The State of the East
With the NBA season nearing the homestretch, it’s time to take a look at the Eastern Conference and how the rest of the the regular and postseason might play out.
Indiana Pacers (46-15) – Current seed: 1
Miami Heat (43-15) – Current seed: 2
At the beginning of the season, the Eastern Conference was pegged by many to be a 5 team race. Miami and Indiana were clearly ahead of the pack, but most pundits believed Chicago, Brooklyn, and New York had a “puncher’s chance” to unseat the aforementioned top dogs. Oops. The Pacers and Heat are currently running away with the East crown, and frankly, it’s not even close. Sitting pretty at 46-15, Indiana leads their South Beach counterpart by 1.5 games in the standings, but the next closest team, the Raptors, are a gargantuan 12 games back with just 21 to play. Yet none of this comes as a surprise. We’ve known the Eastern Conference Finals matchup for almost 10 months now; the regular season has merely been a formality.
The Dark Horses
Chicago Bulls (34-27) – Current seed: 4
Brooklyn Nets (30-29) – Current seed: 6
Since no other team in the East has the talent or athleticism to matchup with Miami/Indiana in the postseason, the only other way to give a respectable effort in a playoff series is intelligence, experience, and toughness… and these two teams have that in spades.
After giving Miami a hard fought playoff series in 2013 without their star player, Chicago had hope entering this season. A full season of Derrick Rose coupled with the improvement of Jimmy Butler and a few minor tweaks to the roster led many fans and experts alike to believe that the Bulls could play with anyone in the league. Yet after just 10 games, Rose went down with another season-ending injury and now his career looks to be in somewhat of a critical stage. Then, on January 7th, management delivered another crushing blow to Chicago’s fading playoff hopes by essentially giving away swingman Luol Deng. Nevertheless, Chicago adapted on the fly. Thanks to superb coaching, a weak Eastern Conference, and MVP caliber play from Joakim Noah, Chicago has positioned themselves comfortably in the middle of the playoff picture. With a second round showdown looming with either Indiana or Miami, the Bulls need to be as healthy as possible once the reach that point. That means resting Joakim Noah when necessary and keeping key contributors Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, and Kirk Hinrich as fresh as possible, something coach Tom Thibodeau has overlooked in the past. Chicago has the leagues 2nd best defense (allowing opponents just 92.3 points per game) so pushing one of the frontrunners to a six or seven game series isn’t out of the question… everything just has to break right for the Windy City to even get that far.
With 35 all-star appearances between them, the starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez looked tantalizing on paper. Yet when the season started, reality started to kick in for owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the rest of the Brooklyn fan base. After playing 78 games last season, Deron Williams is on pace to play just 59 this year and his deteriorating ankles have him looking like a cast member of “The Walking Dead” on a nightly basis. At 32 years old Joe Johnson’s salary looks like a complete albatross ($23 million next year, $24 million the year after that) and his overall level of play has been declining ever since he left Atlanta. Celtics legends Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett need weekly breaks to rest their various ailments and they in no way resemble their hall of fame selves. And lastly, all-star center Brook Lopez injured his foot early in the season and will not be coming back this year. Needless to say, first year coach Jason Kidd had a lot on his plate to begin the season, and after weathering the storm of some early criticism, he has his dysfunctional team right in the thick of the playoff race. No, the Nets are not a serious title contender. After all, they boast the eighth worst offense in the league (scoring just 97.6 points per game) and a lackluster (to say the least) rebounding crew. However, with a healthy Williams, Pierce, and KG, Brooklyn certainly has the veterans to matchup with Indiana or Miami. And as Kevin Garnett once said, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLEEE!!!
The Punching Bags
Charlotte Bobcats (28-33) – Current seed: 7
Atlanta Hawks (26-33) – Current seed: 8
Being the 7th and 8th seed in the Eastern Conference is no small feat. In fact, it’s an even smaller feat than you think. The Dallas Mavericks, current 8th seed in the West, would jump all the way up to the 3 spot if they played basketball in the East. So while making the playoffs is generally a redeemable accomplishment, a better analogy would be a participation ribbon for these two teams.
Now, that logic isn’t entirely fair. After years of abysmal play, new coach Steve Clifford certainly has the Bobcats back on the right path. Their offensive and rebounding numbers aren’t anything to write home about (bottom 10 in the league for both categories) but to the surprise of many, a stingy top 5 defense has kept Charlotte within reach of the postseason. Moreover, a berth into the tournament would be a major moral victory for the team as they have spent much too long buried in their own futility.
Unlike Charlotte, the Hawks have been frequent guests at the postseason dance and 2014 will once again be a night (or year) to forget. Despite often trotting out a respectable team, the coveted championship has always been a pipe dream to Atlanta more than anything else. During a down year for the rest of the conference, many thought that an opportunity existed for the Hawks to at least come closer towards reaching their goal. Alas, mediocre play on both sides of the court and a devastating injury to Al Horford made a mess of the 2014 basketball season. At best, both Atlanta and Charlotte will provide warmup games for Indiana and Miami during round one of the playoffs. Brooms are most definitely in order.