Wednesday , Feb , 07 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

The Not Western Conference

*Insert team name here* is the best team in the Eastern
conference.

Wait, what? That can’t be right. This is supposed to be the
opening sentence in my column, it’s supposed to make a bold definitive
statement, that lays the ground work for my article. I should have
wrote something like, “Detroit is the best the team in the Eastern
conference,” or “Cleveland is.” or “Miami is.” but I can’t. We have a
problem.


The Not Western Conference

If this were the Western conference, I’d have no problem, or at
least a significantly lesser problem in declaring my favorite for the
conference title. Granted making a distinction between Dallas and
Phoenix is no cake walk, and the situation only gets more complicated
if I want to give a team like San Antonio a fighting chance, but
compared to the rat race going down on the opposite coast, deciphering
the West is apple fucking pie.

What I’m trying to break down here and now is not the conference that resides in the West, it’s the exact opposite, it’s the Not Western Conference, any description more elaborate than that (including, you know, its actual designation) would be giving this second rate conference more credit than it deserves.

This conference named for its geography, known as the East, is
at the moment mired in mediocrity. Currently no team in the Eastern
conference has topped 30 wins, while six teams in the West have
already passed the 3-0 mark in the W column. If the league played an
eight team tourney, only two teams from the East would even make the
dance. Fortunately for the likes of teams like Miami, the defending
champs in case you forgot, the likes of the East get to battle it out
for the right to get slaughtered, ahem, I mean compete against the
West in June.

If there’s one prime example of how far the East is from the
West (lame pun intended), it’s the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, behind a stellar season from Chris Bosh, are leading the Atlantic division with
just 25 wins, in the West’s Southwest division they would be in fourth
place, and missing the playoffs.

But this is nothing new, for several years now the East has been lagging behind the West in terms of depth of good teams. Nevertheless, an Eastern conference team, Miami, took the ‘chip last season. And it was only a few seasons ago when Detroit pulled one of the biggest upsets in Finals history against the Lakers. So for whatever
shortcomings the East may appear to have, they’ve proven that their
best can tangle with the best from the West. As for the rest of the
Eastern conference, we’ll happily ignore them.

What follows is a look at the top four teams in the East, in no
particular order. I’ll break ’em down and set ’em up for who I think
has the best chance of taking the title out East and who has the best
chance of pulling an upset over the West.

Detroit Pistons | 28-18

Being the leading team in the East and the only team over .600
in the conference, it’s no surprise I’d kick off my list with the Pistons.
There’s no getting around that the Pistons aren’t quite the same team
since their signature afro wearer now resides in Chicago, early in the
season it was looking like the Pistons might not quite hold the same
place within the conference they once did, not so anymore.

The Pistons are 8-3 since adding Chris Webber, and while he
isn’t exactly regaining any luster from his former days, it appears he could end up being that Rasheed Wallace-esque addition, putting Detroit over the top. Webber is still good for solid 12 and 8 numbers and moreover he adds that second big rebounding presence next to Rasheed that could make all the difference in a match up against a Western conference team.

While Washington and Cleveland could both give Detroit a good
challenge in the playoffs, no one in the East performs with as much
consistency, especially on the road, and in the playoffs a team is
almost always going to have to win away from home at some point.
Unless the Heat get onto a major roll going into, and throughout, the
playoffs, Detroit has to be considered the favorite to win the East.

Cleveland Cavaliers | 27-21

As I’ve been predicting almost since the beginning of LeBron’s
career, people are already jumping sides on King James, going from
supporters to critics. Only in his fourth season, people are already
beginning to question if LeBron can ever win, which is needless to say
ridiculous considering the stage of his career he’s in right now.
Whether you or anyone else cares to admit it, simply having LeBron
James on your team gives you a chance to win, which is more than you
can say about most players.

I was as impressed as anyone when James and his Cavs took the Pistons to seven games in last year’s conference semis. But to be honest, I was also a bit surprised. Maybe I’m just being sane here, but I don’t think LeBron is an almighty basketball deity, not yet anyway. That’s
not a slight, it’s just my way of saying I’m willing to cut him some
slack if he doesn’t meet every absurd expectation. Granted, he’s
surpassed our initial expectations of him as a rookie, but he’s not a
circus animal, we can’t just keep setting up these ridiculous flaming
hoops and expect him to jump through without so much as a singe every
time. But when Cleveland almost upset Detroit last season, I was
almost ready to abandon that way of thinking.

