By Ben Fisher
There is no shortage of positive stories about rising Eastern Conference teams as we begin to approach the halfway point of the 2010-11 NBA season. The Celtics remain a dominant force and are nearly unbeatable at home, the Heat are running on all cylinders and have won 19 of 20, Chicago and New York – two major television markets, might I add – appear revitalized and primed to contend.
But just as there must be bad to appreciate good, there must be weak teams to further enhance the strong ones. And the East is chockfull of weak teams.
The present make-up of the East sees six teams (Boston, Miami, Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta and New York) in possession of 20 wins or more, with none of the bottom nine teams boasting even .500 records. The “Big Six’s” combined 145 victories thus far this year represent 58.7% of the entire Conference’s wins, a 5.6% higher mark than last season’s top six enjoyed.
This divide should not have been so difficult to predict after the transactions of this past summer, when Miami became a superpower at the expense of two Eastern teams, Cleveland and Toronto. It’s no wonder, then, that the Heat have eight more wins than the Cavs and Raptors combined (bizarrely enough, Cleveland’s eight wins still put them within six games of a play-off spot, while Toronto’s 12 wins are good for two games out).
If you look at the have-nots in the Conference outside of the Cavs and Raptors, it isn’t that teams have gotten worse so much as they’ve stagnated while others have managed to attract talent and further develop. Clubs like the Pacers, 76ers, Bobcats, Bucks, Pistons and Nets are no worse personnel-wise than they were a year ago, but they’re also no better (seriously, who’s the biggest acquisition any of them made this summer? Darren Collison?). Chicago and New York have shown how the Eastern landscape can be changed with one move in their additions of Carlos Boozer and Amar’e Stoudemire, respectively.
Speaking of Boozer and Stoudemire, the East’s talented big men also play a major role in the disparity. Along with the Bulls’ and Knicks’ newcomers, the ‘have’ teams each hold one of the top six bigs in the Conference. Boston has Kevin Garnett, Miami has Chris Bosh, Orlando has Dwight Howard and Atlanta has Josh Smith (not to mention a rapidly improving Al Horford). It’s not that the rest of the field are hopeless up front (none of Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, Milwaukee’s Andrew Bogut, New Jersey’s Brook Lopez and Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani are pushovers), but they just don’t have that one dominant frontcourt presence needed to contend.
When a 14-21 team like the Sixers find themselves in sole possession of a play-off spot, it’s hard to argue against the deep chasm that exists between good and bad teams in the East. So, the focus turns to what it means and whether the disparity is a good thing or not.
Outside of Orlando and Atlanta, the Eastern Conference ‘haves’ are comprised of major markets in big cities, including traditional basketball hotbeds in Boston, Chicago and New York that call to mind past NBA eras of talented teams, players and rivalries. These are the teams that casual NBA observers with no impartial allegiances typically want to see do well, as they will create intriguing match-ups involving superstar talents and make large populations of people care.
After all, who doesn’t want to watch Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo clash with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh?
The problem is, of course, that for every Boston-Miami tilt, there are plenty more games like Washington-Philly last night in front of 12,000 or so fans. Most would prefer having some elite teams over a plethora of mediocrity, but at what cost?
When the have-nots comprise two-thirds of the Conference, it’s hard to justify that a six-team elite minority is good for the league.