- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Legendary center Bill Russell, owner of 11 NBA championships as a member of the Boston Celtics, is not sold on the idea that Eastern Conference teams are vying for the right to play sacrificial lamb to the Western Conference representative in the NBA Finals.

To make his point, Russell points to Duke's defeat in the NCAA tournament.

"They just finished the Final Four, and the team that was supposed to win didn't," Russell says. "You cannot know who is going to win and how they are going to play, because these are different circumstances. What happens is, everybody in the playoffs tightens up. Some guys it makes better and some guys get worse. You have no way of telling.

In Russell's NBA of the 1950s and '60s, Boston stood apart from the rest of the league. The Celtics were the measuring stick by which all teams were compared.

But when Russell and the Celtics culminated their run of 11 titles in 13 seasons in 1969, the NBA was a 14-team league with five teams west of the Mississippi River. Today it is a 29-team, billion-dollar business that is talking about placing teams in Europe and South America.

However, unlike in Russell's time, when the Eastern Division was home to powerhouses in New York and Philadelphia, as well as Boston, the best basketball in the world these days is played by the teams in the Pacific and Mountain time zones.

"It's been that way for a couple years now," Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "The true powers are in the West."

The final regular-season standings support Collins' statement.

New Jersey, led by former Phoenix point guard Jason Kidd, finished with the best record in the East (52-30) to earn the top seed in the conference playoffs. However, that record would have earned the Nets no better than the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Detroit, which failed to make the playoffs last season, is the only other Eastern Conference team to win at least 50 games this season.

Meanwhile, five Western teams, led by Sacramento's league-high 61 victories, won at least 50 games.

Nets coach Byron Scott knows that his team very well could be playing for the championship this summer. Scott won three NBA championships as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers (1985, '87 and '88) during his 14-year playing career. It would be foolish for Scott to concede that the East's representative has no chance of winning, especially since he could be coaching in the Finals, but when pressed he concedes that the West is better.

"The Western Conference has the world champions," Scott said. "Other than that, every other team in there, including the Lakers, can be beaten. Just looking at the Eastern Conference and saying everything we're doing over here is preliminary doesn't matter, because once we get there, once whoever gets there from the Eastern Conference, playing for second place is crazy.

"But from top to bottom, they are probably better. They have three or four teams that have the best records in the league, so they're probably better."

There are various reasons why the West has become the stronger conference, most of them are directly connected to better management.

The Lakers made themselves the super power they are in the span of one summer week in 1996 when they traded finesse center Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant. One week later, the Lakers signed former Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal.

Dallas, which finished with its best regular-season mark (53-29) in 14 years this season, pilfered All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki from Milwaukee for perpetually overweight forward Robert Traylor (now with his fifth team) in 1998.

And it is going to take years for many in this area to forgive the Wizards for handing over All-Star power forwards Rasheed Wallace and Chrs Webber for Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond.

The West also has done a far better job of culling foreign talent. Of this season's record five foreign-born All-Stars, four played in the Western Conference.

Kidd, the leading candidate for league MVP, spent the first seven years of his career playing in the Western Conference before being traded from Phoenix last summer. When he considers the depth of Western teams such as Sacramento, Dallas and Portland, Kidd just shakes his head in admiration.

"The Western Conference teams are stacked with more depth, and maybe that's why it's superior," Kidd says. "And guys are using free agency to get on superior teams."

Ultimately, though, it is the two-time defending champion Lakers who have tipped the balance of power to the West, which has produced the last three champions. Although they don't say it publicly, most general managers conference not withstanding maintain that the Lakers, if O'Neal and Bryant remain healthy, render most discussions about which conference is better irrelevant.

"I have great confidence in Phil Jackson and his staff, and I know how good Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are together," former Lakers executive Jerry West said. "I don't think you can beat those three. They've had enormous success and I wouldn't bet against them."

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