Shaq moves out East

CHRIS BERNUCCA -- SportsTicker

, Last Updated: 12:59 PM ET

To paraphrase noted hoops junkie Mark Twain, rumours of the Western Conference's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Yes, Shaquille O'Neal is back in the Eastern Conference, which has coaches and big men in the West breathing a sigh of relief. And yes, the Detroit Pistons did win the championship last season, ending the West's five-year stranglehold on the title.

But in case you hadn't noticed, scoring champion Tracy McGrady now plays in the West. So do Kenyon Martin, Carlos Boozer and Jason Terry. And so do the New Orleans Hornets and their two All-Stars, thanks to realignment.

"I would say this year, only 15 teams in the Western Conference think they're making the playoffs, which is all of them," said Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, whose team landed McGrady in the second-biggest deal of the offseason. "And only 10 of those 15 think they're going to get home court advantage. Two teams that think they're going to get home court advantage aren't even going to make the playoffs."

If you're wondering whether Van Gundy is tempering expectations with another of his gloom-and-doom refrains, consider this evaluation from his brother, who just happens to be the lucky son of a gun who gets to coach O'Neal this season.

"I don't think the balance of power really changes," said Stan Van Gundy, the coach of the Miami Heat. "On paper at least, there are more good basketball teams in the West than there are in the East."

How about O'Neal himself?

"I think there are more power players in the West," the big man admitted. "Every team in the West is loaded."

Conference strength always has been cyclical, just like lunar eclipses, voting trends and investment strategies, to borrow a bit from other parts of the newspaper.

Throughout the 1980s, Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit were winning 60 games every season and beating the heck out of each other while the Los Angeles Lakers were breezing through the West. In the 1990s, there was league-wide balance that was thrown out of whack by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls winning every year.

In 1996, O'Neal left Orlando for Los Angeles. One year later, the San Antonio Spurs won the lottery and drafted Tim Duncan. And when Jordan retired in the summer of 1998, the cycle had changed again.

Powered by the league's two best players, the Spurs and Lakers won the next five titles while forcing everyone in the West to play catch-up. Meanwhile, teams in the wide-open East were being constructed simply to get to the Finals.

"We were a team in Miami trying to get over the top and couldn't get past the Bulls (in the 1990s)," Stan Van Gundy said. "For a lot of that time, we felt we were the second-best team in the league. I think it is all overplayed.

"It doesn't matter where the balance of power is because in the end people think I'm joking when I say this and I'm not regardless of the balance of power, there is going to be one team from the East and one team from the West. It doesn't matter if you think the top eight teams are in the West, the Finals are still going to be East vs. West. And all that matters is who is the best in that matchup."

Last season it was the Pistons, who stunned the basketball world by upsetting the mighty Lakers. But that was more of a triumph of team over individuals rather than East over West. For the first time in nearly 15 years, the team with the best player -- regardless of where they played -- did not win the championship.

"Last year was great," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I think it was great for everyone to see that the old rule that you not only needed one star, but two stars to win the title is no longer true."

Despite the arrival of O'Neal in the East, the Pistons are still the favourites. They have the game's best coach in Larry Brown, a defence backed by Ben and Rasheed Wallace that ranks among the top units in league history and a pair of snipers in Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, the NBA's best backcourt.

The Pistons acknowledged the arrival of O'Neal by getting bigger in the offseason, adding power players Antonio McDyess and Derrick Coleman and 6-6 guard Carlos Delfino. And Brown is aware his team starts the season with a bull's-eye on its back.

"I think the one thing we have to keep in mind is we can't forget why we won," he said. "I think the biggest challenge is to understand we won because we were a team and everybody had roles they played every single night. ... We've got to keep that in mind every single day, and then we also have to understand that now we're kind of a marked team."

Taking aim are the Indiana Pacers, who won a league-best 61 games last season and have added scoring in guard Stephen Jackson, and the Heat, who are hoping to bull-rush to the NBA Finals behind a leaner, meaner O'Neal and rising star guard Dwyane Wade.

"I expect (the Pistons) to be the team to beat again because if you're going to be a champion, you've got to knock champions off, and they appear to have gotten even better," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.

"I don't think we can just hand it to Miami because Shaq is there," Charlotte Bobcats coach Bernie Bickerstaff said.

For the Heat to get past the Pistons and Pacers, they need O'Neal to stay healthy, so they can learn how to play off him as quickly as possible. But Stan Van Gundy knows he has the league's biggest matchup nightmare.

"I think Shaq is the one guy in the league that really causes every team to change from their normal defensive system and philosophy," he said. "You just can't play Shaq, no matter how your defence is played, the same way you play everybody else. Everyone has to adjust every time they play us."

O'Neal's escape from LA was just part of the dismantling of a dynasty that was choreographed by Kobe Bryant, who had quite an eventful summer -- and has a few questions to answer this season.

Coach Phil Jackson retired after being told that the Lakers had no intention of trading Bryant. When Jackson left, O'Neal asked for a trade, clearly seeing that the Lakers were building around Bryant, who had a sensational rape charge against him dropped.

