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.
T-wolves coach Flip Saunders is no household name (yet), but he's doing some masterly maneuvering in Minnesota.
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.
The East? The East? Uh, let's see, there's Spree, 'Zo...and not much mo'.
John Stockton and Karl Malone just keep pickin' and rollin' in Utah. Nobody's done it better.
Vlade Divac and the Kings have done a fast-break makeover, and basketball fever is suddenly running rampant in Sacramento.