Although the Miami Heat has dominated the NBA over the last couple years, the majority of their fellow Eastern Conference teams have not followed suit. While the Western Conference has been stacked the past few seasons, featuring teams that are 10+ games above .500, yet fighting for the eighth seed, the East has been struggling. Going into this season, the East seemed poised to regain credibility as the Pacers looked dangerous, the Bulls were getting Derrick Rose back, the Knicks still appeared competitive, and the Nets traded for two future Hall of Famers. However, despite lofty expectations, the Eastern Conference once again looked petty. As of Dec. 31, only three teams in the East were above .500. While the Heat again looked strong and the Pacers were dominating the league, many of the other seemingly formidable teams were massively underachieving. The Knicks and Nets were 12 and 11 games under .500 respectively, the Bulls had to deal with another injury to Derrick Rose, and young, talented teams like the Wizards, Pistons and Bobcats just didn’t seem all that consistent. However, when the calendar changed to 2014, things began to change.
The Nets and Knicks began 2014 extremely hot as New York won six of its first seven games and Brooklyn finished 10-3 in January. While the Knicks would later free fall into the depths of the Atlantic Division, the Nets continued their strong play to propel themselves into the fifth seed in the East and are still in the mix for a division title. It would be a travesty, however, to discuss the Atlantic Division and not mention the surprisingly dominant play of the Toronto Raptors. Armed with a plethora of young, athletic wing players, the Raptors chose to trade Rudy Gay, an exciting, prolific scorer, for Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, and other minor pieces, seemingly losing a huge piece of their puzzle. However, immediately following the trade, the Raps began to dominate. This move allowed the young Terrence Ross to flourish as he is hitting 40 percent from behind the arc. It also opened up Toronto’s offense as players like Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry have become quick, reliable, explosive scorers. Whether or not the Raptors win the Atlantic this year, it is safe to say that the Rudy Gay trade allowed them to find their identity and flourish, forming a young core that will be extremely dangerous for years to come.
The Bulls too have steadily improved, although with Tom Thibodeau as their coach, rough, gritty defense and a never-say-die mentality are to be expected. Chicago, too decided to dump perhaps their most reliable scoring forward in Luol Deng for next to nothing in early January, yet the Bulls have trudged along, going 24-13 since as of Monday. Here, their success can be chalked up to chemistry, coaching, and the tremendous intensity displayed by all-star forward Joakim Noah. Despite their injuries and early struggles, the Bulls are a tough match-up on any night given their defense. However, what really makes them scary going into the playoffs is the fact that Derrick Rose is said to return, shaking up the East even further.
Amidst the resurgence of teams like the Bulls and Nets and the emergence of the Raptors, a few not-so-great teams that have managed to improve their play to at least make the East respectable. The Bobcats have been the laughing stock of the NBA for the majority of their existence. Thus, it is no surprise that no one is talking about them this year. However, Charlotte has quietly turned itself into one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. While they are young (as always), they seem to finally be putting a decent nucleus together as they hope to find an identity as a tough defensive team and become highly competitive in the future. Ironically, they will revert back to the Charlotte Hornets next season, changing their name, logo and color scheme. This is a comforting move, but it turns the legacy of the Charlotte Bobcats into nothing more than a sad, obscure footnote in NBA history.
The Wizards, too have finally begun to live up to expectations. John Wall has taken his game to the next level, proving with his quickness and scoring why he was so heavily coveted coming out of college. With the growth of Bradley Beal in the back court and steady production from the likes of veteran forward Nene, Washington also looks to be dangerous in future years.
The Pistons attempted to make noise this year with the signing of Josh Smith, yet despite great production from Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, they seem to have fallen apart. Smith, while talented, must vastly improve his shot selection and decision-making if he wants his team to be productive. Still, Detroit has a promising future with its strong, talented, young front court. The Hawks also looked stronger than they really are, as their team of seemingly all no-name players managed to grab home court advantage early on. Now, however, they are to the eighth seed against Knicks team that is suddenly surging.
While the East has improved, it is by no means a strong conference. Indiana and Miami are still in a tier of their own as they look down on their injury riddled, underachieving counterparts. Despite their age and injuries, the Nets could perhaps make a run and give the Heat and Pacers a scare, yet the majority of teams in the East should not have realistic championship aspirations this season. While it is refreshing to see young teams like the Raptors and Wizards develop, they know their time is not now, but in a few years. With the demise of old contenders like the Celtics and the arrival of new, young powerhouses, the NBA is going through a facelift, paving the way for a new, exciting power dynamic.