By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Last year at this time, Charley Rosen was just a former CBA coach, Eric Neel was reviewing "Bull Durham" DVDs, and I was thriving in my role as Page 2's undisputed NBA guru. Weren't those the days? Now GP and Ray Allen get traded for one another on the same week that Vin Baker falls off the wagon, and it takes me four weeks to even mention these things in a column. How the mighty have fallen.

It's all the same for the Oscars and the Eastern Conference: Somebody has to win.

Of course, one thing hasn't changed from last March: The Eastern Conference looks like a mess heading into the playoffs. You know those Oscar years where there isn't a great movie, and you can't imagine any of the candidates actually winning Best Picture, and then suddenly there's the gang from "Shakespeare In Love" hugging each other on the podium, and you're thinking to yourself, "All right, how the hell did this just happen?" That's the East this season. See, somebody has to win. Doesn't make them great. Just means they outlasted everyone else.

At least last year, you could sense that something special was happening with the Nets, that Jason Kidd was just having one of Those Seasons. That's what seems to be missing in the East this year -- other than Tracy McGrady, no player stands out over anyone else, and none of the contenders have particularly distinguished themselves. That's why Milwaukee's trade for GP was so intriguing, because the East is aligned for the proverbial "Team That Gets Hot At The Right Time" to blow through April and May, like what happened with the Knicks in '99. Then again, much like "Caddyshack 2," "Another 48 Hours" and Sgt. Slaughter becoming an Iraqi sympathizer during the Gulf War, the '99 NBA season never happened ... so I guess I have no point.

Without further ado, here's one man's look at the remaining East contenders, along with my odds for each team making the Finals in June:

Other than "Will Antoine Walker ever figure things out?" and "Is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the Anti-Christ?", I can't remember vacillating on any NBA question quite like "Was it worth it for MJ to come back?" Last season, when Jordan maintained that he wanted to mentor Washington's young players, that was one thing. MJ missed playing hoops, missed the lifestyle and competitiveness, just wanted to teach the young guys how it was done. Fine. It was fun to have him back.

But how can you explain this season? He's logging 40 minutes a night and carrying the biggest burden for a .500 team. For the second straight season, his teammates stand around and watch him at crunch-time, like nobody can figure out how to mesh with a living legend. Jerry Stackhouse gets the leftover shots in a typical season for him -- 22 points a game, 41 percent shooting, not much else. And the guys who should be playing 40 minutes a game and learning on the job -- Kwame Brown, Juan Dixon and Brendan Haywood -- aren't getting enough time because this team has been so hell-bent on making the playoffs.

Michael Jordan
One question MJ. Was it worth it?

(Note: We can't even calculate the amount of damage the MJ Experience has done to poor Kwame. You know how a pitcher looks right after getting clocked in the head with a line drive? That's how Kwame looks, but all the time. And to think, they could have swapped that pick for Elton Brand.)

Anyway, this seems like a worst-case scenario: The Wizards are a little too good for the Lottery, but they aren't good enough to challenge anyone this spring, either. So here's MJ, well past his prime, wasting away on a mediocre team, unable to defend anybody, occasionally exploding for big nights against tired opponents and subpar teams. There isn't anything compelling about watching him play basketball anymore, other than the fact that he looks like MJ. Does anyone really care that he's the best 40-year-old player ever? Who keeps track of these things?

Just speaking selfishly, as someone who loves basketball, I wish MJ hadn't come back at all. Really, what was the point?

You know when someone orders a bottle of wine at dinner, and they make a big deal of pretending like they know what they're doing ... and then they smell the cork? Here's the NBA equivalent of corksmellers: Anyone who questioned if Gary Payton and Sam Cassell could co-exist offensively in the same backcourt. Of all the dumb NBA arguments from the past few years, this one tops them all. Has the collective basketball IQ in this country been damaged beyond repair? Since when was it dangerous to have two ballhandling guards in the same backcourt? Didn't the Lakers win titles in '80 and '82 with Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon? In theory, this should have worked.

