NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Chicago Bulls

As we head to the inauguration of new US President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho….oooops….sorry I’m 500 years too early on that one, I mean Donald Trump, one thing he doesn’t have to make great again is the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

The East has long been maligned for not being competitive, for allowing a bunch of garbage sub-.500 teams into the playoffs, and basically being the weakest half of the NBA with all power being in the West with the exception of whatever team LeBron James happened to be playing for at the time.

I’m here to tell you that isn’t the case anymore.

Sure the best team in the East (and the league for that matter) is still the one with LeBron on it, but the balance of power is shifting in the NBA. The Eastern Conference is now a competitive and exciting place where some of the most exciting young talent in the entire association is coming of age. On any given night even a middle of the road Eastern Conference team can knock off a Western Conference powerhouse (i.e Atlanta’s thrilling overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs in a New Year’s Day thriller) and it’s made the NBA a far more balanced, far more competitive environment with the promise of a lot of unpredictability going forward.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still some trash teams in the East (I’m looking at you Brooklyn), but even that is more the fault of mismanagement and often previous regimes than anything else.

The East is trending upward.

Don’t believe me? Fine. Let’s take a good hard look at all 15 teams in the Conference and determine whether or not you’re getting quality basketball.

Trust me there is something to love or watch for in every single team in the East (contrary to most uninformed and outdated opinions).

I’m going to do this in order of the current Conference standings.

And because I love so much and I like to really get in depth about these things. I’m going to give it you in a three part series so you can properly digest all of it.

Also my blog is new and I need the views.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs are currently the top dog in the East and that probably isn’t going to change anytime soon. Coming off yet another thrilling defeat of the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, it’s safe to say that defending champions have a really good shot at defending their crown barring any unforeseen circumstances like significant injuries but even then LeBron could probably find a way to heroically drag the team to the Finals like he did in 2015. Although this time it would be a far greater challenge given the increased competition in the Conference.

LeBron is still LeBron. He’s the man. He’s been quietly averaging almost two assists per game more than his career average as he has become much more of a facilitator in the Land, which has allowed his teammates notably Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to increase their scoring touch. The King still averages just under 26 points a game though in case their was any doubt of his ability to throw down when necessary. The fact is that as long as LeBron is forcing defences to focus on him – and they have no choice – it makes the entire team better. The fact that he’s also more than willing to share the ball and go to great lengths to make plays for his teammates is primarily why the Cavs are the team to beat in the NBA.

Another reason is Kyrie Irving who is averaging almost 24 points per game as LeBron continues to defer to him a lot as the primary scoring option. For his part, Irving has recently started studying tapes of a Dwyane Wade and LeBron in Miami in order to come up with better ways to facilitate for LBJ as well. The fact that the two best players on the team are so willing to help out each other guarantees further success.

It’s telling that it was Irving and not LeBron who hit the biggest shots for the team in the last calendar year: the one that clinched the NBA title for Cleveland and the one that put away the Warriors on Christmas Day.

Now the third member of Cleveland’s big three – Kevin Love – is one of the best stories in the entire NBA this season. After two seasons with the Cavs where he dealt with nagging injuries, generally looked lost in the shuffle and saw his scoring and rebounding fall well below the averages he hit while with the Minnesota Timberwolves, K-Love is back in a big way. He’s averaging a double-double this season at 22.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. The increased production has been invaluable to the Cavs especially with JR Smith.

But it’s especially great to see one of the game’s brightest stars find his groove again.

Now with Cleveland’s big three playing at the height of their powers,Tristan Thompson playing the best basketball of his young career and Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and 100 year old Richard Jefferson making significant contributions to the team, the Cavs seem destined for a repeat.

I can hear you though, “But Josh, how can you say the East is better when you’re still predicting that one team will dominate it?”

Well my friend that’s because the Cavaliers are likely going to face a tougher road to the Finals than they have in the past. For their sake, it’s a good thing that they’re playing the best basketball as a team that they have since LeBron returned because the competition in the East is much improved.

In fact the biggest challenge to the Cavs within the Conference hasn’t even come from any of the other top four seeds in the East. More on that team later.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are a tough team to write about. They currently sit second in the East, but they’re really not taken seriously by the rest of the league. The fact that the Raptors occupy such a high position in the conference illustrates that even though it’s been great to watch and competitive again, there is still room for improvement.

Most people don’t like watching the Toronto Raptors. I live in Toronto and I don’t even particularly like watching the Toronto Raptors.

