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The NBA's Eastern Conference is more top heavy than Dolly Parton. Only five teams have a winning record, only three teams score more than 100 a night, while six give up over a century. Despite the five teams above .500 only two have a legitimate shot at winning the whole thing. Boston (41-10) and Detroit (39-14) are running away and hiding from the rest of the conference. Orlando, Toronto, and LeBron (going forward I will refer to the Cleveland Cavs as LeBron) all think they have a chance to win the East, but they would need a MC Hammer type collapse from the Celtics or Pistons to do so.
Washington is a bit of an x-factor right now. Antawn Jamison has been playing by himself and putting up great numbers, but if he can get a healthy Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas back they could be a tough out in the playoffs. I also want to see how the Hawks play with Mike Bibby. I really like the move. A lineup of Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Al Horford could create a minor shakeup in the East. Keep an eye on these guys. But let's look at the real contenders.
Boston Celtics: They came out of the gates hotter than Rose McGowen in Planet Terror, and kept it going. Tough schedule coming out of the All-Star break, they just lost and gave up a season high 124 points last night to the Denver Nuggets, but did get Kevin Garnett back after he missed 9 games (C's went 7-2 in that span). C's have the Warriors tonight, Suns and Shaq on Friday, Portland Sunday, and the Clippers before heading home. It's going to be a great test for a Celtics team that won their first 16 against the West.
Rajon Rondo has made major strides in his second season, running the show surrounded by three superstars. The unselfishness of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett has been well documented. The only worry concerning those three is injuries, particularly Allen and KG. In Garnett's absence players like Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis really emerged. In fact as a Celtics fan I would much rather have Powe on the floor over starting center Kendrick Perkins. Perk is taller, but doesn't score, rebound, or defend as well as Leon.
The bench has been better than expected. Like the supporting cast in Ocean's 11, you got your Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, (Pierce, KG, and Allen... that's how I see it too), but what really makes the movie is the rest of the team, (Rondo, Powe, Perk, Davis, T.Allen, House, Posey, Scal... only included Scal to add up to 11). Anyway these guys have all been solid, but the question remains, do they need a back up point guard? They don't need a starter, Rondo has shined. Can Tony Allen and Eddie House bring the ball up and set up the offense when Rondo is out of the game? So far Danny Ainge seems to think so.
Detroit Pistons: The Pistons once again have the league's best scoring defense (89.9, Celtics are 90.1). Also once again they are lead by Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince. Somehow they are #1 in Marc Stein's power rankings. I don't see it. They just got killed last night by the Orlando Magic, but similar to the Spurs, they are built strictly for the playoffs. And in the East they do not have to bust their ass all season to get home court for the first couple of rounds.
Rookie Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, and Antonio McDyess will help out the 4 big guns as they try to return to the Eastern Conference and NBA finals. Can Flip Saunders lead them to the promise land? He's gotten them to two conference finals but not over the top, including a shocking 4-2 loss to LeBron last year. However, I would be equally surprised if this year it is not the Celtics and Pistons playing for the right to represent the East.
No other team deserves their own breakdown. Quick takes on the rest of the East that could win a playoff series...
Orlando Magic: Dwight Howard is a monster (shoots below 60% at the stripe), Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis both putting up solid numbers. But the Magic shoot more 3's than anyone in the East, they strike me as a team in the NCAA tourny who could shock a team, but no way could they win a best-of-7 with Detroit or Boston. PG play is weak as well; they miss the playoffs if they were in the West.
Toronto Raptors: Chris Bosh is one of the best players in the conference, and they have one of the best point guards in the East in Jose Calderon, but they might not even get out of the 1st round. Home court would be huge for them especially if they're facing LeBron.
LeBron: No Jason Kidd, no Mike Bibby, no chance to make it back to the Finals. The LeBron-factor has to scare some teams, but the Pistons will be ready this year and the Celtics won't lose 4 games in a series to him.
Wiz/ Hawks = sleepers. I mentioned it at the top these teams, when healthy have a ton of talent, and if they can put it together they could take out the Magic, Raptors, or LeBron.
I will break down the Western Conference 2nd half outlook tomorrow, which will include 10 of the best 12 teams in the NBA. Also I will have a chance to see Shaq play in a Suns uni, albeit his first game. I'm looking forward to seeing how all these trades pay off in the Western Conference. It's hard to pick a favorite right now. Hornets, Suns, Lakers, Jazz, Spurs, Mavs, Rockets, Nuggets, Warriors, and Blazers... it's going to be fun.