The Year in Review in the NBA’s Eastern Conference
Ever since Michael Jordan retired (for the second time) following the 1998 NBA Finals, the Western Conference has been far and away the premier conference in the NBA. Over the past 13 years, the team that has represented the Western Conference has won the NBA Finals 10 times. If its of any significance, the Western Conference has also won eight of the last 13 All-Star games. The case remains true again this season as the West has been a much deeper, more competitive conference than the East, but most of the major headlines during the lockout shortened 2011-12 season have come from the Eastern Conference.
Sure, the Western Conference has had its fair share of story lines. The veteran Spurs being able to climb to the top of the league once again; there was also Mike Brown’s first year with the Los Angeles Lakers, the rise of “Lob City” with the Clippers, the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Ricky Rubio finally playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Andrew Bynum’s immaturity and the feud between Dallas’ owner Mark Cuban and forward Lamar Odom. But while all those stories were captivating in their own way, the Eastern Conference stole the show when it came to headlines and most definitely, when it came to drama.
Many of the story lines were set before the season even began. Could Boston make another run? Would Dwight Howard begin the season in Orlando? How would Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire fare in their first full season together in New York? How would the “Big 3″ in Miami collect themselves after falling to Dallas in last year’s NBA Finals? What kind of impact would first overall pick Kyrie Irving have in Cleveland?
The Cleveland Cavaliers held the first overall draft pick for the first time since they took a guy named LeBron James in the 2003 NBA Draft. After “taking his talents to South Beach” prior to the 2010-11 season, Cleveland was without a star. The Cavaliers decided to use their pick on Duke guard Kyrie Irving. Irving spent just one year at Duke, but in his first NBA season made a real splash. Irving has averaged nearly 19 points-per-game, 5.5 assists and has helped Cleveland improve their win total from a year ago despite the season being shortened by 16 games due to the NBA Lockout. Irving is far and away the favorite to be the league’s Rookie of the Year. Cleveland is not yet competitive, but they’re at least now watchable; with Irving in the backcourt and young guys like Alonzo Gee and Tristan Thompson in the frontcourt, a return to the playoffs is not far away for the Cavs.
The most hyped story of the offseason was where Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard would end up. Many thought New Jersey, some thought L.A. and some even believed Dallas. Some thought he would go at the trade deadline, but at the trade deadline, Howard announced that he would stay in Orlando through the 2012-13 season and honor his contract. There were reports that Howard would be given the authority at the end of the year to decide whether head coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith were retained or fired.
In an April 7th press conference, Van Gundy told members of the media that management had informed him that Howard wanted him gone. Seconds later, Howard walked out and stated that they (he and Van Gundy) were not worried about that and denied the allegations. Howard was later forced to miss time with back spasms before having season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc on April 20th.
Howard was not the only superstar however, to stay put at the mid-March trade deadline. Names like New Jersey’s Deron Williams, Phoenix’s Steve Nash and the Lakers’ Pau Gasol were thrown around, but all three stayed put. The biggest name to relocate was Golden State’s Monta Ellis, who was sent to Milwaukee.
While Ellis’ move to Milwaukee didn’t receive much media attention, it did make an impact. The Bucks have gone 13-9 since acquiring Ellis and made a push toward the playoffs that has fallen short. But if Milwaukee is able to hold on to Ellis, pro sports fans in Wisconsin will have more than just the Green Bay Packers and Ryan Braun at-bats to watch.
While the NBA’s trade deadline was largely uneventful, the New York Knicks have been quite the spectacle. They’ve been good, they’ve been bad, but they’ve been interesting all season long. Despite Carmelo and Amare spending the whole season together, the Knicks have by most standards, underachieved. They did however, have the sports nation swept up in the month-long frenzy that was “Linsanity”.
Second year guard Jeremy Lin played just 48 minutes in New York’s first 23 games. After scoring 2 points in a 91-89 loss to Boston, Lin soon took the league by storm. In the next 10 games, Lin would score at least 20 points on nine occasions including a 38-point effort in a 92-85 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on February 10th. During that stretch, Lin averaged 9.2 assists and recorded four double-doubles as the Knicks reeled off seven straight wins. Lin’s season ended on March 31st with a knee injury, but at just 23 years old, Lin and the Knicks’ future looks very bright.
On March 14th, New York head coach Mike D’Antoni and the Knicks parted ways after a 18-24 record through 42 games. Since then, the Knicks have gone 16-6 with interim head coach Mike Woodson at the helm. Woodson coached the Atlanta Hawks from 2004-2010 and took them to the playoffs three times. Woodson was fired after the 2009-10 season, but hopes that the Knicks will waive his interim status and make him the coach of the future in New York.
