For the better part of the last decade, when a player in the
Eastern Conference was urged, "Go West, young man," it was not an
entreaty to explore the land of opportunity. Rather, it was a
hint that he'd better leave because 1) he was too soft to survive
the physical style of ball in the East or 2) he had been
"Jordanized" into a psychological wreck, the victim of one too
many of those humiliating poster dunks by His Airness.
The Western Conference meant escape--escape from the Bad Boys'
thuggery in Detroit, from Phil Jackson's triangle in Chicago,
from Pat Riley's wind sprints in New York and Miami. The West
was transition basketball, white sneakers and caffe latte
crowds. Nobody cared how the West was won, because everyone
assumed the rough-and-tumble East would come out on top in the
end, as it has in 30 of the last 42 years.
But when Michael Jordan took his ball and went home before last
season, the NBA discovered a new world, one in which the
gentlemanly David Robinson could be a champion after all. In
winning the 1999 title, the Spurs signaled a geographic shift,
in which East is least. The Heat? Oh, Riley and Co. may pose a
threat, but they will ultimately falter, unable to improve
because of Alonzo Mourning's gaudy contract. The Knicks? They'll
have their moments (don't they always?), but their chemistry is
too combustible not to blow. The Pacers? They've become the Jazz
of the East--so much promise, yet, suddenly, so little time.
We can't tell you with certainty which team will win the first
NBA championship of the new millennium, but we can tell you that
it will be the one strong enough to survive the crucible of the
Western Conference playoffs. Here's a look at a few of the
reasons for the remade landscape of the league, in which all the
action is in the West.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY LOU BEACH
NINE COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS
COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS
Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Vancouver's shining northern light, is the
best player you've never seen.
Wanna play in Portland? Of course you do. Billionaire Blazers
owner Paul Allen makes it worth your while.
T-wolves coach Flip Saunders is no household name (yet), but he's
doing some masterly maneuvering in Minnesota.
The East? The East? Uh, let's see, there's Spree, 'Zo...and not
John Stockton and Karl Malone just keep pickin' and rollin' in
Utah. Nobody's done it better.
The first All-Star Game of the new millennium is in Oakland. Gee,
wonder who'll win?
Vlade Divac and the Kings have done a fast-break makeover, and
basketball fever is suddenly running rampant in Sacramento.
Can you handle the truth? Houston's audacious Charles Barkley
still leads the NBA in charisma.
In L.A.'s courtside Cuckoo's Nest, Jack hangs with Shaq and Kobe,
and now Zen master Phil is in the house. That's entertainment.
Tim Duncan has already won a ring in San Antonio and is the
game's best player. And, oh yeah, he's 23.
Care to play golf, catch rays and have Jason Kidd dish to you?
Sign with Phoenix.