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.

The Wizards have their flaws, which can be said of the other 14 teams in the conference.

Now the Wizards can voice the conviction that they finally have found themselves after defeating the Mavericks at home and the Knicks on the road.

Coincidentally enough, Ernie Grunfeld made a series of elementary observations before the team’s game with the Knicks, each intended to demystify the challenges of the road.

“How long is a basketball court on the road?” he said, as he channeled Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers.”

The rim hangs 10 feet off the floor, too. Or it should be exactly 10 feet now that Red Auerbach is consigned to following the Celtics from the skies above.

The conference is intriguing because of its parity. There is not a clear bet in the conference, although league rules mandate that a team from the east be available to play either the Spurs, Suns or Mavericks next June.

That could be one of five or six teams in the conference, whether the Cavaliers, Heat, Pistons, Bulls, Magic or Wizards.

The Magic lack the playoff experience of the rest, if that matters in a conference that is winning about only one out of every three meetings with teams from the west so far.

Perhaps nothing would qualify as too surprising at this point, not even the prospect of a 36-year-old Shaquille O’Neal acting almost spry in the spring or a sub-.500 team having the No. 4 seed.

The headband crisis has passed in Chicago, which goes with the six-game winning streak of the Bulls.

And Larry Bird, who turned 50 yesterday, has nothing to fear but Stephen Jackson firing off a few rounds from his 9 mm pistol.

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