Woodson’s former team, the Atlanta Hawks have had a few stories of their own, but most of them have been bad. The Hawks suffered one of the first significant injuries of the season when they lost center Al Horford to a torn pectoral muscle in the second week of January. The Hawks are hopeful that Horford will return for the playoffs. In addition to the Horford injury, forwards Josh Smith and Marvin Williams have each expressed a desire to be traded, but that has not happened. But despite losing an All-Star center and having two good disgruntled forwards, the Hawks have managed to rack up the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference and by winning out, would have home-court-advantage over Boston in the first round of the playoffs.
The Celtics are Atlantic Division champions for a fourth straight year after just a 5-9 start. The Celtics have also done it despite 48 combined games missed by their “Big 3″. Point guard Rajon Rondo has also missed 14 games for the Celtics this season. But Boston has perservered behind veteran leadership and scrappy defense. Boston should be back to full health come playoff time and will not be an easy-out.
While the Magic, Hawks and Celtics have all had their share of significant injuries, the one that was most talked about came from Chicago and reigning MVP Derrick Rose. Rose has missed 26 games this season with an ankle injury, but is expected to be back for the playoffs. Despite their superstar missing nearly half of the season, the Chicago Bulls have still been able to compile a 48-16 record, tied for best in the NBA. With a win in one of their final two games or a loss by Miami, the Bulls would lock up the top seed in the Eastern Conference for a second straight year.
While the East stole most of the headlines during the 2011-12 season, it also appears as though they could take home most of the awards. In addition to Irving, who will likely be named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, there is a very good chance that the Most Improved Player Award will also go to an Eastern Conference player.
Orlando’s Ryan Anderson, was acquired as a throw-in from New Jersey, in the deal that sent Vince Carter to Orlando in 2009. Anderson nearly doubled his previous career average in scoring, putting up nearly 16 points-per-game while recording 14 double-doubles. His ability to shoot the ball from the outside reminds fans in Orlando of Rashard Lewis, who was a key piece to Orlando’s run to the 2009 NBA Finals. Anderson however, is much broader and more of a battler on the glass than Lewis was.
The Sixth Man of the Year Award is probably going to end up in the hands of Oklahoma City’s James Harden, but Philadelphia’s Lou Williams has made a convincing case. Despite not being a starter, Williams leads the 76ers in scoring averaging just shy of 15 points-per-game. It’s not only how many Williams scores, it when he scores them. Williams in one of the most proficient 4th quarter scorers in the NBA ranking in the top 10 with nearly 6 points-per-game in the final period. Philadelphia is in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
While Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks and the Clippers’ Vinny Del Negro will garner some consideration, the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award should go to Indiana’s Frank Vogel. Like Cleveland, Indiana improved their win total from a year ago despite the lockout shortened season. But what makes that all the more impressive is that Indiana was a playoff team a year ago. At 42-23 with three games to play, the Pacers have already locked up the third spot in the Eastern Conference.
During the offseason, Indiana brought in David West to add to a frontcourt that includes All-Stars Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. Combine that with the backcourt of Darren Collison and the electrifying Paul George and the Pacers have the most underrated starting five in the NBA. With the likely match-up of a banged up Orlando team in the first round, Indiana could be a sleeper to take the Eastern Conference.
The MVP race is up in the air. Kevin Durant and San Antonio’s Tony Parker are two guys with legitimate shots, but Miami’s LeBron James could easily end up winning the award for a third time. James leads the Heat in scoring (27.1 points-per-game), rebounds (7.9 per-game), assists (6.2 per-game) and steals (1.9 per-game). Despite being the likely second seed in the East, Miami is still the favorite to return to the NBA Finals in the minds of most. If James were able to collect a third MVP, he would join the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlin and Bill Russell as the only players to win the award three times.
While James has a chance to further cement his historical greatness, the Charlotte Bobcats have a chance to be historically bad. The Bobcats are just 7-57 and without a win in one of their final two remaining games, Charlotte would finish with the worst ever winning percentage by a team in a single season. Charlotte is currently on a 21-game-losing streak and earlier this season lost 16 in a row. It’s hard to imagine, but this has all been done with whom most consider to be the greatest player of all-time as the team’s owner.
While the West remains the premier conference in the NBA, the Eastern Conference stole the headlines in 2012. Technically, it was the 2011-12 season, but due to the lockout, the season didn’t begin until Christmas Day. With only seven days of basketball played in 2011, the 2012 NBA season seems much more fitting. But as much fun as the 2012 regular season has been in the Eastern Conference, the playoffs are sure to be that much better.
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