Alas, LeBron has limits. I don’t know if he’s ready to take his
team to the next level just yet, but he’s surprised me on more than one
occasion with what he can accomplish and what he can do for his team.
Make no mistake about it, if LeBron goes bonkers in the playoffs, and
the supporting cast (Ilgauskas, Hughes, Gooden) comes through with the occasional big shot, Cleveland can beat anybody in the East. As for
out West. well lets not underestimate LeBron either.

Washington Wizards | 28-19

The Washington Wizards may be the most underrated team in the conference. Just a few seasons ago talk of the Wizards as a contender to come out of the East would have been absurd. Two playoff runs and two stellar seasons from Gilbert Arenas later, and now Washington is looking like a team shaping up to make a run for the conference title.

I’ve got my pick of squads to choose from in the East, in case
you missed it that’s the point of this article. I could say something
stupid like Toronto is going to win the conference and not even be
completely wrong. So if I’m going to pick a wildcard to win I’m going
to pick it with good reason. Gilbert Arenas could very well be the
best player in the conference, and for that reason alone the Wizards
have a decent shot. Considering their series with Cleveland last
season, I think it’s safe to say they’re in about the same class as
the Cavaliers, if not slightly higher.

What puts Washington in contention is not just Arenas, but the
combination of Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison that he’s got around
him. Butler and Jamison are both guys who can take over a game
offensively when given the opportunity, and in the conference where a
lot of teams rely on one big scorer, that could be what sets the
Wizards apart. Cleveland relies primarily, and almost exclusively, on
LeBron. Detroit relies first on defense, and then on an even
distribution of the ball on offense, and that’s to be mistaken for
what the Wizards do. Arenas along with Jamison and Butler make a
legitimate big three, probably the only team that can honestly say
that in the East (New Jersey’s trio gets ignored due to trade rumors
and lack of wins). Their defense leaves a lot to be desired and that
could ultimately be their downfall, but they have enough fire power to
go up against anyone in the conference.

As for their chances against Western opponents, well that
aforementioned defense would struggle against some of the more high
powered offenses out West. And the bigs for Washington aren’t going to
match up well with anyone named Duncan, Nowitzki, or Stoudemire.
Whether you realize it or not, Washington could be a team that
surprises some people in the conference, but should they ride a hot
streak and make it to the Finals, well, they aren’t that underrated.

Miami Heat | 23-25

They the champs ’till they ain’t the champs no more.

The Miami Heat are a sub .500 team right now and currently
sitting in the eighth slot in the Eastern conference. Records and standings aside, however, I’m not about to compile a list of possible Finals participants without including the defending champion.

The Heat got off to what can only be described as a slow start.
I say a slow start and not a bad start because there was a valid reason for the Heat’s struggles – the absence of one seven foot big man, among
other injuries. I’ll be clear, the Miami Heat are Dwyane Wade’s team.
Now allow me to be even more clear, they still need Shaq healthy and
motivated to win another ring. Shaq will be an absolutely vital piece
to any team he’s on as long he’s putting on an NBA uniform, he’s that
important. He may not be what he once was, but keep in mind that
effective experienced big men are hard to find in this league, and
when you take into account that Shaq is still capable of dominating a
game, you understand why he’s so valuable to this team.

The Heat have won their last four games, three with Shaq in the
lineup and playing well. As long as the rest of the crew stays healthy
and Dwyane Wade doesn’t spontaneously disappear off the face of planet earth, the Heat will pull their record up, jump somebody in the
standings, and get ready to make another playoff run.

The Heat’s chances really all depends on their health and
motivation, and in that way they take on the personality of the Big Fella. This team isn’t quite what it was a year ago, but then again this team
wasn’t built on the likes of Gary Payton, or Antoine Walker, or even
Shaq – everything for the Heat revolves around Wade, and if opponents
can’t stop him, they can’t stop the Heat.

I’ll admit, it’s going to be tough for Miami to get past a team
like Detroit (again), but should they somehow manage a repeat trip to the Finals, they may have the best chance of any team in the East to
overcome the mighty west. They’ve already proven they can beat Dallas
(with some help from an occasional whistle blow). Phoenix provides
match up issues, both those go both ways, and in the Finals I’d rather
take the great big man then the quick forwards and guards.

I’m not about say Miami is going to repeat, but I will say it’s
possible, more possible than you think, and for a team from a
conference that’s fallen severely behind its counterpart, more
possible than it should be.