Eastern Conference Power Rankings: A Closer Look

The NBA season is in full swing, and last week I took a detailed look at the Western Conference. Today, I’m spending some time looking at the current landscape of the Eastern Conference, and where we will likely end up somewhere down the road. As always, I’d like to thank our sponsor for this column, Honey Nut Cheerios.

The Lottery Hopefuls
15-10: Washington Wizards, Charlotte Bobcats, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic
Here is the very short list of things I like about teams 15 through 10, all of whom would absolutely shock the world if they stole a playoff spot:
Detroit’s bench production; Nik Vucevic’s 29 rebound game; Washington’s wins over Miami and Oklahoma City; Toronto’s trade pieces; Orlando not completely rolling over without Dwight Howard; Charlotte starting the season quickly enough to make people think they might make the playoffs; Kemba Walker; Cleveland’s future with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, whoever they eventually trade Anderson Varejao for, and a top three pick in the 2013 draft (Hopefully Cody Zeller so he can play with his brother Tyler); Getting to wear all of my old Cleveland Cavaliers attire after Cleveland becomes relevant again; The fact that I’m not going to see any of these teams in the playoffs.

The Teams on the Bubble
9: Philadelphia 76ers
8: Milwaukee Bucks
-One of these two teams is going to claim the eight seed in the Eastern Conference, and really it doesn’t matter which team it is because their playoff stay will consist of three blowout losses, one close loss and a home win. My hope is for Milwaukee to manage to get this spot since it means a few more precious moments in the Monta Ellis/Brandon Jennings era, more Larry Sanders, and an increased chance my girlfriend would want to watch the series since it would be featuring her hometown team.

Jan 5, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders (8) sets to pass against the Indiana Pacers during the first half at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers won 95-80. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

On the outside of this imaginary bubble looking in is Philadelphia, who was the trendy pick in the East to unseat Miami at the top of the conference. A whole bunch of stock was put into Andrew Bynum becoming something of the next Moses Malone in Philadelphia, but instead he’s just become a Frederick Douglass doppelganger while in the process of sitting on the bench and rehabbing his bowling-induced-battered knees. If Bynum will return this season still remains just as big of a mystery as whether or not he’ll remain in Philadelphia after the season is over (by his choice or theirs), and what kind of team Philadelphia would be if Bynum was healthy from the beginning of the season. One of the most intriguing subplots coming into this year was how Andrew Bynum would be able to handle the pressure and responsibility of being a franchise player. The buzzwords “moody”, “immature” and “risky” are always thrown around whenever Andrew Bynum becomes the topic of discussion. Would Bynum have folded under the incredibly high expectations from the media and the always passionate and borderline crazy Philadelphia fans? I say there is a strong chance the answer is yes. What’s been lost in the shuffle amidst a relatively disappointing 76ers season is the improved play of Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday, who is playing good enough to be considered for an All-Star spot.

The Other New York Team
7: Brooklyn Nets
-Oh yeah, it’s that other New York team. You know, the one that is owned by the Russian billionaire and the rap mogul, yet they’re somehow one of the least charismatic teams in the league, led by two of the least charismatic stars in the league (yes, for the sake of this section I’m tentatively and regretfully referring to Joe Johnson as a star) and to boot, they just fired the reigning NBA coach of the month. To be blunt, Brooklyn just isn’t as good of a team as New York, they aren’t as flashy or marketable, and the Barclay’s Center crowd doesn’t hold a candle to the MSG mystique. So what do I propose the Brooklyn Nets have to do to turn this whole thing around? It’s simple, they kill the Batman.  Whoops, that’s not right. They have to trade for, wait for it… Dwight Howard! Yes, the man who admitted he wanted to be traded to Brooklyn. The man who is going to be a free agent in the summer of 2013. The man who would be like peas and carrots with Deron Williams, where together they would go on to shatter the record for coaches fired between two teammates. Why wouldn’t Brooklyn offer Los Angeles something like Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, Marshon Brooks and a future 1st round pick for Dwight Howard and Earl Clark? It immediately makes Brooklyn relevant, especially if Dwight hasn’t changed his mind (a monumentally huge if given his track record) and decides he really does want to play in Brooklyn alongside Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. In the meantime, expect Brooklyn to be exiting the playoffs in the 1st round in 2013. Fingers crossed for a New York/Brooklyn 1st round series.

