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June 14, 1998. that’s a long time ago right? That was the last day NBA fans could honestly say that the eastern conference was better than the western conference. Michael Jordan gave Bryon Russell a gentle nudge as he was crossing over into a perfect form jump shot that beat the Utah Jazz in game six of the NBA Finals.
That shot earned the Chicago Bulls their sixth championship in eight years, making them the team of the 90’s while giving fans the perception that the east was better than the west. In the 20-plus years since that shot, the western conference has reigned supreme over the eastern conference. Also in that span, the western conference has won the NBA championship 14 times compared to six for the east.
The Western Conference consistently seems deeper with teams who got close to winning titles but just couldn’t get over that hump like the early 2000’s Sacramento Kings and mid 2000’s Phoenix Suns. The Eastern conference has been the lesser conference for a very long time but maybe things are starting to change.
This year the west is really deep as there are 12 teams fighting for eight playoff spots. There are several teams fighting for the last few playoff spots including the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Kings, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The race for the last few playoff spots will be very fun down the stretch as LeBron James will try to will the Lakers into the playoffs over some very stiff competition. Unfortunately, the race for the seventh and eighth spot in the playoffs will be more interesting than the playoffs themselves in the western conference.
Once again, the Golden State Warriors look to be head and shoulders above the competition this year. Last season, the Rockets were a worthy adversary as they took the Warriors seven games in the Western Conference finals.
This season, the second best team in the west, at least record wise, is the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are a very talented team led by the ultimately versatile Nikola Jokic. As good as the Nuggets have looked this year, are they ready to go against the Warriors? Will they be able to handle the grind of the playoffs?
Another team that’s up at the top of the western conference is the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are led by Paul George who is having an MVP caliber season, scoring at will while being a lock down defender. Russell Westbrook of course is still the triple-double machine.
The Thunder are a great defensive team who may provide a speed bump in the road for the Warriors. They still need to prove it in the playoffs however, as they were upset by the Utah Jazz last year.
Westbrook, for all his stats isn’t having an efficient season as all of his shooting percentages are poor; 41% from the floor, 24% from behind the three point line, and 65% from the free throw line. When your point guard is that inefficient can you truly contend? Is Paul George ready to be “Playoff P”?
We all saw what happened to the Portland Trailblazers last year against the Pelicans in the playoffs and right now the Houston Rockets are a one man show as James Harden continues to have a historic season. So who will challenge the Golden State Warriors? Will it be a team from the eastern conference?
The eastern conference is no where near as deep as the western conference but it is more interesting. There are four teams in the east who truly have a chance to make it to the NBA Finals: Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston. We also cannot disregard the Indiana Pacers who are currently third in the eastern conference. It’s just hard to see them beating any of these other four teams without their star Victor Oladipo.
The Milwaukee Bucks are currently first in the eastern conference as they have been fueled by their new coach, Mike Budenholzer and the play of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak has the Bucks looking unstoppable as he euro-steps his way to another two points as you read this. The Bucks are a matchup nightmare for any team in the league and got better over the trade deadline by adding Nikola Mirotic.
The Toronto Raptors are once again one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. This year it looks just a tad bit different as they are lead by former NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard and Danny Green added some much needed successful playoff experience to this team to go along with their amazing depth. Then during the trade deadline they added Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin. The Raptors just like the Bucks. are all in on going to the NBA Finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers are the definition of all in. This team has made several trades during the year to improve and now have a starting line-up that can rival the best. A 6’10 point guard with amazing vision, rebounding skills, and post up ability in Ben Simmons gets their other weapons going. A knockdown shooter who may be the best at moving without the ball in the NBA, JJ Redick gives them spacing. A two-way monster who has ice water in his veins in Jimmy Butler gives them a closer. A sharpshooter, with the ability to drive, and pull up in midrange, Tobias Harris, gives them a swiss army knife on offense. Then holding down the anchor spot is a defensive player of the year candidate, who can score on the block, mid-post, and hit threes, in Joel Embiid. The 76ers also added to their bench with players like Mike Scott, Boban Marjonovic, and Jonathan Simmons. This team has all the pieces but can they put the puzzle together in time for the playoffs?
The Boston Celtics came into this season as the perceived favorite after making the eastern conference finals last season with no Kyrie Irving and no Gordon Hayward. So, this year they have to be the best team in the east, after getting back two all-star caliber players, right? It hasn’t worked out in that way, at least not yet. Boston sits at the fifth slot in the playoff standings as they have not been able to truly find a way to ingratiate Hayward back into the lineup. Hayward came back off of his season ending leg injury from last season has not been able to play at his pre-injury level consistently. This team has definitely underachieved this year but with so much talent and a coach who is known for his brilliance in Brad Stevens, the NBA world still has to take Boston seriously come playoff time.
After you get past the fifth spot, it gets a bit shaky in the eastern conference. The Brooklyn Nets are fun to watch but not a real threat and after that it’s a real list of mediocrity. Even with the limited amount of good teams in the eastern conference, the playoffs, especially from round 2 on, look like they will be amazing as they heavyweights trade haymakers on the way to the finals. NBA fans may have a favorite but no team is clear cut at the top of the east and the eastern conference playoffs will be full of suspense. The western conference looks to be a foregone conclusion with Golden State playing like they are right now with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins. The games still have to be played and hopefully the western conference gives us something to cheer about. We already know the eastern conference will.