The NBA has long been criticized for lacking what makes the NFL appointment viewing 3 days a week: parity. In the NFL, for sale shorter contracts, key injuries, larger rosters, and less impact by individual players makes for the phrase “any given Sunday” and the fact that 10 different teams have won the Super Bowl in the last 15 years. In the NBA, some people write off the regular season and playoff seeding entirely because only 10 different teams have won the championship since 1980.
Conference superiority has a lot to do with the thin upper crust of champions in the NBA. As a Bulls fan who reaps the benefits of a #1 or #2 seed in the East despite a similar record to a Western Conference team in the bottom half of the playoff picture, I constantly preach the cyclical nature of conference imbalance. However, even I was disappointed to see Joe Johnson on my TV in late April last year while Russell Westbrook was at home.
“Cyclical” is a stretch at this point, with the Western Conference’s superiority lasting for the better part of the past two decades. But I’m not ready to toss the conference format just yet. The Bulls may have returned with the exact same team, but not everyone in the East followed suit. We’re only 2 nights in to the NBA season, and it already looks like the East may have taken a major jump towards the talent, play, and energy of Western Conference teams. You can look at almost any team in the East right now and imagine them in the playoffs (not you Sixers).
When April comes around, it’s hard to picture the Cavs, Bulls, and Hawks without home court advantage in the first round, but beyond that, all other spots are totally up for grabs. The Miami Heat are the most likely team to join the Eastern Conference elite with the return of Chris Bosh from a blood clot that sidelined him for the final 30 games of the ’14-15 season, joining a backcourt of top NBA guards Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic. Hassan Whiteside came of age last season and will complement the very capable Luol Deng and rookie Justice Winslow, who fell in to the team’s lap in the draft. With this lineup, Pat Riley may have the best chance to challenge former Heat star Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and aim for an NBA Finals appearance.
Since the Heat are no strangers to deep playoff runs, the Knicks and Pistons will be the more unlikely competitors in the East this year. In New York, the Knicks made a big opening statement topping the hyped Milwaukee Bucks by 25 points on Tuesday. Consistent play from Kristaps Porzingis, and help from Derrick Williams off the bench combined with a healthy Carmelo Anthony if he doesn’t get traded, will make them an Eastern Conference threat.
In Detroit, Stan Van’s island of misfit toys just might work. With a surprising victory over the Hawks on opening night, all 5 starters scored in double figures and the team dominated the boards with 59 rebounds to Atlanta’s 40. Andre Drummond is on the cusp of stardom, and when joined by a healthy Brandon Jennings and Reggie Jackson, who the team acquired mid-last season, they should be able to consistently execute SVG’s system and recapture the run they had last year before losing Jennings to an Achilles injury.
Aside from Lebron James being the best player in the world and the Cavs heated rivalry with the Bulls, and well, everyone, the East still has a ways to go to match up with the West. But with improvements to the Raptors, Bucks, Pacers and Celtics as well, this may be the first year in recent memory that there are deserving teams who don’t make the playoffs in the East. At the very least, we should see an 8th seed with a winning record, an overall step in the right direction.