After a Bryant-orchestrated dalliance with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the Lakers brought in Rudy Tomjanovich, one of seven coaching changes made since the end of last season. Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler arrived for O'Neal, but the Lakers belong to Bryant, who signed a seven-year, $134 million deal.

"The Lakers certainly are a very good team still," Jeff Van Gundy said. "They've got Bryant, who's arguably the best player in the league, and they surround him with an All-Star in Lamar Odom and some other very, very good players."

Bryant may lead the league in scoring. However, more important is whether he leads the league in other official and unofficial categories -- shots, bad shots, turnovers, ignoring his coach and back-stabbing his teammates. He has a reputation to repair, although he may not care.

The breakup of O'Neal and Bryant comes at the same time as the formation of another big-small dynamic duo -- the pairing of McGrady and Yao Ming in Houston. Comparisons already are being made, although not by Jeff Van Gundy, who noted that his two superstars have combined for zero playoff series wins.

"To be compared to Bryant and O'Neal, you'd have to win as much as Bryant and O'Neal," he said. "Certainly, the people they put around them were very good and helped them do that, but that's why I think that's premature. We have to win and win big and win championships for them to ever be compared to those guys."

After reaching the playoffs last season following a five-year hiatus, Houston wants to take the next step, as do the Denver Nuggets, who added Martin to a young core that includes sophomore sensation Carmelo Anthony. However, both those teams still seem a notch below the West's elite -- Minnesota, Sacramento and San Antonio, our favourite to win it all.

The Spurs still have Duncan, who is the game's best player due to his ability to lift the play of his teammates. They have a young and lethal backcourt in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. And they added veteran swingman Brent Barry, a perfect fit for the way they play.

"It used to be that the West was a fast-break, open-court, no-defence conference and the East was the slug-it-out conference," Rivers said. "I think that still is the case except for San Antonio. I think San Antonio is the only team built to play West Coast or East Coast basketball and that's probably why, besides Detroit, they're the favourite."

Coming off a conference finals appearance -- the deepest playoff run in team history -- Minnesota remained intact. Led by league MVP Kevin Garnett, the Timberwolves are hoping they can avoid the injuries to guards Sam Cassell and Troy Hudson, forward Wally Szczerbiak and centre Michael Olowokandi that stalled their potential title run last season.

Sacramento is still loaded, although the Kings allowed centre Vlade Divac to leave to the Lakers via free agency. With star forwards Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic bickering, Divac's soothing locker room presence may be missed.

Another team in the West that cannot be counted out is Dallas, which pried centre Erick Dampier away from Golden State and added guards Terry and Jerry Stackhouse. Still boasting a top-10 talent in forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks allowed All-Star point guard Steve Nash and forwards Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker to leave and must find cohesion quickly.

When asked which team would come out of the West, O'Neal broke into a playful grin and slyly said, "Nobody."

"Teams like ourselves that made major changes, we are still kind of up in the air where we are going to fit in to all of this," Dallas coach Don Nelson said. "I would say that it's a big jumble."

Further muddling things is realignment, which has created six geographically correct divisions of five teams each. The remodeled Atlantic, which includes New York, New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto, may be the worst in pro sports. The new Southwest, which includes 2004 playoff teams San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Memphis and New Orleans, may be the best.

"Everyone knows the challenges when you go to the West because everybody believes that the West is a much better conference than the East," Hornets coach Byron Scott said.

The Hornets were moved to make room in the East for the Bobcats, the league's first expansion team in nine years. Charlotte landed NCAA Final Four MVP Emeka Okafor with the second pick in the draft but still will find wins few and far between.

"We have to stop reading about it every time there is an article saying that we aren't going to be very good, and I think as a coaching staff we have to think positive," Bickerstaff said. "One thing we understand is the things that are being said, they aren't malicious, they aren't intentional. It's the norm."

The division winners receive the top three playoff seeds in each conference, but home-court advantage still will be based on record. Despite the shuffle, schedules still will be weighted by conference rather than division, so the Heat won't be able to beat up on weaklings Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington in the Southeast.

"You're going to play each team basically the same amount of times," said Minnesota coach Flip Saunders, whose team has been relocated to the new Northwest Division with Seattle, Portland, Denver and Utah. "You look at some of the teams at the bottom that continue to get better. Denver made a huge improvement. Houston is going to be better. I think Portland will be improved. You can go right on down the list. It's going to be tough for us."

Leave it to Utah coach Jerry Sloan to put realignment and his team's division in proper perspective.

"Who's in it? I don't know," he cracked. "All those things, I try not to involve myself with because when it all adds up we all have to play 82 games, and that's the only thing I've ever done. I know it's corny and no one wants to hear it, but we are just going to play one game at a time and see what happens. We'll know at the end where we stand."

At the end, look for Detroit and Miami to be standing in the East and Dallas and San Antonio to be standing in the West. That could set up a Finals where the team that plays the best -- Detroit -- faces the team with the best player -- San Antonio.

Now there's a trend that bears watching.


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