Posted by Andrew Shi
The Eastern conference is currently in shambles. As of Wednesday, only two of its teams are above .500. Boston, the team that just traded away its all-stars and was suspected of tanking the season, is fourth. Meanwhile, the team that it dealt its all-stars to and was expected to be a serious contender for the conference finals, the New Jersey Nets, is 13th. In the Western conference, there are 12 teams .500 or better and the bottom four of those teams, which are currently sitting outside of the playoffs could, if in the East, be battling for third place. Simply put, the East is awful and it may only get worse.
The reason for this is that in the East only two teams are seriously playing for the championship: the Pacers and the Heat. The Bulls were the third team until Derrick Rose suffered another knee injury that has resulted in a second consecutive lost season. Perhaps another seven or eight teams are playing just to make the playoffs. Four teams are likely in a race to the bottom: The Celtics, 76ers, Magic and Bucks. In the West, there are six teams that can reasonably aspire to play the Heat or Pacers in the finals: The Trailblazers, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Rockets and Warriors. More importantly though, there are another six teams that are definitely playing to make the playoffs, and the Suns are playing well enough to make the playoffs as well. There are only two teams playing for the lottery: The Kings and the Jazz.
There are thus three groups of teams in the West: the championship contenders, the playoff contenders and the tankers. As the season progresses, these demarcations will become more accentuated, but what's important about the first two groups is that as the trade deadline approaches, they're going to be bidding for spare role players to increase their chances for victory. That's 12 teams looking for role players, or even stars, and they'll be looking at teams that won't be playing for the playoffs. And those teams will be in the East.
If the rumors are true, the Celtics, 76ers and Magic are all playing for the draft. Originally, the Bucks were expected to be playing for mediocrity again, but after the loss of Sanders and Defino and the current disaster their team has become, they may be joining that race to the bottom. A fifth team, the Raptors, which is good enough to make the playoffs in this conference, is allegedly looking to shed its big contract players and make a run for Wiggins. That would make five teams, all with serviceable players, that will be targeted by the West.
By the February trade deadline, players that have been playing impressively: Aaron Afflalo, Glen Davis, Evan Turner, Brandon Bass and Demar Derozan, for example, may very likely be playing in different uniforms come the end of the season. The end result is that these Eastern teams, which have been playing admirably and playoff worthy, will be even worse.
On the flip side, though, these Eastern teams may also trade with other Eastern teams aspiring for the playoffs: the Cavaliers, Knicks, Nets, Pistons, Bobcats and Wizards. The Knicks and Nets are desperate to make moves and they are both likely to pay big for whatever may put them over the edge.
So while on the whole the Western will become better at the expense of the East, several Eastern teams may improve as well, or at least make the playoffs more interesting. And even without these inevitable trades, it's unlikely that the Cavaliers, Knicks or Nets will continue to play gutter-worthy. Still, come playoffs, it will all be about the West