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Losing credibility in the East

Teams under .500 headed for playoffs

In the last dozen years, the Celtics have this distinction: They are the only team in the Eastern Conference to make the playoffs with a losing record. The 1994-95 Celtics, deftly coached by Chris Ford, finished a lusty 35-47, but that somehow was good enough to snare the No. 8 seed. If you'll recall, the Celtics then gave the Shaq/Penny/Horace/Nick/Dennis troupe at Orlando all it could handle in a series the Magic won, three games to one. Prior to that, a sub-.500 team from the East had not made the playoffs since 1991-92.

It's not unheard of for a losing team to make the playoffs. The 1981 Western Conference finals, for example, featured the 40-42 Kansas City Kings against the 40-42 Houston Rockets. The last time a losing team in the West qualified was 1996-97.

This year in the Eastern Conference, we are likely to see three losing teams in the playoffs. And it doesn't appear that we'll be seeing teams bordering on .500, as was the case in 1991-92, when two 40-42 teams (New Jersey, Indiana) made it along with 38-44 Miami, which qualified over Atlanta via tiebreaker. This year, we may see teams that embrace the 1994-95 Celtics and their 35 wins as their goal.

There is only one winning team in the Atlantic Division -- the Nets. That is unlikely to change over the final six weeks of the season. There are four winning teams in the Central Division, but the Bucks are a slim four games over .500 and have a very difficult month ahead, made more so by the loss of T.J. Ford. Playoff Teams 6, 7, and 8 heading into the weekend were a combined 22 games under .500 -- and separated by one game.

The Knicks, Heat, and Raptors would have to go on ridiculous winning streaks to even get a long-distance view of .500. (And based on the roster Toronto has now, it's likely to go winless for a while.) The Celtics and Sixers, once the conference's fiercest rivals, are now jokes. You think it's bad in Boston? (OK, it is bad in Boston.) It's also pretty awful in Philadelphia, where the injury-ravaged Sixers have lost 13 of 17 after last night's 81-74 loss to the Pacers.

New Orleans, the No. 4 team in the Eastern Conference, would be barely holding down the No. 8 spot out West. And just think, the Hornets relocate to the Western Conference next season as the East welcomes the expansion Charlotte Bobcats.

In short, this year's Eastern Conference qualifiers may represent the worst assemblage of playoff teams since the NBA went to the 16-team format in 1983-84.

No luxury of knowing We still won't know until the end of the season whether there will be a luxury tax for this season. The league is telling teams there is a likelihood that there will be a tax, and, depending on whom you talk to, it likely will affect payrolls in the $55 million range and higher. If attendance, which one executive said was up 5 percent, rises to 7 percent, then perhaps there won't be one. But teams are budgeting for one, as evidenced by the Suns deal that got their payroll under $55 million. The Celtics will have to wait and see what the deal is with Vin Baker's money. If the arbitrator orders Baker (and his money) reinstated, then the Celtics might be in danger of paying a tax. But, hey, they made $3 million in the Chucky Atkins trade (good enough for three home playoff games) and already have saved another $2 million or so in money they did not pay the suspended Baker. And don't think all the player movement out of Atlanta is solely to clear cap space; the other part is the tax. Last year, the Hawks won 35 games, but ended up paying $14 million in luxury taxes, according to an industry source. The Hawks will be on the other side this season, which is wise considering they won't get close to 35 wins . . . Here's a name to keep in mind for the next head coach of the Celtics: Paul Westphal. The former Suns/Sonics coach is now coaching at Pepperdine University but still holds a big place in his heart for Boston, which is where he cut his professional teeth as a player. Westphal also has a relationship with Danny Ainge; he was Ainge's head coach for the three years Ainge played in Phoenix. And if Danny is looking for someone to run an up-tempo offense, he couldn't ask for a better guy. It remains to be seen whether Small Paul (Johnny Most's nickname; Paul Silas was Tall Paul) could be pried from his daily view of the Pacific from the heights of Malibu -- and whether Ainge thinks Westphal is the right choice for what could be a very young team . . . There are a couple of big high school all-star games coming up, in Chicago March 24 and in Oklahoma City (the McDonald's game) a week later. There will be NBA scouts and personnel guys crawling all over the premises at both events, mainly to see the two days of workouts. (The games are basically useless dunk-o-ramas.) According to one pretty wired high school coach, there will be a lot of guys who will be playing in the NBA next year. "There are eight or 10 guys this year talking about coming out and, of the 10, maybe seven [will be taken] in the first round," Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith told the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. "It's hard to blame the players for coming out -- [NBA teams are] giving away a lot of money [guaranteed contracts] plus endorsements and shoe deals. It's enormous what these guys are looking at. You go to college and you're exposed. If you're in the top five in high school and you don't come out, everybody wonders what you're doing." The consensus three top high schoolers are Dwight Howard (of Atlanta), Josh Smith (who plays at Oak Hill and has committed to Indiana), and Shaun Livingston (of Peoria, Ill., who has committed to Duke). Throw in New York schoolboy flash Sebastian Telfair (who has committed to Rick Pitino and Louisville) and you could have four lottery picks.

