By Chris Molicki
The Eastern conference has been making a bit of a comeback . After so many years of the West dominating, the power shift is slowly moving East. Sure, the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers might be better than every team in the East. But as for teams 5 through 8, the East is better, which could be a sign of things to come. There’s a jumble of teams bunched together in the East that are hard to understand. We know that the Cavaliers are the favorites and the Raptors are their top challenger, but the rest is up in the air. The No. 3 seed and the No. 8 seed are separated by a mere five games as of writing this article. If you’re a basketball nerd like I am, you can’t wait to see how the East shakes out.
Boston Celtics: After last year, the Celtics had everyone thinking they were a nice little team with a good coach that just didn’t have the talent to play with the big boys. They’ve dismissed that notion this season for several different reasons. Isaiah Thomas is somehow having one of the best ten seasons of anyone in the league. Jae Crowder has gone from role player on a team to best player on a team. Guys like Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Evan Turner have completed a versatile backcourt. And Brad Stevens has cemented himself as a top-5 NBA coach. Despite the success, I’m still intrigued to see what Boston does in the playoffs. In the end, superior talent usually wins out, and the Celtics simply don’t have as much talent as teams like the Heat, Cavaliers, or Raptors. Playoff basketball is a different animal, and it might be too much for the C’s. But if they can make a surprise run to the conference finals, I’m hopping on the bandwagon.
Atlanta Hawks: After an incredible 60-win regular season, the Hawks were pummeled by Cleveland in the conference finals, showing there was still plenty of work to be done. But how do you mess with a team that had that much success? Mike Budenholzer may have found the answer. After relying on their scorching-hot offense last year, the Hawks have shifted to a defense-first approach. They’re second in the league in defensive efficiency behind the Spurs. Losing DeMarre Carroll was tough, and players like Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver haven’t been having the seasons we expected. But the Paul Millsap-Al Horford frontcourt is anchoring a lockdown defense. Maybe that’s the way they can beat Cleveland?
Miami Heat: Once again, the Heat’s playoff chances hinge on the cloudy medical condition of Chris Bosh, whose postseason status is up in the air. However, Miami has gone 18-9 since losing Bosh, so maybe their interesting squad could make some noise in the postseason regardless. Hassan Whiteside has silenced his critics by beasting through the second half of the season. Rookie Josh Richardson has exploded onto the scene as a crucial piece. And the acquisition of Joe Johnson to South Beach has revived the former Net’s career. A veteran backcourt of Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic carries plenty of experience, but this Miami team is somewhat of a puzzle. However, with the recent success they’ve found, maybe coach Erik Spoelstra has figured out how to put it together.
Charlotte Hornets: Steve Clifford is a smart man. He looked at his team, which had several talented, young players that as a whole played very well defensively. However, this didn’t lead to a lot of wins. Then he looked at the league. The three-point shot has become more important than ever, the Warriors being the obvious example. Clifford realized his team wasn’t taking many threes, so he changed that. New players who could shoot the three were brought in, like Nicolas Batum, Courtney Lee, Frank Kaminsky, and Troy Daniels. Old players were encouraged to let it fly from deep more often, like Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams. Now Charlotte is having an incredible year because they’ve adjusted to the modern NBA (it’s a shame other coaches are too stubborn to, unlike Clifford). They’re gotten more out of Jeremy Lamb than OKC ever could, coaxed a career year out of Jeremy Lin, and have a team that is in the top-10 both offensively and defensively. And that’s all without Michael Kidd-Glichrist. The future is bright for these Hornets, and the future starts now.
Indiana Pacers: Paul George back in the playoffs is great for basketball. Coming off his gruesome broken leg, George is having a career year in almost every statistical category. This Pacers’ team is third in defensive efficiency, showing they could be a thorn in the side for one of the top two teams in the East. However, their frontcourt is a little underwhelming. Myles Turner looks to be an excellent draft pick and Ian Mahinmi has had his best season, but that’s not enough against Cleveland’s bigs. Indiana does have something a lot of these other teams don’t: superstar power. The chances of a first-round upset are slim, but it’s not impossible with George in the fold.
Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy has a lot of fascinating pieces at his disposal that seem to really be coming together. Andre Drummond is a straight monster, Reggie Jackson is justifying his massive contract, and the versatility of guys like Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Stanley Johnson cannot be understated. But the addition of Tobias Harris has really opened up a lot for Detroit. They’re 16-10 since acquiring Harris, and he’s another guy whose versatility is crucial when it comes to playoff matchups. Stan is the man for unlocking the right lineups, and I really think the Pistons are going to be a problem for whoever they play; even Cleveland.