Eastern Conference regains respect in 2008-2009

By Jack Wickham

With Lebron James, Dwight Howard and the Celtic’s golden trio playing better than ever, this is a great year to follow the Eastern Conference of the NBA. After James’s Cavaliers lost 4-0 to the Western Conference’s Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals, doubt was placed on the 2007-2008 season Eastern Conference’s strength. However, with the help of a strong supporting cast, power forward Kevin Garnett led the Celtics to a 4-2 victory in the 2008 Finals, reaffirming the strength of the East. Thus season, the East is continuing its recent power surge.The Boston Celtics, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Orlando Magic, the top three in the East, respectively, have three of the four best records in the NBA. The Celtics, whose offense is fueled by Garnett, shooting guard Ray Allen and small forward Paul Pierce, lead the league with a 41-9 record, but floundered in the middle of the season, losing to significantly weaker teams such as the Golden State Warriors, the New York Knicks, and the Indiana Pacers. However, after a relatively easy win against the Toronto Raptors in mid-January, the Celtics are on a 12-game win streak, including a 90-80 win over Orlando.

The Cavaliers are another team in the East to be reckoned with. While they finished fourth in the East last year, it was a team largely built around small forward Lebron James. However, with the addition of point guardMo Williams, and the maturation of center Anderson Varejao and guard Daniel Gibson, the team’s offense has been more evenly distributed this year. The defense has also improved: the team is averaging more blocks and steals per game, while forcing more turnovers and keeping opponents to 90 points per game, well below last year’s average of 97.

The Magic have also been surprisingly strong this year. While their most valuable player is indisputably center Dwight Howard (league leader in rebounds and blocked shots), small forward Rashard Lewis and point guard Jameer Nelson have also come into their own. The team, which was ranked third in the East last year, has yet to have more than three losses in a month. However, with Jameer Nelson’s dislocated shoulder, the Magic will have to learn to play without its best playmaker for at least the next two weeks.

There have been other surprises in the East, including Miami and Milwaukee. Miami, the team with the league’s worst record last year, has come back this year and sit at fifth in the East this season with a 26-21 record. With no significant additions to the team other than rookie power forward Michael Beasley and rookie point guard Mario Chalmers, the surge can be largely attributed to shooting guard Dwyane Wade. Wade, known as one of the best players in the game, came back after a season ending injury last year to be Team USA’s leading scorer at the 2008 Olympics, and is leading the league in scoring with 28.5 points per game. He also currently leads his team in blocks per game, virtually unheard of for a 6’4″ shooting guard.

While their record is not as impressive, the Milwaukee Bucks are also doing better than anticipated. Last year, the team finished third to last in the East, in front of only Miami and New York. This year, however, they are ranked eighth and in serious playoff contention. This is impressive considering they lost their starting point guard and second leading scorer, Mo Williams, to Cleveland. While their record, 24-28, is still not very impressive, the team has made clear advances compared to its level of play last year. However, the star of the team, shooting guard Michael Redd, is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL and MCL, leaving fans worried about the team’s future prospects.

Once again, the East has proved itself to be a strong conference. Time will tell if it can one again conquer the West in the finals.