The Eastern Conference isn’t *that* bad
The West is still dominant, but a few teams in the East are capable of lifting the conference out of oblivion.
The Toronto Raptors went into Los Angeles and beat the Clippers Saturday night, 110-98. Kyle Lowry led the way for the Raptors with 25 points and seven assists. It was another win for the Raptors against a Western Conference foe, who they’re now 8-2 against. And they aren’t the only team in the East who has fared well against the league’s decidedly superior conference.
The Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards are both 6-2 against the West and the Chicago Bulls are 7-5. The surprising Milwaukee Bucks are 6-6 and the work-in-progress Cleveland Cavaliers are 4-6. While calls for conference realignment are valid, the Eastern Conference is home to a handful of teams that can stack up against the best from the West.
The West is certainly the better conference, but there are a few reasons why, come the NBA Finals, that might not matter for whoever emerges from the East:
The East has point guards, too
The NBA has a surplus of talent at the point guard position. Numerous one-guards can take over a game at the drop of a hat. Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry do so on an almost nightly basis for the Thunder and Warriors. And there are multiple stars in the East who are just as capable.
Lowry outplayed Chris Paul in the Raptors’ win over the Clippers Saturday night, and he’s been consistently strong for the Raptors all year after last season’s breakout in the playoffs. Lowry is averaging 20.2 points and 7.6 assists per game with a 24.28 PER. Plus, he makes big shots and can take over a game down the stretch.
John Wall is putting up 17.8 points and 10.3 assists per game with a PER of 21.07 and leading the Wizards to new heights. Jeff Teague is averaging 16.6 points and 6.9 assist per game with a 21.18 PER for Atlanta. Then there’s Kyrie Irving (when LeBron James isn’t playing point) and the always dangerous-when-healthy Derrick Rose.
It’s more than two or three teams for once
It’s not news that an Eastern Conference team could win the NBA title. The Miami Heat were able to pull it off in 2012 and 2013. But since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, the Eastern Conference has been extremely top heavy. Aside from the Heat, the Pacers and the Bulls were the only teams that had legitimate title hopes — and both of them unraveled thanks to injury or burnout. This year, there are five teams with a shot to head to the finals.
Toronto is leading the conference at 23-7, and Atlanta (22-8), Washington (21-8) and Chicago (21-9) are all right on their heels. And any time one of the best players ever is around, that team has a chance to win it all. The Cavaliers have yet to live up to expectations, but they’ve shown stretches of brilliance.
Getting to the finals is going to be tougher than it has been in a while, and being hardened by tough games may be a good thing.
The SEC football argument
Whenever an SEC football team is upset, there are cries that it was only because other teams don’t have to face the week-in-week-out crucible that is the SEC. The same theory could apply to the Eastern and Western conferences.
Last year, the San Antonio Spurs barely made it out of the first round. Yet they decimated the Heat in the finals. To win the West, it’s going to take three hard-fought series wins over 50-win-quality teams. It stands to reason that whoever wins the West could be worn out once the finals begin. The East? Not so much.
But as mentioned above, that may have hurt the East. The Heat coasted through the East and a dysfunctional Pacers team last year. Against the Spurs, however, not only were they outplayed, but they appeared completely unprepared. This year, getting to the finals isn’t going to be a cakewalk.
Unlike college football, where there may only be five chances for an ACC team to beat an SEC squad, Eastern conference teams play 30 games against the West. The Heat were 20-10 against the West last season and 25-5 in 2012-13 when they did win the title. It’s not the only measure for success, but how an Eastern Conference team fares against the West is certainly a way of separating the contenders.
The East as a whole is not very good. But with solid point guard play, a tad more depth than recent years and only having to beat one Western Conference team in the playoffs, the East is inching towards respectable as the season progresses.