They play, for lack of a better way to describe it, a very ugly style of basketball. It’s disjointed and doesn’t flow well and their number one offensive play appears to be having DeMar DeRozan jump into opposing defenders to draw fouls.

But it works.

I don’t know how and I don’t know why but it continues to work. That’s the genius of Dwane Casey who really doesn’t get his proper due as one of the best coaches in the NBA.

You’d expect the architect of the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks defense to have a very defensive focused team, but the Raptors aren’t even in the top ten this season. It’s been their offence carrying the team with the third best output in the NBA. Now that is largely helped by the fact that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan get to the line more than any other combo in the league and both are well over 80% at the line.

Lowry and DeRozan draw whistles a lot, although you wouldn’t know it by the Toronto fanbase who call conspiracy whenever a call doesn’t go the Raptors way. The reliance on getting those two to the line also explains the Raptors struggles in the playoffs when the refs tend to not to call so many fouls. Especially the kind Toronto tends to draw.

After consecutive first round losses to Brooklyn and Washington, the Raptors made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year. Barely. They struggled to defeat Pacers and Heat teams they should have taken easily largely because of their over reliance on getting Lowry and DeRozan to the line. When those calls dry up so does the offence.

That isn’t to say that the Raptors backcourt isn’t skilled. In fact, it is amongst the best in the NBA with both Lowry and DeRozan being all-stars and Olympic gold medallists.

DeRozan has shown himself to be a consistent offensive threat sitting at sixth in league scoring currently. Although he does rely on getting to the line a lot, he also displays a creativity and ability to drive to the basket that you’d expect from an elite scorer.

In terms of the rest of the team, Jonas Valanciunas continues to improve at a steady rate, but still hasn’t made enough of a jump to be considered an elite big in the NBA. Although I personally like DeMarre Carroll a lot, he hasn’t been the elite wing that the Raptors needed him to be. Pascal Siakam has been a wonderful surprise this year. Patrick Patterson, Norman Powell and Corey Joseph remain consistent contributors off the bench. As does Terence Ross when he isn’t injuring his wrist while showboating dunks.

It might seem strange that I’m being hard on the Raptors in an article about how the East is on the come up.

But it isn’t really. Part of the reason is that I’m a firm believer that we’re at the end of the Raptors window. They’re at a crossroads and whichever way they proceed is only going to lead to the younger and more talented teams in the conference passing them. This is a very good thing.

The Raptors have to decide what to do with Kyle Lowry this offseason and no matter what they do, they’re kind of going to lose. They can let him walk and try to sign another point guard and upgrade at the wing, but that will undoubtedly mess up team chemistry in the short term especially considering how close Lowry and DeRozan are both on and off the court.

Their other option is to bring him back at a max. This not only limits the Raptors ability to upgrade at other positions but also guarantees their decline. Lowry is going to be 31 at the end of the season and plays a very physical style. The breakdown of his body and decline as he ages is inevitable. It happens to every player.

In terms of the Easter Conference though, these are very good things. In order for the quality of the East to rise, it will be necessary for the Raptors to fall.

Boston Celtics

Danny Ainge took a lot of heat over the off-season for not turning all the picks and young talent he’s acquired over the years (mainly for giving Brooklyn the end of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s usefulness as professional basketball players for seemingly every first round pick the franchise will ever have…until 2018 anyway) into a star player to make a run at the Cavs.

That mentality is why you should never listen to the fans. Ainge played it smart and kept his picks because he knew that there was no realistic chance of trading for a talent to topple LeBron and the Cavs. The DeMarcus Cousins rumours were only that: rumours.

Instead he went ahead and drafted Jaylen Brown third overall – a decision that’s been criticized in some circles but looking at the increased level of play he’s shown in the past few weeks, he is going to develop into an important rotation player for Boston going forward. The Celtics have no reason to rush Brown and won’t, which has allowed him to gradually earn a bigger role in the rotation.

Of course it remains to be seen what if anything will become of Guerson Yabusele, Ante Zizc, Rade Zagorac or Demetrius Jackson, but Ainge went the right way of taking talent that could develop into key pieces of the team trade chips down the line rather than dumping the picks in a shaky trade market.

The Celtics also boast one of the stronger D-League teams coached by the great Scott Morrison. So really, unlike a lot of other NBA squads, take full advantage of using the Maine Red Claws to develop players.

