Mediocre East gives everyone the chance to dream big
November 28, 2006 7:45pm CST
NEW YORK (AP) -- Knicks coach Isiah Thomas recently sat down for his pregame remarks to the media and was asked one of the easiest questions he's faced in a long time. What was it like to be a game out of first place? Welcome to life in the Eastern Conference, where even a coach fighting to save his job can dream big. Then again, that says more about the East than it does about the job Thomas' Knicks are doing. Only three teams came out of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with a winning record, and expected title contenders Miami, Chicago and New Jersey weren't among them. With Shaquille O'Neal out, the defending champion Heat obviously were going to struggle. But be worse than Atlanta? "Everybody's still trying to figure out, or jockey for position," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "They're trying to find themselves, they added some new pieces. Not only that, nobody's going to be able to sneak up on anybody that had some success last year. So, it'll all even out the right way, sooner or later." Brown's team has been one of the successful ones, tied with Detroit for the Central Division lead at 9-5. The best record in the East belonged to Orlando, which was 10-4 heading into its game at Utah on Monday night. But even the teams with good records have them only because they've had a heavy diet of games at home, or against other East teams. Cleveland and Orlando are both 7-1 at home, while the Pistons are 6-1 against conference foes to help them recover from a terrible trip out West. "It's hard to separate yourselves," Washington's Eddie Jordan said. "I think the top six to eight teams, they're the top echelon. Phoenix, Dallas, used to be the Lakers. It's always maybe eight teams that always separate themselves. The other 22 are fighting for their lives." Notice he didn't mention anyone from the East. The mediocrity is nothing new. Though East teams have won two of the last three NBA titles, the West has been deeper for years. Sacramento earned the eighth and final playoff spot in the West last season with a 44-38 record. That would have been good enough for the No. 5 spot in the East, where Milwaukee was in the postseason despite a 40-42 record. What's surprising is how bad some of the expected East powers have been. Chicago had high hopes after prying Ben Wallace away from Detroit in the offseason, and looked like championship material after embarrassing Miami 108-66 on opening night. But the Bulls were routed the next night in Orlando and have struggled since. Wallace had an uneven first month in Chicago and Scott Skiles already has made two changes to his starting lineup. But the Bulls lost eight straight road games before winning at New York on Saturday. "I guess you just look at our first two games," Skiles said. "We blew out Miami opening night and we get blown out the next night. So it was clear pretty quickly that we weren't where we wanted to be." Neither are the Nets, who were expected to run away with the Atlantic Division, the weakest in the league. But a winless road trip out West gave them with a five-game losing streak and a 5-8 record. That still left New Jersey tied for the division lead. But a team featuring Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson should be looking down at Boston and Philadelphia, not eye-to-eye with them. New Jersey already has been swept in the season series by Portland and Seattle. "We're going to have to figure this thing out," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said after Sunday's loss at the Lakers. "We're going to do it together. The character in that locker room has been through worse and we'll stay together and we'll get it done." With a quarter of the season not even complete, nobody is panicking yet. Washington eventually will win some road games -- the Wizards are 0-7 away from home -- and the Bucks will get better once Charlie Villanueva and Bobby Simmons return from injuries. And as for the top teams, they've been through this before. Chicago got off to slow starts each of the last two seasons and still made the playoffs. Miami is in much the same spot it was this time last year with O'Neal hurt, and the Heat proved what they could do when they were at full strength. And the Nets won't worry, either. They were only 9-12 early last season, but had winning streaks of 10 and 14 games later in the season to finish 49-33. "There's a lot of basketball to be played," Kidd said. "As fast as you can lose five in a row, you can win 15. So we just have to stay together. If this was later in the season, maybe this would be a big concern."