- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2006

The abject futility of the Eastern Conference comes with a suspect at the top of the standings.

The 14-6 Magic last appeared in the postseason in 2003, when Tracy McGrady was poised to win his first playoff series. Then McGrady and the Magic dropped three consecutive games to the Pistons to lose the series 4-3.

The emergence of the Magic coincides with the development of Dwight Howard and the remade Grant Hill, holding at six surgeries since 2000.

It is hard to imagine the Magic being on a 56-win pace, but then it is hard to imagine a conference that has only three teams with a record above .500.

The wondrous Nets, with a 7-10 record, have the No. 4 seed in the conference at the moment. They represent the class of the Atlantic Division, as class is defined down.

The Pistons and Cavaliers are the only other conference teams with winning records. The Pistons are winning on memory, the Cavaliers on the considerable merits of LeBron James.

The virtuosity of James is facilitated by a roster of the broken-down and the marginally inclined.

Larry Hughes is sidelined yet again, which is his destiny. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is aging into irrelevance, and Eric Snow is running on guile.

It is either a testament to James that the Cavaliers are where they are or an indictment of a conference that is chockfull of mediocrity. Or both.

The conference has lived with the notion of being the junior-varsity circuit since Michael Jordan pushed off on Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 1998.

Perhaps the drop-off is penance for the non-call.

The conference has had two champions since Jordan’s push-off, the Pistons in 2004 and the Heat last June, both seen as upsets to the natural order.

Even in the desultory seasons of the Nets being the best of the rest, in 2002 and 2003, the conference still managed to have eight teams with winning records in each season.

The conference is a long way from there, with about one-fourth of the season in the books.

A team with a Big Three, such as the Wizards, ought to be ruing the early missed opportunity to be among the conference leaders.

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