, the guy who works the smartest, is going to get rewarded."
After all, he's the guy who hires the coach. He's the guy who drafts the rookies. He's the guy who signs the free agents.
Or, in the case of the Eastern Conference, he's the guy who fires the coach. He's the guy who trades the draft pick. He's the guy who watches Shaquille O'Neal sign with the Lakers for less money.
That many coaches, that many players, cannot be, as NBA commissioner David Stern says, cyclical.
It is institutional. And one conference has the right general managers and one conference doesn't.
"You can blame it on the money or the size of market or the weather," said the former owner. "Traditionally, the two conferences have two different styles of play. But every team has its advantages and disadvantages. You can even blame it on luck. I mean, give LeBron James a big guy and that changes everything. But for some reason, all the big guys are out West."
And those big guys out West have decided the last five NBA titles in their conference finals. This year, they say they decided the NBA title in the conference semifinals.
Either way, the best hope of the Eastern Conference in the future could very well be the Heat who, at 42-40, would have finished tied for ninth place had they played in the Western Conference this season.