Bold move for Hawk The Hawks and Dion Glover parted ways last week when Glover asked to be waived and the Hawks complied. Glover, who will be a free agent, was worried about not getting enough playing time with the arrival of Bobby Sura. According to a league source, he agreed to forfeit what was left of his $1 million salary in the event no team claimed him. What in the name of Gene Orza was Glover doing? Well, the NBA collective bargaining agreement contains a provision in which a player is allowed to relinquish any guarantees if he clears waivers. This provision was the original brainchild of the Celtics, who worked out a similar arrangement with Dominique Wilkins in the summer of 1995, when 'Nique bolted for Greece. The provision, which was a side agreement then, was subsequently included in the latest CBA. The decimated Raptors claimed Glover off waivers (he signed yesterday), but either way, the Hawks were off the hook for what was left of his salary . . . The Bobcats will get the No. 4 pick in the 2004 entry draft. The expansion draft, from which they'll stock their team, is likely to be held June 22, unless the NBA Finals go to the maximum seven games. Then it will be June 23. The NBA doesn't want to see a team celebrating a title when one of the members gets the call that he's wanted in Charlotte. That's what happened to the Pistons' Rick Mahorn in 1989, when he learned he'd been selected by the Timberwolves. He ended up playing for the Sixers the next season; Detroit went on to repeat as NBA champ. The Bobcats must select at least 14 players, and each team can protect eight, although there are exceptions and qualifiers. The Bobcats also expect to get bombarded with enticements (picks, money) to take a certain high-salaried player off an established team's roster. Would the Bobcats, for example, take Michael Stewart and his one-year deal (at $4.8 million) off the Celtics' books if Ainge threw in one of his first-rounders? The Suns (Jahidi White) and Wizards (Christian Laettner) would undoubtedly offer similar deals, and there's always the $3 million cash sweetener as well. The problem with the Celtics' situation is that the pick they'd likely offer (Detroit's or Dallas's) may not be high enough to make the Bobcats bite. Charlotte has said it is not going to take picks just to take picks and, remember, first-rounders stay on the books for three years (unless they play overseas).

NBA blows whistle In a rarity, the NBA publicly admitted a refereeing mistake that probably cost the Nuggets a victory Wednesday night. Even rarer, the league named the official who goofed: Michael Henderson. The league suspended Henderson three games for his faux pas, and referees around the league wore his No. 62 during Friday's games in protest. Henderson mistakenly whistled the Nuggets for a 24-second violation and compounded the error by calling a jump ball. The Lakers, trailing by 2 (with 20-something seconds to play), got the jump, although it sure appeared that Shaq stole the tip. Then Kareem Rush made a game-winning 3-pointer. But there was another interesting twist to the Lakers' victory, which involved rallying from a 7-point hole in the closing minute-plus. Luke Walton was on the floor and he (a) stole the ball and went in for a basket to make it a 2-point game and then (b) penetrated and made the pass to a wide-open Rush for the winner . . . With March upon us tomorrow, there are a few teams that can legitimately call it the cruelest month. Let's start with Dallas. From March 3-28, the Mavericks play 11 of 14 on the road, including an Eastern swing that features games at Indiana, New Jersey, and Miami (yup, we gotta mention the Heat at this point). The Celtics are one of their three home games. Denver, which is hanging by its fingernails against hard-charging Portland (another reason the Lakers' loss was a killer), has home games coming up against the so-called Eastern iron (New Jersey, Detroit, Indiana) and also has roadies against the Nets, Pistons, Bucks, Celtics, and Timberwolves. And then there are the Bucks. Milwaukee plays nine of its first 13 of the month on the road, including visits to Arco Arena and Staples Center (Lakers, not Clippers). And it finishes the month with two games against Indiana and a third against the Rockets. The Bucks will have to rely on old friend Damon Jones with the electric Ford out for another few games with a bruised spinal cord. "It's going to be different with T.J. out, because he's so much of our energy as far as getting us into the open court, and getting penetration on a consistent basis," said Bucks coach Terry Porter. "Damon brings some different skills than T.J. does." Jones, who had a cup of decaf with the Celtics (13 games in 1998-99), said he's more than up for the challenge. "I'm ready for the task," Jones said. "Hopefully, I can do the job. I'm confident. I've been playing a lot of minutes. The only difference will be that I'm starting. I have to make sure I keep the tempo of the game right. T.J. is a lot quicker than I am and we miss that. But I'm going to do what I can to help this team win until he comes back. I know we've got a lot of road games left, but we have to be peaking at the right time to make some noise in the playoffs."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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