The Same Old Story
6: Atlanta Hawks
-When I watch the Hawks play it’s like I’m in a never-ending state of Déjà vu, and it doesn’t matter one iota that Atlanta traded Joe Johnson in the offseason. He might as well still be there, because it’s the same exact team that we’ve been used to seeing for the last five years. Atlanta will stroll into the playoffs as a 3, 4, 5 or 6 seed and lose in either the first or second round, continuing their streak for longest stint of notable mediocrity in NBA history. I can honestly say that I believe that for the rest of my life Atlanta will never be great or terrible; they will always be just relevant enough to get an annual playoff spot, maybe win one first round series and then bow out in the next round if they are lucky enough to get there. Josh Smith and Al Horford are both having solid seasons and Lou Williams is a nice change of pace scoring option off the bench, but I don’t think there is anything that can be done to ignite an always comically lackadaisical Atlanta home crowd, or to turn the Hawks into something other than a first or second round exit. Can any of those three players possibly be relied on to put the Hawks on his back and turn a playoff series around? No sir. I can’t say stress this enough, but let me try to convey this to you in a slightly different way. If you are expecting anything differently than what we’ve seen the past few seasons from Atlanta, then as my heavily medicated roommate Tyler once told his mother, “You’re not smart.”

The Diamond in the Rough (Spot)
5: Chicago Bulls
Last Sunday when Robert Griffin III went down with what turned out to be a torn ACL and LCL, I got the same feeling in my stomach that I did when Derrick Rose tore his knee up last April. It was a feeling like “How could this happen to someone so good, so young and so athletically gifted?” It’s something that took me a while to shake with Derrick Rose, and I’m sure it will be the same story with Griffin. Since Derrick Rose went down and subsequently so did Chicago, the Bulls have been the ultimate enigma in the NBA. Nobody knew what to expect from a short-handed Bulls team that went 18-9 without Derrick Rose in the regular season last year, yet wilted in the postseason after Derrick Rose got hurt, losing 4 of their next 5 games. We didn’t know which version of the 2011-12 Bulls this year’s team would mirror, and so far it looks like one very similar to the one from the regular season last year.

The Chicago Bulls can’t win the Eastern Conference without Derrick Rose. Even though without Rose the Bulls still defend better than 90% of the league, you can only go so far without a player who is capable and willing of taking command and saying to everyone “I’ve got this.” That was Derrick Rose. That isn’t Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah or any other Bulls, and I don’t mean any disrespect by that. There are just a very limited amount of guys who are capable of doing that, and Rose was the one guy in Chicago who was capable of it. So here is where the Chicago situation gets very interesting. What happens when/if Derrick Rose comes back this season? Is he going to be 50 percent of the player he was before? 75 percent? Will he go Adrian Peterson on us and be better than ever, making every athlete believe that if they undergo ACL surgery they will come back with super-human powers? That is what we don’t know, and that is why Chicago remains an enigma until Rose comes back. Chicago was supposed to be the kryptonite to Miami’s superman. They defend at a high level, they have a brilliant head coach and they have a fearless leader who relishes the chance to go head to head with LeBron, Wade and Bosh. But for all we know, Chicago might be remembered historically as a flash in the pan. Derrick Rose’s MVP season might end up being one of those lost seasons that never gains steam historically because he was never able to follow it up. The one thing we can safely assume is that the Bulls will at least be competitive this year, make a run at the Central Division and will not be an easy out in the playoffs.

The One Trick Pony
4: Indiana Pacers
-36 games into this season, we’ve learned two big things about the Indiana Pacers: A. They can win in the regular season without Danny Granger, a big question mark early in the season after a less than stellar 10-10 start to the season. Since that point, Indiana has won 12 of their next 16 games thanks to point B. They play stifling defense. Despite the fact Indiana barely cracks 91 points per game (29th in the league), they are one of two teams in the league, Memphis being the other, that allows less than 90 points per game. Indiana is currently 2nd in scoring defense (89.5 points), 1st in opponent’s field goal percentage (.414, a full percentage point better than Oklahoma City, 2nd in that category), 1st in opponents 3 point percentage (.316, a full percentage point better than San Antonio and Golden State, 2nd in that category), and 2nd in rebound differential. All of that sounds like a recipe for success. And it just may be. In the last week Indiana has defeated Miami and New York, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference standings, and held them to 77 and 76 points respectively. The big question with Indiana is whether or not their offense can give them enough to win. What kind of player will Danny Granger be when he returns from a left knee injury? Can Paul George continue to make a seemingly effortless the leap from complimentary piece to feature player? Will Roy Hibbert ever figure out he is 7’2 and decide to shoot better than 40%? Seriously, why the hell is Roy Hibbert, only 26 years old, digressing?