But the wealth of draft picks and prospects isn’t all the Celtics have to be excited about. The present is pretty damn exciting as well.

The Celtics arguably got one of the biggest free agents of the summer in Al Horford and he’s paying off huge for them right now. Horford has been moving the ball like never before in his career averaging a career high 4.9 assists. That goes along with 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game on a team where Horford can settle in as a secondary scoring option. He’s also been putting in work on the back end with a career best 2 blocks per game. Horford has been the missing piece for the Celtics in the middle as he’s extremely versatile offensively for a big man. It’s been exciting to watch Big Al mesh with his new squad and find a new sense of purpose in Boston.

The biggest attraction for the Celtics of course is Isiah Thomas who in any other season would probably be an MVP candidate. He’s easily been the best point guard in the East (except for maybe when Giannis Antetokounmpo plays point guard and that’s mainly from an entertainment stand point and horrible bias on my part) and is playing at a level that nobody thought he was capable of. At 27.8 points per game, he’s averaging 10 points above his career average and almost six points above his previous high last season. He’s second only to Russell Westbrook in point guard scoring and that’s the guy who will probably win the MVP. Thomas has been an absolute joy to watch this season and his performance has really driven the Celtics more than anything else.

Avery Bradley has also upped his scoring game in a big way – especially in his efficiency from downtown as well as maintained a high level of play on the defensive end and on the glass. Jae “Don’t you dare cheer Gordon Hayward in my arena” Crowder has similarly seen his game hit new heights as he’s almost doubled his career average this season including a ridiculous jump in his three point efficiency as well. Both Crowder and Bradley seem to play with chips on their shoulder. In fact, you add emerging third year floor general Marcus Smart to that mix and you really have a good example of the attitude that defines this era of the Celtics. They take no shit, have their working boots on and aren’t afraid to get physical. It makes tight games that much more fun to watch when the Celtics will play mean and hard to win.

This holds true for the platoon of Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller and an Amir Johnson, who has miraculously been able to stay on his feet since coming to Boston which was a huge problem for him in Toronto, have really given the Celtics a variety of options in terms of various match-ups. Especially deadly is Olynyk’s history as a submission specialist. Who could forgot the painful hold he ended Kevin Love’s season with while destroying his shoulder in the 2015 playoffs?

Of course the Celtics re-emergence after blowing it all up a few years ago is largely due to Brad Stevens who has really emerged as one of the premier coaches in the NBA. The way he manages minutes and sets his units makes for difficult match-ups for anyone playing Boston on any given night. He also exudes a quiet confidence in his team and their abilities and it pays off as the Celtics go hard on both sides of the floor.

Seriously, basketball is a lot of fun to watch in Boston again.

Charlotte Hornets

In many ways the Hornets are even more of a surprising team this season than they were last season when they went 48-34 and clinched the 6th spot in the East. Many weren’t sure what would become of the Hornets given the loss of two key pieces of last season’s success in Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin, but the addition of Marco Belinelli and the continued emergence of Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky have given the Hornets new life.

The nine year journeyman Belinelli has been an especially pleasant surprise as Steve Clifford has trusted him with a large role in the Hornets offence off the bench and he’s risen to the challenge by putting up the best numbers of his career in terms of efficiency. After an awful year in Sacramento, it’s been nice to see Belinelli finally find his groove again and it’s paid off big time for the Hornets.

Frank The Tank is really enjoying a great sophomore season with an increased role due to the departure of Jefferson and big minutes. If you loved Kaminsky in Wisconsin, you need to watch more Hornets games, because The Tanks is really starting to get rolling in the NBA.

Of course, the big reason for the Hornets success lies with their back-court, easily the most underrated in the Association, of Kemba Walker and Nicholas Batum.

Walker, now in his sixth NBA season, is really starting to hit his stride and emerge as one of the elite point guards in the NBA. He’s averaging a career best 23 points and 5.4 assists per game and continues to be amongst the league’s best at daggering opposing teams when necessary. I can tell you that during my time living in Toronto, I have not personally witnessed any opposing player kill the Raptors with last minute shots like Kemba Walker has. I’ve nicknamed him the “Dinosaur Hunter” but everybody in Toronto hates me for doing it. Feel free to steal the nickname is you want.

