For much of this decade, the Eastern Conference of the NBA has been called the Leastern Conference, due to the rather severe inferiority of eastern teams when compared with their Western Conference counterparts. It wasn't a myth. From 1999-2003, the Eastern Conference representatives managed just six wins in losing five straight finals to either the Los Angeles Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs.
Last season, five of the Eastern Conference's eight playoff teams had a worse record than the Golden State Warriors, whose 48-34 wasn't good enough to qualify in the West. It will never happen, but the idea of a playoff format with the six division winners and the 10 teams with the next best record regardless of conference has merit.
During the last several seasons, Eastern Conference hoops have been slowly on the upswing. The Eastern team has won three of the last five finals, and last season, the two best teams in the league, the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons were in the East. The biggest reason for the rise is the return of staunch defense in the East. This season, the real issue in the East won't be at the top of the bracket—Boston and Detroit figure to finish one-two again—but in the middle and at the bottom of the bracket, where there will be a competitive jumble.
The Celtics are champions and were so much better than any team not based in Michigan that Boston could decline substantially and still be the best team in the conference. Celtics are known for their three superstars, forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and guard Ray Allen, but the key to their success is their defense.
When measured by defensive efficiency, which is points allowed per 100 possessions, a metric that levels the playing field, or hardwood, between teams that play at different tempos, the Celts weren't just good; relative to the league average, the NBA champs were one of the best groups of defenders of all time. The Celtics allowed only 96.16 points per 100 possessions, eight points better than the league average of 104.14. Barring significant personnel change, defense tends to remain constant from season to season so expect the Celts among the league's elite.
This year figures to be a time of transition for the Pistons as the nucleus that has led them to six straight Eastern Conference Finals begins to make room for their successors. The Pistons have a cushion over the next best team that this figures to be a relatively painless process. Guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton and forward Tayshaun Prince will be the nucleus, but young up-and-comers like Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson will get more opportunity to give the Pistons some interior scoring. Last season, the Pistons ranked sixth in offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive efficiency. They are such a machine that it will be jarring when they are no longer a top team.
Who's the third best team? Now that's the real question. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors all have legit arguments and the race for better seeding could go down the season's final night.
The Sixers have the best portfolio of the bunch. They are a step away from being among the league's elite. Last season, a youth movement resulted in a sudden turnaround, after an 18-30 start, Philly rounded out its season at 22-12 in its last 34 games and four of those losses came after they clinched their playoff spot and rested the regulars. All-star power forward Elton Brand joins the mix this year, but expect just as much impact from second-year forward Thaddeus Young. The team plays stellar defense (they ranked eighth in defensive efficiency) and with a team full of jumping jacks like Young, guard Andre Iguodala and center Samuel Dalembert, point guard Andre Miller sometimes throws lob passes on a whim. The one thing that the Sixers lack is an outside marksman to keep defenses from packing the paint. A midseason deal for Minnesota's Mike Miller, or someone like him could move the Sixers up a notch.
The Raptors are the best team that no one has heard of. Seriously, name four Raptors. The Raps profile problem should end this season. Jermaine O'Neal arrives in a trade from Indianapolis to shore up their only major weakness, interior defense. A healthy O'Neal plus a more efficient offense led by point guard Jose Calderon and power forward Chris Bosh will result in the Raptors occasionally looking like a team that can win the Eastern Conference. However, the margin for error is slim; if O'Neal misses substantial time, the Raps could go into freefall.
Orlando plays in the easiest division in the league, the Southeast, and that nearly guarantees them a top seed, but they're worth it. They ranked sixth in defensive efficiency last season and the Magic frontline, led by all-star center Dwight Howard and sharpshooting forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, is one of the best in the league. Unfortunately the Magic backcourt is well, no Magic; Jameer Nelson and Keith Bogans are an average duo. Their Orlando bench—a key since reserves play nearly a third of minutes—is dangerously thin.
The Cavaliers are essentially forward LeBron James and a supporting cast, but with a talent as unique and dominant as the King, you don't need a lot else to be a winner. The Cavs are a good defensive team, ranking 11th in the league in defensive efficiency, but on offense they are only as good as No. 23.
In many ways the story of James in Cleveland parallels that of Jordan in Chicago in the '80s, except no one thought Jordan would leave the Bulls before a title celebration. No one in a Cleveland uniform resembles Jordan's championship cohorts like Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman, but the Cavs are deep enough and just talented enough to make the playoffs then force seven games against the King on their opponent.
The bottom of the bracket could be interesting, too. Although they put up a good fight against the Celtics in the playoffs, Atlanta only won 37 games last season. The Washington Wizards are already facing injury troubles. This may open the door for lottery denizens like the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers or the Charlotte Bobcats to move into the postseason mix. All four teams are moving in the right direction though none belong in the championship discussion yet.
The New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Milwaukee Bucks bring up the rear. The New York area teams will be better than last season, but that isn't saying much. Under new coach Scott Skiles, the Bucks will probably play defense, but then again almost everyone does in this conference.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.