One problem: GP isn't quite GP anymore. His scoring ability hasn't slipped, but his defensive prowess has fallen off the charts. Remember when GP was the most destructive defensive guard in the league, the only guy who ever did a respectable job covering MJ in an NBA Finals? Not anymore. GP can't handle premier 2-guards like Pierce and McGrady, or even someone like Allan Houston -- who torched the Bucks for 50 last weekend -- and that's the only way this trade could have worked for Milwaukee. Two years ago, it might have propelled them into the Finals.

Not that I'm complaining. Other than the Mavs, Kings and Warriors, this might be the most consistently entertaining team in the league, especially when they throw out GP, Cassell, Kukoc, Thomas and Redd at the same time (it's like watching the most accomplished pickup team in the country). Wouldn't you much rather watch these guys playing the slice-and-dice game over the Celtics and Pistons of the world? But since they can't handle 2-guards and don't have any big men, they have to shoot lights-out to outlast anyone good.

So the question remains ... was the GP trade worth it? I don't think they realized how much he had slipped defensively, and since he certainly won't re-sign with them, that means they swapped Ray Allen for Desmond Mason and two months of GP. Ouch. On the bright side, they can play four lefties at the same time -- including Redd, who could average 25 a game with enough shots -- and if they sign Keon Clark or Derrick Coleman this summer, they could throw out an all-lefthanded unit. Haven't you always wanted to see this? I hated playing against lefties back in the day -- can you imagine playing against five of them? Bizarro Basketball. I'm dying to see this.

I caught Patrick Ewing Night a few weeks ago, a night so emotional that it almost made everyone forget that Ewing wasn't nearly that memorable. Just a great half-hour of TV. Marv Albert announcing. Just about every great Knick from the past 40 years showing up. Sky Walker and the X-Man standing side by side, weighing a combined 730 pounds. The Knicks inexplicably giving Ewing the LeBron James package -- a Hummer and some retro jerseys. And Ewing speaking extemperaneously to the crowd, which is always enjoyable. Just a fun night all around.

And with that said, I'll be telling my grandkids about watching Bernard King play for the Knicks in his prime. There was nobody else quite like him -- the way he soared to the basket for those two-hand jams, that unstoppable fadeaway jumper where he practically fell out of bounds, those nights when he scored 40 just going through the motions. Bernard was special.

I just never felt that way about Patrick Ewing. None of us did. Watching that retirement ceremony, I couldn't help but feel bad that Ewing left some unfinished business with the Knicks -- maybe the first-ever Hall of Fame career that somehow managed to be disappointing in the process. He was very, very, very, very, very, very, very good. Never great. There's a difference.

NEW YORK (75-1)
Here's the recipe for the eighth spot in the East: Take one proven guard enjoying a typically solid season (Allan Houston) ... stick him with a slightly over-the-hill wingman who many of the same qualities (Latrell Sprewell) ... flank them with an undersized big man who usually gives you a 15-10 (Kurt Thomas) ... mix in about eight mediocre guys who wouldn't be better than a 10th or 11th man on any of the top teams in the league ... bring in a run-of-the-mill coach who's failed for at least 37 other teams (Don Chaney) ... and if that's not enough, throw in this e-mail from Fred in New York: "I've finally figured it out. It took me 63 games, but I can say it with confidence: Shandon Anderson is The Mole. It all makes sense now. The three-point bricks, the mindless passes, all of it."

Well, why is this working for them? Nobody knows. Just think, if only they hadn't made the McDyess trade, kept Camby and picked Amare Stoudemire at No. 7, they would be locked into the top five of the East right now. If I were a Knicks fan, that would keep me awake at night. Then again, if I were a Knicks fan, I'd be awake, anyway, because I'd be re-evaluating my life and wondering where it went wrong.


