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NBA's East feels a bit uncentered

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


So's Ewing.

Two centers of attention are no longer in the paint in the Eastern Conference -- Miami's Alonzo Mourning, sidelined for a season of treatment for a kidney disorder, New York's Patrick Ewing, traded to Seattle after 15 championship-less seasons that fueled a love-hate relationship between the city and the center.

Still, the Heat and Knicks, and the Philadelphia 76ers as well, could spend the 2000-2001 NBA season fighting over first place in the Atlantic Division -- perhaps joined by Orlando, which has added forward Grant Hill and shooting guard Tracy McGrady to its Magic act.

The Heat isn't the same without Mourning, but that doesn't mean Miami is that much worse. Added are forward Brian Grant (average scorer, strong leader), swingman Eddie Jones (good scorer, stronger stealer) and power forward Anthony Mason (lots of double-doubles). They join guards Tim Hardaway and Anthony Carter. Gone are P.J. Brown and Jamal Mashburn.

"Change was necessary," said coach Pat Riley, whose Heat seems to be knocked out of the playoffs by the Knicks every year. "We've won all these consolation (prizes). That's not enough. I'm not interested in being the fifth- or sixth-best team every year."

The Knicks were two distinct teams much of last season, depending on whether the aching Ewing was on the court (halfcourt game) or off (run-oriented). During the 2000 playoffs (and the 1999 playoffs as well, when the Knicks reached the finals without him), the debate raged whether Ewing was more a help or a hindrance.

New York now has no true center to feed prolific scorers Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston and ex-Laker Glen Rice. With Luc Longley sidelined for two months with a knee injury, look for Marcus Camby in the pivot, which won't help one of the league's worst rebounding teams.

This could be resolved if -- and it's a big if -- Atlanta's 7-foot-2 Dikembe Mutombo, diagnosed last week with a mild case of malaria, winds up in New York.

All-star guard Allen Iverson remains a 76er. No one wanted the baggage -- late to some practices, missing others, and a controversial rap CD -- that coach Larry Brown has so far been able to deal with. Brown has made a lot of something out of a bunch of nothing beyond Iverson, point guard Eric Snow and forward Toni Kukoc. Theo Ratliff is a fine defensive center but has yet to show much scoring and rebounding.

With Mourning and Ewing out of the picture, Magic center John Amaechi may be more of a force, particularly with Orlando signing two of the NBA's most coveted free agents, high-scoring Hill from Detroit and McGrady from Toronto, to join point guard Darrell Armstrong.

Doc Rivers was the first coach of the year to be so honored without guiding his team into the playoffs -- the Magic came within two wins of making it -- and it will be interesting to see Orlando's chemistry now that Rivers has a few stars to go along with the relative no-names of last season.

New Jersey has a shot at being the surprise of the East. The Nets drafted Cincinnati power forward Kenyon Martin No. 1, having resolved concerns about the broken right leg the consensus college player of the year sustained in the Conference USA tournament.

"He's a guy we won't have to baby and get him ready in two or three years," rookie coach Byron Scott told the Associated Press. "He's been there for four years of college. This guy is a man, and we're just going to throw him in the fire and go along with him."

Indiana lost three starters from last year's team that made the NBA Finals -- Mark Jackson (free agency), Rik Smits (retired) and Dale Davis (traded) and has a new coach in Isiah Thomas. Thomas is one of eight coaches in their first year with their team, one of four first-timers. The others are Scott, Lon Kruger (Atlanta) and Leonard Hamilton (Washington). The four others are Sidney Lowe (Vancouver), Lenny Wilkens (Toronto), Dave Cowens (Golden State) and Alvin Gentry (Los Angeles Clippers).

Whether there's a dynasty emerging in Los Angeles -- no, not the Clippers -- remains to be seen. The Lakers have Shaquille O'Neal, the season and playoff MVP, Kobe Bryant and newcomer Horace Grant from Seattle, the latter replacing A.C. Green. And it will be interesting to see how Jackson, who managed to keep Dennis Rodman in line at Chicago, will do with shooting guard Isaiah Rider, who repeatedly clashed with Hawks teammates, coaches and management.

If he can stay out of trouble, Rider will be a steal, the first big signing by Mitch Kupchak. He was named general manager after Jerry West, architect of the NBA champions, resigned in August.

- Staff writer Darrell Fry contributed to this report.

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