Remember the jokes about how pathetic the Eastern Conference was? How aside from a few elite teams at the top, the rest of the East was essentially a pile of garbage? You probably remember, seeing as it was only last year, but flash forward to this season and we find a lot has changed.
Last season saw three teams make the playoffs in the East despite not having a winning record, including a Celtics team that finished two games below the .500 mark and still grabbed the No. 7 seed. The Conference had only three teams that won 50+ games, while the West had seven that won at least 50. Meanwhile, an Oklahoma City squad that would have easily coasted into the 6th seed if they played in the East ended up on the outside looking in when then playoffs began.
The discrepancy between the two Conferences led to outcries for reform, with one popular suggestion aiming at eliminating Conferences in regards to playoff seeding by allowing the top 16 teams to qualify regardless of where their city resides on a map. While the idea has some merit in the interest of fairness, we're now reminded that the NBA is cyclical and we can't overreact to a relatively small sample size.
The top two or three teams in the NBA still reside in the West, but the Conference is much more top-heavy than it has been over the past several years. The standings as of Wednesday morning show a Utah Jazz team filling the No. 8 spot in the West despite being two games under .500, while the Conference has seven teams that are at least six games under.
Compare that to the East, where the Celtics are two games over .500, yet sit outside the playoff picture in 10th place. While that may seem like Boston has a long way to go just to be relevant, they are actually only one game back in the loss column to a Toronto Raptors team that leads their division and holds the No. 2 seed.
It still may be a stretch to call the East the better Conference considering that Cleveland looks like the only team capable of holding their own against the heavyweights from the West in any potential Finals series. What the early returns of the first two months of the season have shown is that the East is no pushover anymore and in order to make the playoffs in this Conference you're going to have to earn it. Nobody is coasting into the playoffs with a losing record. Will the West be able to say the same?
(Eastern Conference team gaining momentum)
Detroit Pistons: 17-12, 6th in the East
DEETROIT BASKETBALL is back, as the Pistons have been rolling with wins in five of their last six, including three straight. They aren't capitalizing on a weak schedule either, as four of those wins came against the Pacers, Celtics, Bulls and Heat. That also includes an epic thriller in Chicago that went to four overtimes! Lucky for them they followed that with three days off before their next game in Miami.
You may have heard that Andre Drummond is a beast that routinely throws up 20-20 games with ease, but he's not the only reason the Pistons are thriving. Reggie Jackson is having a career year, ranking inside the top-20 in the league in scoring at 20.4 points per game, while dishing out 6.4 assists. Jackson also ranks inside the top-20 with a 22.48 PER and 5.2 EWA, both of which narrowly edge out Isaiah Thomas for second among Eastern Conference point guards. The 5th year Boston College alum has full control of the offense from the start for the first time in his career and is thriving by putting up All-Star caliber numbers.
The Thunder are doing just fine with the superstar duo leading their own roster, but you have to believe they'll be kicking themselves if they get to All-Star weekend and see both James Harden and Jackson on the court, knowing they got very little in return for each of them.
(Eastern Conference team that is struggling)
Chicago Bulls: 15-11, 7th in the East
So, about that four overtime game we just mentioned that the Pistons played in Chicago? Doesn't seem quite as epic when you come out on the losing end, especially when you have to play the following night on the road. The Bulls can be forgiven for dropping that next game against the Knicks, but it's a bigger problem if that marathon against Detroit was still taking it's toll by the time they returned home to lose to the lowly Nets on their own court.
To make matters worse, there are rumblings coming out of Chicago of discord between star Jimmy Butler and the rest of the team. Butler's recent comments about how the team needs to be coached harder basically threw Fred Hoiberg under the bus, bringing to light how difficult the adjustment has been moving from a task-master like Tom Thibodeau to the more laid-back Hoiberg. Butler is a rising star following last year's breakout season, but there are concerns that being in the spotlight is starting to go to his head at the expense of team chemistry.
Chicago is reeling after three straight losses. While there is still plenty of time for them to turn things around, their star needs to get on the same page as the coach if this team is going to contend in an improved Eastern Conference.
Draft Pick Watch
(Checking in on the status of teams that potentially owe a first-round draft pick to the Celtics)
Minnesota Timberwolves: 11-17, 11th in the East
What a moment it was Monday night when the TD Garden crowd erupted in chants of "We want KG!" when the Timberwolves came to town. Kevin Garnett never made it into the game, but he did drift onto the court during a late game timeout to salute the fans and catch a glimpse of the Jumbo-tron during Gino Time in what may be his last visit to Boston.
The Celtics earned a much needed win that night, but it came at the expense of handing Minnesota their 17th loss to drop them to the league's eighth worst record. The significance to the Celtics is that the Wolves owe a top-12 protected pick to Boston, which turns into a pair of second-rounders if they fall within the protected range.
Ideally Minnesota will just barely miss the playoffs, giving the C's an extra lottery pick that ends up being high enough to be conveyed. They aren't far off from making that a reality, but you have to assume that if they begin to slip too far back from a playoff spot that they'll eventually start to tank in an effort to keep their pick. It's best for the Celtics if Minnesota wins a few more games to stay within striking distance of the No. 8 spot, which they currently trail by three games in the loss column.