- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

The 70-win destiny of the Lakers has been marked down to 50 at the midway point of the regular season.

The startling devaluation of the Lakers is one of the drawbacks with calculating an 82-game schedule in October.

The long march inevitably intrudes on the most prescient wisdom.

The Lakers are down to Gary Payton and the fodder of Devean, Derek and Stanislav.

The Zen in Zen master has been exposed accordingly.

In the absence of Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant, the Kings have made certain convincing assertions.

Their fallen one is merely Chris Webber, whose overstated value has been quantified because of the emergence of Brad Miller.

No one imagined that a one-time Palooka from Purdue could develop into a consistent triple-double threat and become one of the compelling stories of the season. His unconventional path to stardom has taken root in Sacramento following stops in Italy, Charlotte, Chicago and Indiana after not being drafted in 1998.

As it is, the suspicion persists that the Lakers will resume their championship trek after they are whole again. This trivializes the importance of the regular season and homecourt advantage in the playoffs.

The Lakers, if you recall, already attempted this breezy method of operation last season, only to discover its limitations.

The Kings have one of the NBA’s deluxe backcourts in the twosome of Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson, an ever-evolving scorer in Peja Stojakovic and two of the best passers in the post in Miller and the flop-addicted Vlade Divac.

The Kings, whose championship window was thought to be closed with Robert Horry’s field goal two seasons ago, are more playoff worthy now than they ever were under the short-armed guidance of Webber.

His arms, alas, often extend no farther than an alligator’s in the closing minutes of a playoff game, which decreases his conversion rate.

His return looms as the potential strand of hair in the bowl of soup, just disturbing enough to spoil the dish.

There are the rest of the notables: the Spurs, Timberwolves, Pacers and Pistons.

The Mavericks are merely madness, impatient to a fault, conditioned to expect a few more 3-point shooters before Mark Cuban has eased his anxiety.

The Spurs have become more dependent on Tony Parker and less imposing around the rim following the retirement of David Robinson. Radoslav Nesterovic is no Robinson on the defensive end, which is the essence of the Spurs.

Robinson, even as a wisp of his former self on his last go-around, remained a relevant piece of the championship puzzle. If you recall, he checked out with 13 points and 17 rebounds in his final game last June.

With the NBA elite, the balance of a championship is perhaps swayed by no more than four or five possessions in a 48-minute game.

Tim Duncan, the most complete 7-footer in the NBA, is gifted enough to keep the Spurs in the vicinity of 55 victories and on the cusp of another if others falter or fail to find a measure of continuity. The Kings have acquired the latter, plus a newfound adoration.

Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves have a purpose, though it is uncertain where it will lead in the belly of the Western Conference beast.

Garnett undoubtedly feels an exhausting need to make his debut in the second round of the playoffs after being eliminated in the first round the last seven seasons. Even that baby step could be unmanageable, depending on the seeding of the teams.

The maturation of both the Pacers and Pistons signals the end of the Nets, the interlopers who never were strong enough to be more than the leading footnote of the Eastern Conference the last two seasons.

Rick Carlisle landed with the Pacers after Larry Brown took a liking to the Pistons, two moves that benefited both parties.

As the Mr. Freeze of the coaching fraternity, Carlisle has enough material on the roster to think the best, assuming Ron Artest can continue to limit his Howard Dean-like implosions.

Brown, the professorial type, lacks the personnel of the Pacers but carries none of their combustible matter.

The champion lurks in the West again, although the gap shows signs of shrinking.

That champion was deemed to be Lakers until the incense hit the fan.

Now that prospect is in the process of being negotiated.

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