the rise of the eastern conference
Perhaps unfairly, the NBA's Eastern Conference has recently been looked upon as the little brother to the Western Conference. In the past decade, only 3 Eastern Conference teams won championships (Detroit, Miami, and Boston) while teams like San Antonio, the Lakers, Dallas, Phoenix, Sacramento (in 2002 to about 2004), Denver, and Oklahoma City have always remained the talk of the league while the Eastern Conference is typically called "watered down" and in the past, several .500 teams made the playoffs, where you could be over .500 in the West and be 10th or worse. Was this criticism justified? Absolutely, but in the past several years (beginning with the rise of the Boston Celtics in 2008), the balance of power in the NBA has gradually shifted. And watching this year's playoffs, it may be shifting even further.
Due to injuries to Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, and Chris Bosh, several young teams/not quite ready teams/no superstar teams are getting intense reps in the second round of the playoffs playing against experienced juggernauts (Miami and Boston)...and not wilting. Philadelphia shocked everybody by completely dominating the Bulls in the first round (without Derrick Rose, the Bulls were still slated to win the series) and now have "stolen" a game from the Celtics in which they out-executed Boston down the stretch.
Philadelphia, a team with all of their core guys except Elton Brand and Andre Iguodola under the age of 25 out-executed THE Boston Celtics? The same Celtics that have been the path through the Eastern Conference since 2008? The same Celtics who have three future Hall of Famers (Garnett, Pierce, and Steimsma...just kidding, Ray Allen) with a total combined experience of 47 years? The same guys who blended so excellently in 2008 that they won a championship their first year? How is this possible? Yes, Philadelphia is well-coached, but this was the experienced Boston Celtics at home. This isn't supposed to happen! And what about Jrue Holiday? The kid is 21 years old, has been in the league 3 years playing for one of the greatest basketball minds ever, and has shown some potential "elite skills." He has been absolutely fearless, clutch, and energetic. He fuels this Philadelphia team. Is Jrue Holiday going to become one of the elite players in our league? Or is he this year's Jeff Teague, who makes an impressive playoff run, but can't sustain it. I'm not sure.
And what about Indiana? Miami had won 13 consecutive playoff games at home up until last night. Indiana took a Game 1 loss against Orlando and the obliterated them on NBATV so basically no one could see the games (Note: Congratulations to Orlando! With that series against Indiana, you broke the tie and now are the sole-holder of the most playoff games played on NBATV award from Atlanta.) Then, they lose Game 1 against Miami after wilting in the second half and come back for Game 2 and simply brought the intensity after Dwyane Wade's cheap shot.
(Side note: Lebron gets a LOT of criticism for this short-comings, but when are we going to start labeling Dwyane Wade as a cheap shot artist? Isn't it time? Watch these two clips: Wade throws Hamilton and Wade's flagrant foul on Darren Collison Why is the media so gentle on Wade? Remember that abysmal game-winning attempt against NY? That was all Wade with a horrible isolation. And he missed a layup last night. Why is he getting a free pass? He's nothing more than a glorified thug, who may or may not be clutch anymore. We'll see.)
That foul simply brought out the fight in the Indiana Pacers. They came and just simply executed their offense, working it into the veteran, David West. His leadership has been remarkable during the playoffs. Every team needs "that guy." The one that will say to the rest of them in the fourth quarter, "Don't let up. Let's just play our game and put these guys away!" David West is that guy. Down the stretch, he was constantly talking to his teammates, their defense amped up, he was getting the ball on the low block and working that baby hook, hitting guys open on the perimeter, and the Pacers were getting to the free-throw line (not making many, but still). This is the mark of a great team. And you want to talk about playoff reps, what about the Pacers vs the Bulls last year in the first round? Many expected Chicago to just bounce the Pacers out and move on, but it was a tough series from Game 1, with the Bulls having to fight back to win. Plus, Rose hurt his ankle and all of a sudden we have a playoff series.
Maybe that series was invaluable to Indiana. Maybe that gave them and Frank Vogel the confidence and the focus they need to win in the playoffs. While we're here, let me say this: Whoever decided to interview other candidates before signing Vogel to an extension is a moron. I don't care if it was Larry Bird (I don't know that it was), but this team loved playing for Vogel last season and he made them a feisty contender. What took them so long? He's the right coach for this team.
So now the question becomes, what if Indiana beats Miami and what if Philadelphia knocks off Boston and we have an Indiana/Philadelphia Eastern Conference Finals? How does this change the Eastern Conference? First, two young teams are making the leap earlier than could be expected, if at all. Suddenly, Boston looks washed up and may implode, Miami may become a big 2 (or big 1 featuring Chris Bosh), and Chicago next season will be without Rose for a minimum of 8 months, leaving them vulnerable for at least a year, New York still has Carmelo, Amare, and the overrated Jeremy Lin, the Dwight saga will have Orlando back in some way, either with or without Stan Van Gundy. What if they both make the Eastern Conference Finals? That means either Philadelphia or Indiana would get NBA Finals experience this early. They may not win it, but they'll get that experience. With the way both teams are coached and how well they execute, along with their youth, these teams could be consistent contenders year after year. This could affect several legacies: First, Lebron James. What if he is put out of position to ever win an NBA championship? What about Dwyane Wade? He couldn't win with Lebron AND Bosh? Doc Rivers...was he really a good coach or did he get lucky? Derrick Rose: Is he this generation's Tracy McGrady, a great player that can't win in the playoffs? What about Doug Collins? He had little success in the playoffs, but if he makes the Finals? What a great coach he is, leading this young team improbably to the Finals! There are so many variables that a deep playoff run by Philadelphia and Indiana could alter.
Suddenly, the West has Oklahoma City, the aging Lakers, the aging Spurs, and the poorly coached and cheap Clippers, and the Grizzlies as potential elite teams. In the East you would have Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Indiana, an aging Celtics team, the spinning their wheels Atlanta Hawks, the possibly imploding Orlando Magic, a young Milwaukee Bucks team who came close to the playoffs, and the Knicks. Doesn't this SEEM more balanced? Suddenly, the West doesn't seem so dominant anymore.
Whatever happens this year in the playoffs will change the NBA forever. New potential contenders will emerge, legacies will be changed, and the landscape of the NBA will change. But how drastically? That's the only question left.