Earlier this year it looked as if the East were a one team league as the Celtics were above and beyond the rest of the conference. But at the end of January the Pistons began a hot streak and won 20 of 25 games to put themselves in the picture. After these two teams, only three other teams are even mention worthy: the emerging Magic, the LeBron-led Cavaliers, and the internationally flavored Raps. If I were forced in taking a sleeper, I could see Orlando upsetting the Pistons. But I can’t see them beating both Detroit and Boston on the road to get to the Finals. In the end, the East boils down to its top two teams.
I’m sure there have been dozens of articles written about the futility of the NBA’s right coast, and rightfully so. Had Kevin McHale not made Boston a powerhouse, the East would have been as it was the previous few seasons: Detroit peering back at a handful of teams. Looking at the standings, it’s hard not to think that a half dozen Western teams could easily get to the Finals if they swapped conferences. Fortunately I don’t see this disparity lasting too long.
Boston still looks to be the league’s best team, and will likely be of one the league’s best for another year or two. Orlando and Toronto improved this year, and at least one of them should be among the elite eastern teams in a season or two. Next year Miami is likely to have 3 star players (Wade, Marion, and their lottery pick), and nothing motivates Pat Riley more than a whiff of success. With a host of young talent, Chicago might be a good coach and a trade away from rebounding strongly in 2009. And of course Detroit still has their core locked up for at least another year.
If Boston wins a championship and stays dominant for the next few years, that alone might help the East recover. Part of the reason the West is superior is the level of competition is higher. It doesn’t make much sense to wallow in mediocrity, because the bar is set so high. Over the last few years, a mediocre Eastern team could open the season with the hopes of going deep into the playoffs. If Boston, Detroit, and maybe Orlando form a stout triumvirate while teams like Toronto and Cleveland are consistently in the playoffs, the rest of the conference will have to step up their efforts if they wish to be competitive.
Unfortunately this won’t make the Eastern half of the playoffs more exciting this year. The only reasons to watch the East will be the eventual Boston/Detroit (or Orlando) showdown and LeBron James late game theatrics. Hopefully next year will be a different story.