NBA balance of power remains in West

Apr 9, 2002 6:46 AM

The last few years, the power in the NBA has shifted to the Western Conference.

During the 1980’s and 90’s, Eastern teams such as Boston (three titles), Detroit (two) and Chicago (six) regularly owned the NBA championship whenever the Lakers stumbled (seven since 1980).

But the dominant teams the last three years have all been from the West with San Antonio winning the NBA crown in 1999 and the Lakers grabbing rings the last two seasons. The West is so fully stocked with the talent, that there’s a chance a team with a winning record may not even make the playoffs.

Here’s a view of some teams on the NBA post-season bubble.

In the West, the Los Angeles Clippers are hovering around the .500 mark and trying to gain ground on Seattle and Utah for the eighth playoff spot. The Clippers have improved as the season has gone along, particularly on defense.

Los Angeles has been stockpiling high draft choices for several years with very bad records, and all that talent has given this team a decent shot at a winning record. Center Michael Olowokandi, a former No. 1 overall pick, has been a strong role player averaging roughly 10 points, and seven rebounds per game in what has been a breakout season.

Olowokandi spent a December night in a Manhattan Beach jail following an embarrassing scuffle with his girlfriend, but seems to have become more productive and assertive as a player since. He certainly has been asked to contribute more, with star Lamar Odom out the rest of the season (wrist and ankle problems).

The most significant addition has been workhorse Elton Brand, obtained in a trade with the Bulls last summer. Brand is also a former No. 1 overall pick and is one of the hardest working, consistent players in the game. Brand is averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds nearly every night. The two form a solid one-two punch in the paint.

The loss of the 22-year old Odom was a tough blow. Odom was averaging 13 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. The Clippers have good support players in Jeff McInnis, Corey Maggette, Darius Miles, Tremaine Fowlkes and Eric Piatkowski who have stepped up their play, but one has to wonder where Los Angeles would be if Odom had stayed healthy?

It’s possible that the Clippers could end up with a winning record and still not make the playoffs, as Utah and Seattle both have over 40 wins.

Utah has augmented the old men (Karl Malone and John Stockton) with some young blood in 6-foot-9 Donyell Marshall, 6-foot-9, 21-year old ­­Andrei Kirilenko, and 6-foot-11 rookie Jarron Collins. But the team has been inconsistent. After making headlines with a 6-0 SU/ATS run during a grueling nine-game February road trip (6-3 SU/ATS trip), Utah went 9-8 SU, and 7-10 ATS in March. In fact, the Jazz suffered recent upset losses at Denver, Memphis and Houston, while losing at home to the Pistons as a favorite in all four games.

Seattle has been one of the NBA’s biggest surprises. A year ago, unhappy All-Star guard

Gary Payton was rumored to be traded and the team appeared on the way down. But coach Nate McMillan and 6-foot-10, 22-year old Rashard Lewis have helped to turn the things around in a hurry.

Lewis is one of the best young players in the game, and combines with Payton and Vin Baker to form a gifted trio that has the Sonics in great shape to make the playoffs. Seattle ended March on an impressive 7-1 SU/ATS run.

In the East, there are far fewer strong teams, which means a logjam of mediocre clubs on the bubble fighting for the remaining playoff slots.

Charlotte is already in, and Indiana would seem to have a decent shot. The Pacers are healthy and have a glut of young talent, including Jonathan Bender, Austin Croshere and Jermaine O’Neal. Charlotte is the only team that has a better road record (21-16 SU, 21-15 ATS through 73 games) than home mark (17-19 SU, 14-21 ATS).

But three bubble teams that will be worth watching closely are Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Toronto. They are banged up with injuries and will either collapse down the stretch or pull together and survive.

Milwaukee is hampered by injuries. Ray Allen, Tim Thomas and Michael Redd (Allen’s replacement) are hurting and guard Sam Cassell recently returned after missing significant time.

Philadelphia is in worse shape with Allen Iverson, last year’s league-MVP, out with a broken wrist and Derrick Coleman limping with a hyperextended knee.

Toronto is tough to figure out. The Raptors have had a miserable second-half and lost All-Star Vince Carter (knee) for the rest season. Toronto lost thirteen in a row and 17 of 18 games, yet recently pulled together and won seven in a row, winning straight up as a dog six times!

They should have fallen out of the race, but refuse to go quietly. “We’re finding ways to win,” Toronto’s Antonio Davis said after a big win in Philadelphia. “We are not playing great basketball. But we are playing determined, determined to force the outcome to be in our hands. That’s what it’s all about. This team is not going to give up.”

If these banged-up clubs falter, it could leave the door open for Washington and Miami.

Washington has overachieved all season, but losing Michael Jordan recently means the kids are on their own. The schedule is in their favor, with games against Philly (twice), Indiana and at home to the slumping Knicks.

Miami is the most intriguing team. The Heat has been one of the better clubs in the East over the last five years with star center Alonzo Mourning and coach Pat Riley. But this has been a tale of two seasons, as Miami got off to a horrible start before playing better since January to climb back into the race.

Coach Riley is guaranteed to finish with a losing record for the first time in his long career. Time is running out, and Miami went on a 3-8 SU/ATS run in late March, so you have to wonder if the Heat packed it in. On the other hand, with so many teams limping down the stretch in the East, Miami may be able to make one last run, playing four of its final six games at home.