- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2003

The NBA's 16 postseason aspirants are bent on confirming the obvious.
The East/West divide, the deflating notion to the proceedings, is as vast as suspected.
The eight lightweights from the Eastern Conference are merely pretending to keep hope alive.
This is out of habit, as opposed to genuine conviction.
The Pistons, the so-called No.1 seed of the junior circuit, might not have qualified for the playoffs in the Western Conference. The case is fairly compelling if you compare the rosters of the Suns and Pistons.
The Pistons are being pushed by Tracy McGrady, the author of a one-man team.
One is sometimes more than enough in the East, so lacking is the rest.
Allen Iverson managed to be the deciding element two seasons ago, the same as Jason Kidd last season. The relevance of a one-man team stopped in the NBA Finals each time. Then, as now, the NBA's showcase event is an afterthought, the championship already decided by early June.
Since the heyday of Michael Jordan and the Bulls, the West teams own a 16-4 record against the East teams in the NBA Finals.
That mark figures to undergo another 4-0 or 4-1 adjustment in June, depending on the interest level of the West representative. Boredom provides the strongest opposition by then.
The Wizards, a sore subject, could have been as serious as anyone else in the equal-opportunity East if they had resisted the urge to go their separate ways midway through the season.
The initial postseason evidence in the East reveals a startling lack of wherewithal among the top four seeds: the Pistons, Nets, Pacers and 76ers. Each series is a dogfight, the dog a mutt.
The temptation to seek an instant turnaround tugs on the thinking of the Wizards. That was an underlying part of the thought process during Jordan's two-season lesson plan. The Wizards did not have to be all that good in the East, just more committed than the rest of the riffraff.
The Nets claimed Washington's blueprint.
Kidd joined the Nets at the same time Jordan came out of retirement to play with the Wizards. The Nets doubled their victory haul to 52 and skipped a number of growth-enhancing steps in advancing to the NBA Finals.
This is the appealing quality in the well of mediocrity, in contrast to the West.
The Kings are the most compelling team in the NBA, as team is defined in the traditional sense. Their second team would be a playoff team in the East, their second team of Bobby Jackson, Jim Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu, Keon Clark and Scot Pollard.
The principal challenge before the Kings is to finish what they started against the Lakers in the playoffs last season.
This is not to suggest the Lakers will be around to provide the opposition. The Lakers are showing their age in some areas, plus a certain mental fatigue. Their capacity to turn it on after three championships in a row is the subject being tested by the Timberwolves.
The tenuous quality of the Lakers leads to the front office, to the absence of a vision from Mitch Kupchak and the tight wallet of owner Jerry Buss.
The slippage is pronounced, starting with the dwindling defensive presence of Shaquille O'Neal.
Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher are not as active as they once were, and other than Devean George, the figures on the bench constitute a black hole. Kobe Bryant is the only one in the mix whose developmental graph is still climbing.
The message seemed obvious after the Kings stretched the Lakers to seven games in the conference finals last season. The Kings added Jim Jackson and Clark, the Lakers a draft pick. This reflects the antithetical focus of the two franchises, one a whole lot less satisfied than the other.
O'Neal set the tone of indifference around the Lakers in the preseason, waiting until then to have the surgery on his problematic big toe.
The Lakers burned the first half of the season trying to correct the tone.
Now they are up against their shortsightedness.
The Kings see themselves as the rightful heirs of the top prize, regardless of who is standing in their way. The Spurs are not as flexible as the Kings, and the Mavericks are missing a strong body in the three-second lane. Shawn Bradley, who falls down around a light breeze, is enough to make you wince.
However it evolves in the weeks ahead, the postseason party is limited to the Kings vs. either the Lakers or Spurs or Mavericks.



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