New Jersey fortunate to play in Eastern Conference

Apr 16, 2002 5:27 AM

Injuries and a dearth of quality big men have made the NBA Eastern Conference a wasteland of mediocrity, which leaves the door wide open for the surprising New Jersey Nets.

New Jersey has been stockpiling talent for years and ­­everything meshed together last summer when Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo shipped superstar guard Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury. It turned out to be a steal for the Nets, with the team-oriented Kidd becoming the missing piece that makes the club go.

Kidd is in the running for MVP, averaging 15 points, 7.3 rebounds and 10 assists per game. Keith Van Horn (15 ppg, 7 rpg), Kenyon Martin (14.9 ppg, 5 rpg), Richard Jefferson and Kerry Kittles have excelled alongside Kidd. Expensive center Todd MacCulloch has been a solid role player (10 ppg, 6.2 rpg).

Second-year coach Byron Scott deserves credit for the Nets improved defense (42 percent shooting allowed) after posting a 26-56 record last year. One weakness New Jersey has is they can’t shoot: Van Horn (43 percent) and Kidd (39 percent) have always been poor shooters and if they win the East, that could be a detriment against some of the bigger, defensive teams in the West.

Detroit plays great defense, while Boston shoots lights out from 3-point land (8.5 made per game leads the NBA) led by a great 1-2 punch of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. But both teams lack height and would be no match for the best of the West.

Philadelphia, the defending East champ, has had bad luck all year, but hopes to make a run when Allen Iverson (fractured wrist) returns just in time for playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers: The West is loaded, and it all begins with the two-time defending champions. Shaquille O’Neal has had an MVP-type year averaging 27 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks per game. But Shaq’s troublesome big toe (he’s missed 13 games) is the biggest chink in the Lakers’ armor.

The Lakers have plenty of supporting talent with Kobe Bryant (24.5 ppg, 5.5 apg), Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and a top coach in Phil Jackson. But L.A. has been vulnerable on the road (18-22 ATS, 14-18 ATS as a road favorite), especially when O’Neal is out. They were flattened recently at Phoenix (118-106) and Boston (99-81) and free throw shooting is still a weakness (69 percent, last in the NBA).

Sacramento has been on a mission all season. The Kings look to have the home court advantage through the playoffs after going 35-4 SU and 28-11 ATS at Arco Arena. The Kings are outscoring teams by a 107-92 average at home and an improved defense is allowing teams to shoot just 43 percent from the field.

Coach Rick Adelman’s squad is just armed to the teeth with depth and can run anyone into the ground with Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, Hidayet Turkoglu and newcomer Mike Bibby.

San Antonio: The Spurs won the NBA title in 1999 but seem to have become the forgotten champions after getting swept by the Lakers in the Western Finals last spring. Any front line with Tim Duncan and David Robinson is worthy of respect, and San Antonio had a 13-game win streak in March (10-2-1 ATS).

  Steve Smith has been a key acquisition, perhaps the missing piece, but this club seems to win when Robinson steps it up, which, at age 36, is becoming less frequent. The Admiral’s scoring has dipped the last three seasons from 17 to 14 to 12 this year.

Portland is a talented club that has flamed out in the playoffs the last two years. The Blazers went on a 20-7 SU run after beating the Lakers in mid-February,

 First-year coach Maurice Cheeks has everyone on the same page for a change, even Rasheed Wallace.

Dallas is a team nobody wants to play. Who wouldn’t want a frontcourt of 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki, 6-foot-11 Raef LaFrentz, 7-footer Wang Zhi-Zhi and 7-foot 6 Shawn Bradley? Even the backcourt has height in 6-7 Michael Finley.

Greg Buckner, Nick Van Exel, Steve Nash, Eduardo Najera and 7-footer Evan Eschmeyer provide plenty of depth. This is the NBA’s best offensive team, outscoring foes by a 105-101 average. The Mavs are almost as strong on the road (25-13 SU) as at home (29-10 SU). Dallas leads the NBA in free throw percentage (80  percent). The only Dallas weakness is defense.  But Dallas is 3-1 ATS against the Lakers, including a  114-98 win at home in  the most recent meeting.