Last year Indiana gave Miami everything they could handle in the 2nd round. It was even enough for me to write a scathing piece called “Miami Hate” where I basically tore apart the Miami Heat, reminisced about my days as a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, and prematurely gave Indiana a whole bunch of credit for ruining the Heat dynasty. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade started playing otherworldly basketball and won three straight. But those first 3 and a half games of the series shouldn’t be ignored. Indiana will hit you hard and bring their best every single night… even if their best doesn’t include scoring a bunch of points.

The Feel Good Story
3: New York Knicks
The Invincible Movie Villain
2: Boston Celtics
-Go ahead and take some time to pick your jaw up off the floor and voice any criticisms you have of my opinion (I won’t hear them anyway, unless you left a comment below). This may be a relatively unpopular opinion, but I stand firmly behind these rankings even though the standings will show that Boston is currently in 8th place in the Eastern Conference. Last year when I did my Eastern Conference Power rankings, I didn’t have the courage to pull the trigger on putting Boston as my 2ndbest team, even though there was little doubt in my mind that they would be the team left standing with Miami in early June. Instead I ranked Boston behind Indiana, Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami, despite the fact I had just gotten done making the comparison that the Celtics were the NBA equivalent of Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. I should’ve known better than disrespecting Michael Myers like that.

Jan. 7, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett (5) dribbles around New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony (7) during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Boston won 102-96. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t have Boston ranked 2nd until late Monday night after Honey-Nut-Cheerios-Gate had occurred. What was overshadowed in this game was, well, the game itself. Boston walked into Madison Square Garden without Rajon Rondo and beat the New York Knicks, got into Carmelo Anthony’s head, and in the process, I was reminded of a game from last year. Last year the Boston Celtics got into a “bar fight” in Orlando, came back from 27 points down and won 91-83, playing without Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. I can’t exactly explain why these kinds of games are so significant, especially when they are happening in January or February. In some ways, it’s a sign of what kind of team you are talking about. The Celtics have proven time and time again they can win in a bar fight. It may not be pretty, and some people might not like it, but they get the job done even when they are down 27 points, shorthanded and have everyone piling on saying they can’t do it. The story will be the same this year. Once again, people will underrate the Celtics. They will go through some stretches where they play mediocre basketball. They’ll look extremely old, they won’t be able to rebound and the doubters and haters will have a whole lot to say. I won’t be one of them. I’ve seen this movie before. This season is just like every other one, just like all of the Halloween movies follow the same premise. You can’t kill Michael Myers, and you can’t kill the Boston Celtics. And just a word of advice to all of those aforementioned haters and doubters, the Celtics are 18-17 right now. 35 games in last year they were 18-17 also.

I could go into great detail about the the X’s and O’s for the New York Knicks, talk about their line-ups, discuss whether Amare Stoudemire should start, etc. But I’m choosing instead to make one simple point that will save myself a lot of writing, you a lot of reading, and ultimately, this point means more than all of the X’s and O’s. Kevin Garnett is by all accounts the most personal and uncensored trash talkers in the NBA. He will use anything and everything to get under his opponents skin. For years, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics and Garnett in particular, had a knack for festering in the psyche of LeBron James. They were the hurdle LeBron couldn’t get past. Last year in the playoffs Boston went into Miami in game five and took a 3-2 series lead. According to a lot of people close to the situation, Garnett’s trash talk towards LeBron was particularly harsh this game. LeBron responded by walking into Boston and turning into Michael Myers himself. He killed the Celtics. He silenced the Boston crowd and everyone else who had something to say. What did Carmelo Anthony do? He waited for Kevin Garnett by the team bus because he wanted fight him. This is reason number 342 why Carmelo Anthony shouldn’t be compared to LeBron James, and it doubles as the reason why the New York Knicks are not a better team than the Boston Celtics.

The Leader of the Pack
1: Miami Heat
-I’ll leave this one to the Nature Boy Ric Flair. Have a good weekend!