ORLANDO (25-1)
Without Tracy McGrady, this is the second-worst team in the league; even Jimmy Fallon has a better supporting cast. But with McGrady, Orlando transforms into the proverbial "Team Nobody Wants to Play," only because you never want to enter a playoff series when the other team has the best player on the floor. And T-Mac is the best player in the East. Could he toss up 40 a night and propel the Magic past anyone in Round One? Absolutely. He needs to destroy somebody in Round One by himself, just like MJ did against the Cavs in '88. Until that happens, everyone will keep favoring Kobe in their blossoming rivalry, simply because of Kobe's more visible playoff accomplishments.

And that's not entirely fair. For instance, everyone became enthralled by Kobe after his February scoring binge -- playing on a superior team, in a more structured system, with the best center in the league on his side -- whereas McGrady has submitted slightly better numbers this season in relative anonymity. Hey, nobody loves Kobe more than me, but if you don't think McGrady could average 40 a game for an entire month playing next to Shaq, you're crazy. Kobe works harder for his points than McGrady does, and that's the frightening thing about T-Mac -- sometimes it feels like he's just scratching the surface of his abilities, like those games when he scores 48 in three quarters and doesn't seem like he's even breaking a sweat.

You always hear people mention how Kobe is evolving into the next MJ, but nobody ever mentions how T-Mac is evolving into Julius Erving (the ABA version), only with a more reliable jumpshot. He's the second coming of Doctor J. Believe me. Back in the mid-'80s, everyone always compared young MJ to Doctor J -- erroneously, as it turned out, because MJ played much more like an evolutionary David Thompson, the high-flying Denver guard who battled drug problems and never reached his full potential. And now here's somebody who really is the next Doctor J, and nobody ever mentions it.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if Doc and MJ ever met in their primes? The next few years of "T-Mac Vs. Kobe" should serve as a real-life computer simulation. I can't wait to see how it turns out. As an aside, I never thought we would see someone like Doc again -- the way he gracefully carried himself on the court, balanced by how he violently attacked the basket -- and yet here's McGrady doing the exact same thing. It's unbelievable. And hey ... since every NBA legend keeps being reincarnated, maybe we're not so far away from another Larry Bird.

(Ducking the lightning bolt.)

Chauncey Billups
Don't get too excited, Chauncey. You're in the Eastern Conference.

DETROIT (12-1)
I really like Chauncey Billups. Not only has he turned into a helluva pro -- terrific defender, sneaky off the dribble, solid three-point shooter, surprisingly reliable at crunch-time -- but he was the most important free agent signing of the summer. Again, I really like him. Stick him on Indiana, Boston or Los Angeles, and he could help any of those teams make the Finals.

With that said, when Chauncey Billups is your crunch-time guy -- in a conference which features McGrady, Pierce, Kidd and Iverson -- there's something drastically wrong. Come playoff time, when it's time to start matching baskets down the stretch, you need someone who can reliably get points when you need them. Stackhouse failed in that role against Boston last spring, so they swapped him for Rip Hamilton, a low-maintenance scorer who was never one of those "Everyone clear out, I'm taking over" guys. Ben Wallace is hopeless offensively. Any good defensive team can handle Corliss Williamson or Cliff Robinson. That means it's up to Chauncey.

I like him ... but not that much.

Anyway, the reason the Pistons succeed in the regular season is simple: They're well-coached and they give so much defensively, when you throw them in a crappy conference like the East, it's impossible to catch them on an off-night ... so they end up sneaking out an extra win or two every month, which eventually makes the difference between 49-33 and 41-41. That doesn't work in the playoffs, not even in a conference this crummy.

BOSTON (10-1)
Let's say you're running the day-to-day operations for a business. You're the man. Somebody else is signing the checks, but you're making the calls. It's your dream job. And you have a pretty good business already in place, but you have two crucial deals in a 12-month span. None of the other deals matter. You just can't screw up these two deals. If you screw them up, it will take five or six years for your company to recover. Repeat: You can't screw these deals up.