Additionally, the elevated play of Walker has given the Hornets the opportunity to launch the absolute best campaign in recent memory for a potential NBA All-Star: The “Walker, Texas Ranger”themed, “Walker, Charlotte Ranger” ads. If you haven’t seen them, you owe it to yourself to do so. Kemba Walker outshines Chuck Norris and of course isn’t the dick that Chuck Norris is (seriously dude wouldn’t let The Expendables swear). Honestly, Kemba deserves your vote just on that basis.

Nicolas Batum is once again hitting the highs he enjoyed in Portland as he’s averaging 15 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game and really gives the Hornets a versatility at the two spot that most teams can only dream of. He’s a great defender with a ton of reach and great footwork. He can handle the ball well and is great at finding the open man and probably the best on the team when passing out of a pick and roll. Batum is also capable of opening up a lot of space for the offence just by being on the floor as opposing defences can’t help but focus on him when he’s on the floor.

If there’s one moment that signalled the turnaround for the Hornets more than any other it was the signing of Nicholas Batum. As long as he’s on the floor, other players are freed up to get a lot of touches and open looks which ensures that the Hornets supporting cast continues to be involved and improve.

Michael Jordan should probably give Batum his own shoe at some point to be honest.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks have been another surprise team this season. I really had no idea what the hell they were doing letting Al Horford walk and trading unsung hero Jeff Teague away and only getting a 12th overall pick in return.

Worst of all, the Hawks went and signed…..gasp….Dwight Howard.

Dwight Howard the biggest flake in the NBA who enjoys taking ridiculous selfies, impregnating multiple women (seriously I think he’s up to six or so now) and being a shitty teammate.

Kobe Bryant made him cry one and that only made me love Kobe more.

Fucking Dwight Howard.

Ugh.

The crazy part is that it’s all worked.

Seriously.

Dwight Howard, as much as it pains me to admit it, has been fantastic this year. Is he back to being the dominant big man that we saw in Orlando? No but that guy is never coming back. What we have though is much better than the shell of a player we saw in Houston last season.

Dwight seems to have found his love of basketball again. He’s fourth in rebounds this year and has shown a hustle and a physical that we haven’t seen from this big goof in a very long time. He’s also shown more of a defensive presence than we’ve seen from him in years and seems to have settled into a tertiary scoring role, which is very interesting considering that Houston imploded last year because of a power struggle between him and James Harden.

But happy Dwight is a good Dwight and the big guy has been better than we’ve seen him in years.

He’s still a fucking goof though.

Dennis Schroder, however, is not. Any doubts that he was ready to assume the starting point goal role in Atlanta after Jeff Teague’s departure have been firmly and squarely extinguished. He’s been an absolute revelation in the role with an impressive 17.5 points, 6.4 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game. In fact, Schroder would be well on his way to winning most improved player this season if Giannis Antetokoumnpo weren’t also in the league. Either way, he’s been outstanding and the Hawks have continued to be a solid team in part because of Schroder’s performance as a starter.

Paul Millsap, at almost 32 years old, is having arguably the best season of his career. He’s hit or equalled career highs in points, rebounds and assists this year and has at times seemed to will the Hawks to key victories. A recent win against the San Antonio Spurs really was due in no small part to Millsap absolutely taking over the game down the stretch. Millsap has unquestionably been the best player on the Hawks this season.

Unfortunately, given his age and impending free agency, his play has also made him a valuable trade chip which could be a great move for the Hawks.

Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t consider trading a guy who has been carrying the load on offensive for your team, but the Hawks have younger assets like Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway Jr hungry for a bigger role on the team. Both have been outstanding with Bazemore picking up where he left off last season and Hardaway Jr showing us that he can take it to another gear.

The seemingly ageless Kyle Korver remains an elite swingman (while looking like what you’d get if you combined the DNA of Ashton Kutcher and Brandon Routh) while Thabo Sefolosha still adds solid perimeter play off the bench. Combine that with the fact that for some reason the Hawks have both Kris Humphries (former Kardashian) and Tiago Splitter on the team, who are tremendously entertaining for very different reasons and you have one of the most watchable teams not just in the East but in the entire league.

There aren’t many teams that the Hawks can’t hang in there with and that’s largely due to the system installed by coach Mike Budenholzer, a former assisting to Gregg Popovich, who has transformed the Hawks into a kind of Spurs East with a similar style of offence that depends on ball movement and fluidity and really is pleasure to watch.

So there you have it. The first five teams in the East.

See this conference is a blast and a great time and I haven’t even gotten to my favourite team and favourite player yet.

If you aren’t convinced yet that the East is back in a big way, you will be with the next instalment of this saga.