If it's parity that the NBA is looking for then they must be thrilled to see the current standings in the Eastern Conference, where at least a dozen teams can claim a legitimate shot at making a run at a postseason spot as we pass the quarter pole of the season.
The Boston Celtics currently sit just outside the playoff picture in the No. 9 spot by virtue of losing out on a tie breaker with an Orlando Magic team that boasts an identical 12-9 record to this point. Despite that they don't currently hold a playoff spot, Boston is a mere two games behind the Conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers and are one of four teams in the East tied at 9 losses, led by the division leading Toronto Raptors that are now in the No. 6 spot.
This will be a big week for this young Celtics team, as the get set to host the Chicago Bulls in a nationally televised game Wednesday night, followed by the undefeated Golden State Warriors coming to town on Friday. The spotlight of these marquee matchups gives the Celtics an opportunity to show a wider audience what they are made of. While their record may not reflect just how good this team has become, Boston's +5.4 point differential is the best in the East and they rank 3rd in the league in defensive rating at 97.0.
A win tonight over the Bulls would move them percentage points ahead of a Chicago team that enters the day as the No. 3 seed in the East, highlighting just how close this race is. Beating the Bulls and at least putting up a respectable fight against the Warriors would open a lot of eyes around the league to show that these Celtics are a team to be reckoned with.
(Eastern Conference team gaining momentum)
Orlando Magic: 12-9, 8th in the East
The Magic are still a young team, but coach Scott Skiles has them playing hard every night. Orlando was one of the worst defensive teams in the league a year ago, but they now rank 5th with a 97.0 defensive rating.
After an inconsistent start the the season, Skiles didn't wait long to shake up his lineup by moving Victor Oladipo to the second unit. The second overall pick in the 2013 draft missed a pair of games with a concussion last month and struggled mightily following his return, but the move to the bench seemed to ignite the third year guard. Oladipo burst out with a season-high 24 points in his first game in the sixth-man role and the Magic have won six of their last seven games since the move was made.
Oladipo averaged a disappointing 12.8 points over a dozen games as a starter. Granted that number was dragged down by having only played 7 minutes in the game he was injured in and having his minutes limited upon his return, but Oladipo still shot a brutal 37 percent from the floor during that opening stretch and was a -2.9 in +/- rating. Since moving to the bench, Oladipo is averaging 17.4 points on 43.3 percent shooting with a +8.1 rating.
As long as the lineup change keeps working, Skiles will stick with it. If it continues to work this well, Orlando may be a step further along in their rebuilding efforts than we thought.
(Eastern Conference team that is struggling)
Atlanta Hawks: 13-9, 7th in the East
While it's not entirely surprising to see Atlanta take a step back from last year, more was expected from a 60-win team than ran away with the top seed in the East a year ago.
The Hawks are playing at essentially the same level defensively as they were last year, but the offense has dipped a bit. Kent Bazemore is enjoying a breakout season, but hasn't quite been able to replace the all-around production of DeMarre Carroll, who bolted for Toronto last summer. Bazemore also missed a handful of games last month and has been relegated to the bench since his return in favor of the more defensive-minded Thabo Sefolosha, further limiting the offense.
The biggest factor to explain Atlanta's offensive drop-off has been the decline of Kyle Korver. After shooting nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc last year, Korver's accuracy has dropped to 42.9 percent from three-point range. That's still good enough to rank within the top-20 in the league, but it's a significant drop by his standards. He's also averaging 1.4 less attempts from deep per game. The threat of Korver's shot opens up the entire offense, allowing their big men to operate in the paint and opening lanes for their guards to drive through. If the 34-year old Korver is less automatic than he has been in the past then opposing defenses can make it more difficult for his teammates.
Draft Pick Watch
(Checking in on the status of teams that potentially owe a 2016 draft pick to the Celtics)
Brooklyn Nets: 6-15, 14th in the East
If the Celtics don't get a top-3 draft pick from the Nets this year, blame the West. More specifically, blame the Houston Rockets. After making it to the Western Conference Finals a year ago, Houston has a problem this year, stumbling out to a 10-12 start out of the gate. Two of those losses came against Brooklyn. Sorry, James Harden, but if you get swept in the season series against a heavy underdog like the Nets, you're automatically eliminated from any MVP discussions. Seriously, that's the rule.
The New Orleans Pelicans haven't been much help either. They have yet to play the Nets this season and therefore can't be blamed for any of the six wins Brooklyn has tallied, but they haven't beaten much of anyone else this year either. The Pelicans have only five wins themselves, putting them behind Brooklyn in the overall standings and the race for ping pong balls. Granted they have been ravaged by injuries, but how can any team with Anthony Davis on the roster be this bad? Presumably they will get better, while Brooklyn has less reason to be optimistic.