So what happens if you screw them both up? I mean, really screw them up. We're talking, "Driving the Titanic into an iceberg"-level screwing up. Do you keep your job?

In the case of Celtics GM Chris Wallace ... yes. Wallace screwed up the 2001 Draft (airballing three picks in the top 21, with Richard Jefferson, Troy Murphy, Tony Parker and Gilbert Arenas all on the board when he was picking, and we won't even mention how he exercised an option to take Denver's pick that year when he could have kept rolling it over and hoped it became a Lottery pick some day). Then he botched the team's only chance at cap flexibility this summer, somehow talking himself into acquiring Vin Baker. Willingly. Without someone holding a gun to his head. When his coach was begging him -- repeat: begging him -- not to make the trade (and you wonder why they don't talk anymore).

Vin Baker
Here's to hoping Chris Wallace goes the way of Vin Baker.

Hey, you remember me venting about this trade when it happened. When you love the Celtics, you write a sports column and your team inexplicably mortgages its future for a highly-paid, deeply troubled, HBHC (has-been head case) with four years and $56 million remaining on his contract ... well, that's usually worth a column. Or six. And as the Baker Saga unfolded, and as the problems mounted and the whispers grew, and when things finally crested with Baker's bizarre "heart palpitations" and subsequent suspension without pay, this baby grew from "Horrendous Trade" to "All Things Considered, The Worst Trade in Boston Sports History" ... well, you can only imagine my state of mind. If I had been in Boston all season, I would have pulled a William Ligue Jr. by now.

So the Celtics have two of the top 20 players in the league, Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, and they don't have a single player on the roster who could even be considered "above-average" for their position. Remember, they've had Walker and Pierce together now for five years. No help for them. Nobody. They're playing 45 minutes a game, losing months off their career at a time. Their team never gets any fast-break points because there isn't a true point guard on the entire roster -- remember, they passed on Parker in '01 -- they have to give 110 percent on defense at all times because they don't have any other choice, they live and die by three-pointers, and they're about as fun to watch as a sex scene with Dennis Franz.

This never should have happened. Wallace was running a business, he messed up two huge deals, and his company hasn't been the same since. What a shame. By the time the Celts have enough cap flexibility to spruce up their roster again, the "Walker & Pierce in their prime" window will be closed shut. Not good times. Really, really bad times.

So I ask you again ... how does Chris Wallace still have a job? You tell me.

Four more notes on the Pacers:

A. At one point this winter, Jermaine O'Neal looked like he was ready to become a superstar -- 12 out of 14 double-doubles at the end of January and beginning of February, including a 23-20 and a 16-19 -- and then he cooled off a little, almost like he wasn't ready yet. Or maybe he didn't want it. Please give me one reason why he isn't slapping up a 24-12 every night.

B. Question about Reggie Miller: Is the fork sticking out of the top of his back, the bottom of his back, or is it right in the middle? I need to know these things.

C. I love Al Harrington's game. Some day, he may even get himself a coach who realizes that he should be playing 40 minutes a game.

D. Jamaal Tinsley ... he must be killing Pacers fans right now. Just murdering them. Sometimes he looks like the next Kevin Porter, other times he looks like the next Saul Smith. What a rollercoaster ride. If I were an Indiana fan, I'd be just about ready to get off.

And then there's Isiah Thomas. He coaches the deepest, most talented team in the East. Nobody else is even close. Seriously. They should have 50 wins right now. No other Eastern contender has one scoring big man, much less two (O'Neal and Miller). Nobody else can play five scorers at the same time and control the boards. Nobody else has a bench like this -- either 9 or 10 quality players, depending on whether Austin Croshere or his evil twin brother Drake shows up. They even have a good home crowd. There are no obstacles here -- it's a weak conference, they have the best team, end of story. They should make the Finals.

But they won't. Isiah can't coach.

