Editor's note: As part of "The Stein Line" every Monday, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein gives his take on things in "Slams and Dunks."
Thank you, East.
Thank you for the reciprocity.
Some ESPN.com sap had the temerity in December to call you "the deeper conference." The idea was billed as a Hanukkah present to NBA commissioner David Stern, who has downplayed the notion of imbalance, but there actually was some sense to the idea. Teams like Indiana (14-2) and Philadelphia (15-4) got off to magical starts and the conference as a whole surged to an early advantage in East vs. West matchups.
Three short months later, the deeper conference is better described now as The Conference No One Wants To Win. Indiana recently lost six straight games and still managed to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the East standings because Detroit dropped its seventh straight Sunday night to cap an 0-5 swing out West. New Jersey has lost four of its past five games and Milwaukee, despite adding Gary Payton, lost three of its first four games with GP and is tied for eighth with injury-hit Washington at a game below .500.
As a group, the East suddenly looks no stronger than it has the past few years. The West of 2002-03 was simply slower than usual -- slower to assert its dominance.
San Antonio (12-9) and Portland (10-11) looked average or worse through mid-December. Minnesota was still mired at 17-16 in early January. And the Lakers, you might have heard, were stuck at 11-19 after a Christmas Night loss to Sacramento before Kobe Bryant power-stroked the thrice-defending champs back to a semblance of normalcy.
Now, fresh into March, the West holds a head-to-head advantage of 185-134 against the East through Sunday's play. That's a whopping 51 games over .500, for a winning percentage of .580. It's an even more pronounced advantage than seen last season, when the East was 44 games below .500 against the West at 188-232.
The only way the East can make it up to us now is by sending us a champion that will make the NBA Finals competitive. The West's record in the Finals is 16-4 since Michael Jordan's Bulls were disassembled.
Question is, who will be that competitive finalist?
We'd throw out Philly, winners of nine straight and fresh off beating out Dallas for the services of Tyrone Hill, except that the Sixers are on the West Coast this week. Better to judge them after they've played Sacramento, Portland, Seattle and the Lakers.
You read right. Hill elected to rejoin the Sixers rather than sign with the Mavericks, giving Dallas another punch to stomach in the wake of Thursday's fall-from-ahead loss at home to Sacramento. Hill apparently wouldn't join the Mavericks for less than $3.9 million for the rest of the season, which is what's left of Dallas' mid-level cap exception. Owner Mark Cuban, as seen with the Brian Grant deal, vetoed that proposal on the premise that Hill -- despite being a wily power forward who rebounds -- couldn't help the Mavs enough to justify the expense.
The solace these days for Dallas is that the standings still make pleasant reading. So long as the Mavs maintain the league's best record, and so long as the Kings also win the Pacific Division, Dallas can get to the conference finals without having to play Sacramento, San Antonio or the L.A. Lakers. So long as nothing else major changes.
If current form holds, Dallas would get Phoenix, Houston or Golden State in Round 1 and the Minnesota/Portland winner in Round 2. The burly Blazers would worry the Mavericks most from that group, but those are all teams Dallas should beat. Even without a new power forward.
How to accout for Seattle's improbable 5-1 record since the Payton trade? There is a reasonable explanation for an initial short-term burst.
Veterans like Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins, Nate McMillan (the player) and (the old) Shawn Kemp could handle the, uh, complexities of GP as a teammate. Playing alongside GP proved much more stifling for the SuperSonics' current cast of youngsters and the sheer joy of being liberated has spawned an adrenaline-fueled spike in their performance.
Of course, much like the Knicks or Raptors, the Sonics are in a difficult spot. They can't openly throw games … but wins today that don't do anything but lower their lottery odds won't seem so satisfying in May and June. Much as Ray Allen has been an unexpected and instant smash, it's highly unlikely Seattle can continue this surge and join the three-team race for No. 8 in the West alongside Phoenix, Houston and Golden State.
Like New York and Toronto, Seattle needs the highest possible pick it can land in the lottery because Allen and Rashard Lewis need more help.
You watch. All this talk in Jersey about Jason Kidd and Byron Scott feuding will actually help the relationship, because everyone will be watching them now and the scrutiny will force them to deal with whatever (if anything) is there. You watch.