The Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers were supposed to be the class of an otherwise suspect Eastern Conference this season, the Pistons given a reasonable chance to repeat as NBA champions and the Pacers considered a legitimate contender for the title.
A little more than midway through the season, both teams are filled with questions, and doubts about how things will turn out. Their seasons have been intertwined by more than an early-season brawl considered by many to be the worst in U.S. sports history.
While the Pistons (30-19) have started to show signs of emerging from an early-season malaise heading into last night's game against the surprising Washington Wizards (30-20), the Pacers (23-26) are barely in the playoff picture.
In first place in the East at 7-2 after winning that Nov. 19 game at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Indiana won three of its first four games before lengthy suspensions to Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson and the 73-game suspension to Ron Artest.
But even after O'Neal returned on Christmas Day after his penalty was cut from 25 to 15 games, and Jackson came back last month following a 30-game suspension, Indiana struggled to find any sense of consistency - or success - as it battled injuries and illness to others.
"Unpredictability has kind of become normalcy," Pacers forward Austin Croshere said recently.
Said Jackson, who was later suspended for another game after bumping an official, "It seems like everything that could go wrong went wrong."
Second-year guard Fred Jones is the only regular in coach Rick Carlisle's rotation to miss fewer than six games. Carlisle has used more than 20 different starting lineups. Since winning four of their first five games after O'Neal's return for an unsuccessful rematch with the Pistons, the Pacers are 7-13.
"It's been a season of many challenges," said Carlisle, whose personal streak of having won at least 50 games in each of his first three years of coaching is in serious doubt.
Said O'Neal, one of several Pacers who face criminal charges and possible personal injury lawsuits: "You put any team in that situation, whether it's injuries or suspensions, it's going to be a tough year. If you ask any [coaching] staff what can they do with that, they'll say absolutely nothing."
There have been times that the Pacers appear to be going through the motions, figuring that securing one of the top four seeds in the East is out of reach while believing that anything near .500 will get them a playoff spot in the woeful East.
Clearly, the Pacers have missed Artest at both ends of the court. The league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Artest was the team's leading scorer at the time of his suspension and gave Indiana a toughness and swagger that has been absent since his departure.
Though Artest had caused his share of distractions before - including a brief benching by Carlisle earlier this season after asking for time off to promote a CD he had produced - his idiosyncrasies had become tolerated, if not totally accepted, by his teammates and coaches.
"Before the incident, it was no secret that we had the best team in the league, but without Ron, obviously it's going to be a little harder, but we've just got to come together," said Jackson. "We still have a great team, we still have a championship team. We're not a .500 team, we're not a below-.500 team."
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan agrees with at least part of that assessment.
"I still look at them as a playoff team in the East because that is who they are," Jordan said Monday after his Wizards beat the Pacers for the second straight time this season.
But who are the Pistons?
Are they the team that upset the Los Angeles Lakers in a five-game rout in last year's Finals, or the one that seemed to have a hard time ratcheting up anything close to that level for the first two months of the season?
The loss of All-Star center Ben Wallace for his involvement in the brawl - he had fouled Artest on the play that precipitated everything - was only a small part of the problem.
Pistons coach Larry Brown has only recently seen signs of last year's team re-emerging.
"I think we've started to play more like we had hoped to play," Brown said before last week's game in Washington, won by Detroit with a dominating fourth quarter. "Us kind of having an X on our backs, we weren't going to sneak up on anybody. I think people brought their A games to play us."
It also hasn't helped that Brown's name has surfaced in coaching rumors with the Lakers and the New York Knicks, or that Brown called the Knicks a "dream job." Brown quickly tried to defuse the situation in Los Angeles after Rudy Tomjanovich's sudden departure last week.
"Nobody wrote what I said. I said on a radio show last week [about the Knicks rumors] that this is my last job," said Brown, 64.
Just when it seemed as if the Pistons had turned it around for good with a five-game winning streak, they lost by 22 a week ago today at New Jersey.
"Early in the season, we kept thinking we had our rhythm, we kept taking a couple of steps back," shooting guard Richard Hamilton said after the Wizards game. "It's a good feeling the way we're playing right now."
Asked if the Pistons were close to the team they were a year ago, point guard Chauncey Billups, the MVP of last year's Finals, said, "We've got to gain some consistency, but right now we're nowhere near where we were."