I could give you 20 different examples from games -- like the loss in Golden State, when Isiah decided to play Jamison Brewer down the stretch, even though Ron Artest was covering Earl Boykins, so there was no reason for Brewer to be on the floor, not to mention that it was Jamison Freaking Brewer, for God's sake -- or you could just witness what's happening with the Completely Insane Ron Artest, who has committed eight flagrant fouls and almost seems to be crying out for help at this point. Either Artest has some rare form of Tourette's Syndrome, he's crazy, or the McHale-Rambis clothesline was the greatest moment of his life. It's one of the three. He isn't just a distraction, he's a natural disaster.

(Note: Personally, I think he's going to pull a Kermit Washington on somebody one day, unless somebody steps in first. There's something seriously wrong with him -- he's pathologically competitive, to the point that someone is going to get hurt. Just my opinion. That's why I'm here.)

Anyway, Artest continues to do these nutty things, and he's submarining his team at this point ... and Isiah hasn't done anything. Think about it. Wouldn't any coach of substance have stepped in by now? How can this keep happening? Standing on the sidelines with that frozen look on his face, the world collapsing around him -- and let the record show that Indiana is 6-14 in their last 20 -- Isiah looks like one of these substitute teachers in "The Principal" that can't control the class before Jim Belushi comes in and cleans house. He's in over his head.

Richard Jefferson
If you're waiting for Jefferson to make The Leap, you better get comfortable.

You can't knock GM Rod Thorn for saying to himself after the 2002 Finals, "There's no way we're beating the Lakers with this team." Everyone felt that way. So Thorn rolled the dice, moved Keith Van Horn and MacCulloch for Mutombo and hoped that Richard Jefferson and Rodney Rogers could make up for Van Horn's scoring. Didn't happen. Even before Mutombo injured himself, he was floundering for them -- he seemed like a nuisance more than anything, like he was always getting in the way of things, the typically clumsy big man who always ruined your pickup game. After playing two weeks with Dikembe, that's when Jason Kidd probably started searching for houses in Texas.

So that was one problem. Rogers ended up fitting in about as well as Gary Cherone did with Van Halen, slumping from the beginning, even getting passed in the rotation by Brian Scalabrine last week. And Jefferson has been spotty for most of the season; for everything he gives them defensively and athletically, they still miss Van Horn's offense (especially at the end of games). This team just isn't as good as last year's group -- they don't play as well together, their bench isn't as good and they don't get as many easy baskets.

And then there's this: With Kidd inevitably leaving for greener pastures, there's a weird vibe about this team when you watch them, just a bunch of guys going about their business. Kidd seems more detached than anybody; he was never the most charismatic guy, but this year he looks like someone sentenced to community service for six months. How can you blame him? If the Nets couldn't draw fans after making the Finals, and if they can't keep a marquee player like Kidd, then it's never happening for them in Jersey. Move somewhere else.

Keith Van Horn
The "soft" Van Horn might be playing much longer than his critics.

Nobody else has a better crunch-time group: Coleman, Snow, McKie, Van Horn and Iverson. Four good players and a superstar. Sounds good to me. I've been monitoring them since December, right when Coleman came back, waiting for them to make their move ... and then it finally happened right after the All-Star Break, as they rolled off 15 of 17 and suddenly looked like The Team To Beat.

Jettisoning Mutombo and adding Van Horn meant everything to them. Say what you want about Van Horn -- averaging nearly an 18-8 for his career, which everyone conveniently forgets because it's much more fun to call him "soft" -- but he's made some enormous shots over the past few years, even going back to college. He killed the Celtics in Games 4 and 6 last year. Murdered them. And maybe he's a little soft, and you can push him around, and he isn't the best defensive player, but there aren't too many guys in the league who can make a 20-footer when it matters. The Nets miss him, the Sixers have him, and that subtle little swing may have been enough to shift the balance of power in the East. I think Philly is still playing in June.

But just to be safe, ask me again in a few weeks.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC.