NBA Eastern Conference January Review
It is time to get caught up with our NBA coverage here at Sportstok.ca. Let’s review the Eastern Conference and see how the Eastern Conference Playoff race is playing out:
The Reigning Champs
Miami – There have been issues with defence and rebounding and the Heat could stand to mix in a larger lineup every now and then but even with recent losses to Milwaukee and Chicago, the Heat are the team to beat and deserve to be ranked #1 barring injury until someone knocks them off in a playoff series. It also helps that the Eastern half of the playoff bracket is much easier than the Western half.
The Battle for Second
New York – Now that Amar’e Stoudemire is back it will be interesting to see if he can thrive in a bench role. I think the Knicks are the second best team in the East with Carmelo Anthony becoming more of an all around offensive player and JR Smith being the good JR Smith much more than the bad JR Smith. A Knicks team with a starting lineup featuring Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton with Stoudemire and Smith coming off the bench should give the Heat their greatest challenge, as long as everyone stays healthy.
Indiana – The Pacers have overcome a slow start and with the emergence of Paul George have won 8 of their past 10 to pull within 1 ½ games of the Knicks. The Pacers are now on pace to be where everyone expected them to be at the start of the season. George is becoming a legitimate second tier superstar in the league that can lead a team to a deep playoff run due to Indiana’s strong role players. If Roy Hibbert starts making shots and Danny Granger returns in February from a knee injury and becomes a 1st or 2nd scoring option the Pacers have the potential to push the Heat in the playoffs.
The Mystery Teams
Chicago – The Bulls are hanging tough at 5th in the East even though they haven’t had 2010-11 MVP Derrick Rose all season long. If Rose comes back for the playoffs at close to his pre-injury self, the Bulls will be the “team that no one wants to play in the playoffs”. Rose provides the Bulls the one piece they do not have, a primary scorer who can create his own shot on a consistent basis. Chicago’s main issue has always been if a superior defender like a LeBron James can limit Rose there are no other players on the floor who can initiate the offence.
Boston – The Celtics have been underwhelming up until about a week ago and are still a threat in the East. Avery Bradley is back which gives the Celtics a premier backcourt defender which is something the Celtics lacked. The Celtics will be a tough out for anyone.
The Surprise Team So Far
Atlanta – Everyone had the Hawks as a fringe playoff team after the Joe Johnson trade. Larry Drew has coached the team to a 20-11 record. The Hawks have gone away from their iso heavy offence and have opened things up with Teague and Williams in the backcourt and giving more touches to Horford and Josh Smith. I don’t know if the Hawks can break through their second round glass ceiling but the Hawks are much more interesting for now. Unless they trade Smith at the deadline of course.
The Disappointments So Far
Brooklyn – The preseason expectation was that the Nets would challenge for a top 3 spot. The Nets still can end up in the top 3 but need to improve their defence and continue to react positively to Avery Johnson’s firing. They also need Deron Williams to be “leading Utah to the West finals” Deron Williams, not “Dis-interested, inconsistent effort” Deron Williams. I see the Nets as a one and done team and it will be interesting if they try another makeover of the roster in the offseason or if they will take one more shot with a marquee coach (Phil Jackson?) at the helm. It looks like the Nets are righting the ship after beating Indiana on Sunday.
Philadelphia – The Sixers are here purely because of Andrew Bynum’s injury. If Bynum can come back and be near top form at the playoffs then, combined with the emergence of Jrue Holiday, the Sixers will have two excellent offensive options. Still, it looks like the Sixers will have a very difficult decision this offseason when it comes to attempting to re-sign Bynum.
Milwaukee – The Bucks look like they are firmly in a playoff spot and if they keep their roster intact will be a 1st round victim of Miami, New York or Indiana. The question will be if the Bucks trade Brandon Jennings and/or Monta Ellis before the trade deadline which could lead to the Bucks free falling out of the playoffs. The Bucks are looking like a traditional purgatory team, good enough to win a playoff game or two and then will get the 18th pick in the draft which doesn’t make the team better. Time will tell if the Bucks will add payroll or take a step back in the summer.
Toronto – The Raptors have some work to do, being 4 ½ games out of the playoffs but they do have an easy schedule in January with a lot of home games and can make up some ground. Kyle Lowry has to play better so the Raptors can try to get something for the Bargnani/Calderon combo. If the Raptors don’t make the playoffs this year I can see Bryan Colangelo being fired but leaving a solid core for the next general manager to build a playoff team.
Sorry Orlando, Detroit, Charlotte, Cleveland and Washington, this year is not your year. Here’s hoping these teams get what they want for veterans who may be traded before the deadline and hit some luck in the lottery.