Let’s be candid here, everyone: We know that the Cleveland Cavaliers remain the overwhelming favorite to win the Eastern Conference this season.
If a clear alternative, a compelling contender, should emerge in this half of the NBA, you’ll know about it. You’ll get a resounding moment laden with clarity and resonance. Obviously, we haven’t arrived at that moment. We probably never will.
Yet, it remains important to periodically and consistently re-examine the question: Is any team separating itself from the pack in the East, elevating itself as the primary contender to Cleveland? If we’re just passing time until the playoffs, what’s the point of the journey from Game 1 through Game 82?
Let’s stop to mention a few of the more noteworthy events in the recent progression of the Eastern Conference season:
If any team has any claim to being the foremost alternative to Cleveland, it’s the Chicago Bulls. We were worried about the Bulls after a home-court loss to the Brooklyn Nets following Jimmy Butler’s comments about Fred Hoiberg during a lost weekend in New York, but a Christmas Day win in Oklahoma City — one of the more important regular season results you’ll ever see — reset the dial for the Bulls, just in the nick of time.
Chicago swept the season series from OKC and has beaten both the Cavs and the San Antonio Spurs. The Bulls have not lost their capacities for (on a more specific level) playing determined crunch-time defense and (on a broader level) playing up or down to the level of their competition. This does make them formidable in one sense, but the greatest teams in any sport generally don’t display the low floor the Bulls do when they look bad. Moreover, Derrick Rose is simply not going to return to being the transcendent player he once was, at least not this season — his body continues to get in his own way.
The Rose issue is one significant limitation faced by the Bulls. Another one? Chicago has already played 20 home games compared to only 13 road games. The Bulls are 6-7 away from the United Center. The Bulls will be sorely tested in the second half of their season, and their depth might not be up to the challenge.
Every aspiring playoff team in the East other than Cleveland is fighting for the second and third seeds, given the fact that those two slots would avoid the Cavs until the conference finals. Chicago might have the best team on paper, but the schedule could invite a fall to the 4 or 5 slots and a second-round series against LeBron.
The team just behind the second-place Bulls — sitting in the third spot — is Miami, at 21-13. The record is not overwhelmingly impressive, but in the bunched-up East, it’s good enough for a playoff seed which (if offered today to Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra) would be taken in a heartbeat. Yet, the Heat face the same schedule problem the Bulls do, only to an even greater extent. Entering play on Wednesday, Miami’s home-road split is 22 games to 12. The Heat have dropped a number of games at home which they frankly shouldn’t have. This team will have to deliver the goods away from home if it wants a top-three seed.
The two East teams in playoff positions which should be particularly frustrated with themselves are the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics. The Pacers coughed up a hefty third-quarter lead in a Monday loss to the Heat. They missed stacks of late-game foul shots and once again failed to defend the rim in the final seconds of Miami, calling to mind Game 1 of the 2013 East Finals. (Had the Pacers won that game, they probably would have won the series.)
The Celtics have no business losing at home to the Lakers and Nets, but that’s what they’ve done over the past week. Boston can be so luminously engaged and potent when “on,” which only makes losses to dreadfully inadequate opponents all the more galling. Yet, this is part of the process of maturing into a team which can more readily replicate a high level of performance. If the Celtics can retain their current position heading into the All-Star break, they might be able to surge after it. The problem with that scenario: Other teams in the East might create distance in the race for a No. 2 or No. 3 playoff spot.
The Charlotte Hornets, ripped to shreds by injuries and deprived of the depth they once had (even without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), have fallen to the .500 mark and a dangerous place, near the Washington Wizards outside the playoff candy store. The next few weeks mark a time when Charlotte simply has to engage in survival. A post-All-Star-break revival is what this team must (reasonably) aim for.