Joe appears to be right, but the specific point of emphasis is that in the days since his article was published, we’ve seen several instances which have powerfully supported Joe’s argument.
The Charlotte Hornets have lost four of their last five, heading into a revealing pre-Christmas duel on Wednesday against Boston. The Celtics, after taking the Golden State Warriors to double overtime nearly two weeks ago, got swept in a back-to-back by Cleveland (no big deal) and Detroit (an eyebrow-raiser). The Chicago Bulls, as noted here,are headed in the wrong direction while facing an increasingly complicated internal dynamic in their locker room.
The Toronto Raptors, playing at home against the below-average Sacramento Kings and Rajon Rondo, watched their opponent score 31 of the first 40 points in the Air Canada Centre on Sunday evening.
When play began on Tuesday evening, the Miami Heat owned second place in the East.
Anyone who has watched the Heat this season could tell you: That’s an okay team, but hardly a next-level team … not at the moment, at any rate. Miami attained a 16-10 record on the strength of a wildly imbalanced home-road split, with 17 home games and only nine away from South Florida. The Heat beat Cleveland on a night when LeBron James was ordered to rest by David Blatt. Miami squeaked out a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder before Billy Donovan’s team finally began to play up to expectations … and even then, OKC made some poor decisions late in that game to push the Heat over the top.
Seeing all this mediocrity in the East makes it increasingly apparent that Joe Manganiello’s analysis is entirely accurate. There are fewer bad teams in the East and a lot more decent ones, but that’s the point — the East is a vast sea of “not terrible” teams. High-quality ballclubs? That’s another story.
The workings of the East in these final moments before the Christmas Eve off night and the five-game Christmas Day schedule have inspired a question. It’s the kind of question an NBA conference should never raise, but the thought popped into my head:
Will any team in the East other than Cleveland hit 50 wins this season?
It’s not so much a matter of getting hot; various teams in the East’s vast and muddled middle have ripped off winning streaks of three to five games. The challenge is for these teams to stay hot, to make good basketball a normal way of being, not a temporary state of clarity which can’t be maintained.
With a large swath of teams sitting at 15-12, give or take a game, just about every team in the East other than Cleveland is on pace to hit a win-total ceiling in the high 40s at best. One team will wind up playing Cleveland in the East Finals — nothing can or will alter that reality — but that team will need to step on it if it’s going to crack the 50-win mark. Not a single ballclub currently offers the appearance of being able to turn that trick.
At the beginning of December, the East’s depth and its lack of bad teams — compared to last season, yes, but also to the declining West — felt like strengths. Now, the East’s persistent characteristics look a lot more like limitations.
No, the East isn’t nearly as bad as it was. Is the East good, however? That’s a separate question … one which can’t be answered in the affirmative right now.
In the 2010-2011 season, the East presented four teams with more than 50 wins: the Bulls with 62, the Heat with 58, the Celtics with 56, and the Magic with 52. In each of the next four seasons, no more than two East teams cleared the 50-win hurdle. Last season, the third-place Bulls reached 50, but did not exceed that total.
The East — not too long ago — was actually good, or at least, strong near the top. That can’t be said this season. A few teams will need to achieve fundamental breakthroughs in order for this season’s East to be viewed in a particularly favorable light.