- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

Now even the coach of the Heat is out of commission, convenient though the absence may be.

Like Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley is attending to physical ailments, his return date unknown.

The notion that the ineptitude of the Heat accelerated Riley’s pain is one of the plausible theories lurking around this decrepit bunch.

Riley and the Heat are in potentially serious trouble, and just a mere seven months after winning the NBA championship.

They would be among the lottery teams if the playoffs were to start today, so precipitous is their decline.

O’Neal undoubtedly believes that once the team is whole again that all will be well with the team that defied the skeptics last season.

O’Neal certainly has mastered the art of sleep-walking through the regular season before flexing his muscles in the postseason.

But even as open as the Eastern Conference is this season, O’Neal and the Heat are in such a big hole that it is possible no push in the second half of the season is going to improve their lot appreciably.

They may wind up with a playoff berth, but it won’t count for much if they don’t have homecourt advantage in at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.

For now, there are four legitimate contenders in the East: the Pistons, Bulls, Cavaliers and Wizards.

Of the four, the Cavaliers are the least impressive because of an offense that features LeBron James and lots of standing around.

It is an offense that fails to utilize the strengths of Larry Hughes.

It is mostly a stagnant offense that requires James to dribble the ball extensively on each possession and either take an outside shot, drive to the basket or pass to a teammate if the defense has collapsed on him.

No one is inclined to find fault with the unimaginative offense of the Cavaliers because of the explosiveness of James and a conference stuffed with ready-made victories.

The Cavaliers are destined to be in a strong position going into the playoffs. But that position will be unpersuasive, so long as the Cavaliers remain James in motion and the other four players reduced to being glorified statues.

Ben Wallace is finally finding himself with the Bulls, and the Bulls are showing themselves to be a formidable team at home.

Like the Wizards, though, the Bulls have a habit of being inconsistent on the road.

The Bulls may lack a franchise player in the manner of James or Gilbert Arenas, but Ben Gordon is a fearless shooter who does not flinch in the face of a big shot. He comes off the bench ready to launch his high-arcing shots on opponents.

The Pistons are not to be dismissed, even if they are not the same team that was so dominant much of last season.

They miss the defensive presence of Wallace but have plenty of playoff experience and enough weapons to return to the NBA Finals.

The Wizards are a defensive stop or three behind the Pistons and Bulls. That liability has been glossed over during their recent surge.

But it will be the bane of their playoff lives this spring, just as it was in three one-point losses to the Cavaliers last spring, if no improvement is made in that area of the game.

Otherwise, the Wizards are an impossible matchup for opponents.

The trio of Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison has no scoring equal in the NBA.

The Wizards want nothing more than to trade baskets. While that is an entertaining style of basketball — and effective in the regular season — it is a style that can have limitations in the slower-paced postseason.

The Wizards are never going to be a gritty defensive team, but they must learn to limit the number of times they wave opponents to the basket each game if they want to go deep into the playoffs.

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