Taking a walk through the NBA’s Eastern Conference graveyard…

There lies the Miami Heat, former NBA champions. Once the only serious challengers to the Pistons for conference supremacy. See their grave marker — the one that says “We flamed out too soon.” Don’t walk too close, lest you disturb the fresh soil.

Over here lies the Chicago Bulls — once up-and-coming heirs. A signing of free agent Ben Wallace was to make them elite and conference dynamos. Now their burial plot includes that of their ex-coach, who was just lowered into the ground on Monday.

Here we have the Cleveland Cavaliers, who deteriorated quickly. No LeBron James for a few weeks, and so they proved to be about as deep as a children’s wading pool. Better get out the stethoscope, though — for there may be a heartbeat inside that casket after all.

A little further along and you’ll see the headstone belonging to the Indiana Pacers, who at one time gave the Pistons fits when Detroit was on its way to the NBA Finals. Then Reggie Miller retired, Ron Artest went sideways and was traded, and then they dismantled the team, pretty much. Beneath these daisies lie a mostly-decomposed corpse of a conference threat.

And here, on our way out of the cemetery, lies the New Jersey Nets. They, once upon a time, represented the conference two years in a row in the NBA Finals. Somewhere around here floats the ghost of one Brian Scalabrine, who torched the Pistons one night in the playoffs, back in 2004. But the Nets are as stiff as a board now, and you won’t have to worry about them poking their head up thru the ground.

Only two are left standing now, for all intents and purposes: the resilient, Freddy Krueger-like Pistons, and the re-animated Boston Celtics. The Orlando Magic may now take a step backwards, thank you — for they are not to be included in this select group.

It’s amazing how far the Eastern Conference powers have fallen, and how quickly. They keep toppling, and the Pistons just look down at them all, both bemused and appreciative at what is going on around them.

Next up for the Detroiters are the Nets, who have a decent trio in Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and Vince Carter, but who yet cannot even touch the .500 mark. Once, a Pistons-Nets regular season game was worth checking out. Now, it only proves interesting if the Nets can manage to make a game of it — or possibly get lucky enough to win.

Clearly it’s the Celtics who now are the Pistons’ biggest challengers, and that’s a nice, retro way to ring in 2008. The Celts invade The Palace a week from Saturday, a couple weeks after the Pistons drew first blood in Boston. It’ll be one of those rare NBA regular season tilts in January that you’ll want to sit through.

If the Pistons’ continued success — when all their challengers have fallen like dominoes — isn’t enough to convince you that they’re one of the best organizations in pro basketball, then you’ll just never get it. It takes more than just talent to remain the cream. You need direction, smart decisions, commitment, and, admittedly, some luck. The Pistons have had all of those things, and today they sit at 20-7 — a 60-win pace, when many of their contemporaries can’t see .500 without a telescope.

So remember all this the next time you yelp that the Pistons haven’t “done anything lately.”

They’ve done plenty.

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