The Eastern Conference is Getting More Competitiveby Dan Bennett December 4, 2020 1 comment
When it comes to comparing the two NBA conferences, there are stark and obvious differences in quality and ability. For years, the western conference has been far more competitive than the east.
Do not let the talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid fool you. The western conference has demonstrated its superiority over its counterpart in recent seasons, even if the Toronto Raptors did manage to win a title in 2019.
This has made the league somewhat stale and unfair. Take any of last season’s non-playoff teams in the west, excluding the injury-hit Golden State Warriors and ill-fated Minnesota Timberwolves, and switch them to the east and they would have had a significant chance of making the postseason.
The top of the conference is not the problem. It is not unfeasible to suggest that an eastern conference team could win the NBA Championship next season, especially due to the strength of the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, and Brooklyn Nets. Both the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors cannot be underestimated either.
The issues in the east lie outside the top six. Last season the seventh-seeded Nets made the playoffs with a losing record in a shortened season, while the records of the non-playoff teams were comparatively worse to those in the west.
This hasn’t made for an exciting league. Competition for playoff spots has often been poor and there has been little prospect of the low seeded teams causing a first-round upset.
But times could be changing. This offseason has seen several of the lowly eastern conference teams improve, which can only mean more excitement and competition.
Here are some of the teams that have managed to improve the most.
Despite Bradley Beal‘s heroics last season, averaging 30.5 points and 6.1 assists per game, the Wizards finished outside of the playoffs. Their time spent in the Orlando bubble was largely dedicated to giving their young players more game time. They only managed one win following the resumption of the season.
But next season, Beal will have an all-star backcourt mate in Russell Westbrook, who joins Washington following the trade that sent John Wall to the Houston Rockets. The decision was made to swap point guards despite Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard recently stating that there were no plans to trade Wall.
Wall and Beal had formed an effective partnership when playing together and his return would have made the Wizards a better team. But with plenty of uncertainty over whether he will stay healthy and get back to the level he played at before the devastating Achilles injury, Washington took the safer option in acquiring Westbrook.
The 32-year-old is not without faults of his own. He is regularly criticized for spending too much time dribbling and is not a reliable outside shooter. What Westbrook will add, however, is plenty of scoring. He averaged 27.2 points per game last season. Additionally, his competitiveness will be an asset for a team seeking to make the postseason.
If Westbrook can adapt to his new team the Wizards will cause plenty of problems for opposing teams next season. His pace, athleticism, and explosiveness will help create plenty of space for his teammates. With the likes of Beal, Davis Bertans, Deni Avdija, and others around him, that spacing will be an asset. That is if Westbrook sacrifices his own success for the team.
Avdija, who was taken ninth by the Wizards in the 2020 NBA Draft, will also help the team’s production. The versatile playmaking forward had been expected to go higher by many reporters and analysts. Washington was no doubt pleased with the selection. The 19-year-old will need to work on his shot but brings plenty of qualities to his new team.
Charlotte may have failed to make the playoffs last season, again, but they still managed to surprise a few people.
Many had tipped the Hornets to be one of the league’s worst teams but instead, they finished 10th in the Eastern Conference with plenty of positives to take away from the season. The backcourt of Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham looked particularly promising.
Now, head coach James Borrego will have to factor in another guard in the form of the divisive, talented, reality TV sensation LaMelo Ball. Ball was selected third overall by Charlotte in the draft.
Ball’s weaknesses are clear. His shot needs work and there are worries about his commitment to defense. Still, his handling and passing make him one of the most intriguing and exciting players to have entered the league in recent years.
If he can work on his deficiencies and add to his outstanding playmaking, he could be instrumental in helping his new team make a playoff push.
The Hornets also added a veteran scorer in the form of Gordon Hayward on a four-year contract. The former all-star has had injury problems in recent seasons so does present somewhat of a risk. If he can stay healthy, though, he provides an offensive boost.
While offensive improvement is a real possibility, how well Charlotte does next season could hinge on the internal defensive improvement that is made. The team ranked 25th in defensive rating last season by conceding 112.8 points per 100 possessions.
The biggest change the Bulls made was off the court, appointing Billy Donovan as the team’s new head coach. Donovan did an excellent job with the Oklahoma City Thunder and will be hoping to transform Chicago back into a playoff team.
Zach LaVine‘s scoring was not enough to push the Bulls back into the top eight last season. He’s a talented offensive player that can score in several different ways and will again lead the Bulls offensively. Though he is a defensive liability, his scoring makes up for that weakness in his game.
Chicago has a lot of young talent on the roster, all of whom are still developing and making improvements. Coby White enjoyed a solid rookie season and looks to be the starting point guard of the future. Additionally, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are young and have plenty of time ahead of them to develop.
The team also added the fourth overall pick in the draft, Patrick Williams. Despite not starting in his only year at Florida State, he did enough to convince the Bulls to select him.
Williams will likely need time to grow into the NBA but possesses a diverse set of skills. At 6’8” he has good size and plenty of ability on the defensive end. Further, his combination of explosiveness and three-point shooting could enable him to become a high-volume scorer.
There is still development ahead for the Bulls but if the young talent can make the necessary improvements to complement LaVine’s scoring, we could see this historic franchise back in the postseason sooner rather than later.
Free agency was certainly a busy one for Atlanta. After Bogdan Bogdanovic‘s proposed move to Milwaukee fell through, the Hawks swooped in to sign the former Sacramento King. They also added veteran wing Danilo Gallinari during free agency.
Furthermore, Atlanta’s backcourt improved with the additions of Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn. Simply put, the Hawks feel now is the time to mount a serious playoff push spearheaded by the young and dynamic Trae Young.
Atlanta has a ton of depth across the court and has added some valuable experience to a young team. The deep roster will be an asset as the team attempts to challenge for a place in the postseason. That’s especially true when it comes to the shooting guard and small forward positions. The likes of Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, and De’Andre Hunter will all pushing for starting spots.
As Trae Young and other young talents like John Collins and Cam Reddish continue to get better, the added quality and experience puts the Hawks in a strong position to make a bigger push this coming season.