The question has been posed consistently for several years now: when will the Eastern Conference return to prominence on level with – if not better than – the Western Conference?
It isn’t difficult to find evidence of the West’s recent dominance of the Eastern counterparts. Nine of the past 12 champions have come out of the West and for each of the past nine seasons, the ninth-place Western team would have earned a play-off spot had they earned the same record in the East.
But that was the old Eastern Conference.
Consider some of the names that will “take their talents”, as LeBron James would say, out East for the upcoming season include: Amar’e Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike and Ronny Turiaf (Knicks), Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver (Bulls), Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden (Bucks), Anthony Morrow and Jordan Farmar (Nets), Spencer Hawes and Andres Nocioni (76ers) and the 2010 NBA Draft’s top three picks, John Wall (Wizards), Evan Turner (76ers) and Derrick Favors (Nets).
Going the other way are David Lee (Warriors), Tyson Chandler (Mavericks), Sam Dalembert (Kings), Michael Beasley (T-Wolves), Hakim Warrick (Suns), Randy Foye (Clippers), Tony Allen (Grizzlies) and top five picks Wes Johnson (T-Wolves) and No. 5 DeMarcus Cousins (Kings), hardly a muderer’s row of NBA talent.
Whether these moves are enough to place the East on even footing with the West remains to be seen. What we do know, however, is that it is reshaped, flush with fresh new talent and, most importantly, improved. But Conference unity only exists as far as the All-Star Game. The East boasts 15 teams all looking for an edge over the other 14, so how do they stack up as the NBA embarks upon a new era?
It’s not hard to figure on who’s currently atop the heap. Without playing a game together, the Heat’s three-headed hydra of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh has the league buzzing and assigning ‘favorite’ status to the South Beach superstars. Even with the questions still surrounding the team – defense, shooting, chemistry and depth, to name four – it would be a shock to see anyone but Miami atop the Eastern Conference standings at the end of the 2010-11 season.
There will be no shortage of teams looking to stop the hype machine that is the Heat. The Celtics may be one year older and without their defensive stopper in Allen, but their Big Three match up well with the new Big Three and the Heat will be hard-pressed to handle Rajon Rondo. Boston proved this past postseason that you simply can’t count out the 2008 NBA Champs.
The Magic, meanwhile, still stake their claim as being the best team from Florida. They may not possess the talent of the Heat (who does?), but would likely gain significant advantages on the boards and beyond the arc. Dwight Howard has owned battles against Bosh in recent Orlando-Toronto clashes and the reported addition of Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the Heat will do little to change that. From the three-point line, Orlando’s likely loss of J.J. Reddick to Chicago will hurt, but the Magic still boast a slew of shooters in Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson.
Joe Johnson’s return to Atlanta (as the unlikely highest-paid free agent of the summer) may not bring the Hawks a title, but it does ensure their place comfortably within the East play-off picture again. Also likely to remain among the eight postseason hopefuls are the newly Boozer’d and Reddick’d Bulls, who should fit nicely with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and a Bucks squad that resigned John Salmons and added Maggette, Gooden and Chris Douglas-Roberts.
Neither Charlotte nor Cleveland have added any significant pieces over the off-season (Erick Dampier’s non-guaranteed expiring contract hardly counts as a significant piece as far as on-court contributions are concerned, and I don’t need to tell you about the Cavs’ off-season), but both have the remaining talent to be in the play-off mix come April. Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace still anchor Larry Brown’s Bobcats, while Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison will lead LeBron-less Cleveland.
One wild card amidst this bunch could be the Knicks, who struck out in their attempts to lure James but did acquire Stoudemire. How the former Suns star will handle the pressure of being “the Man” in Manhattan will bear watching over the coming months. But Stoudemire will get some help from a solid supporting crew that includes Knicks holdovers Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari, former Warriors Randolph, Azubuike and Turiaf and new point guard Raymond Felton. With such heavy turnover, it’s hard to gauge just where the Knicks will find themselves in the standings, but the 29-win team from last year is no more.
All this to say change is afoot in the East. It’s not known how thing will shake down exactly, but that, as they say, is why they play the games.