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This NBA Season, the Eastern Conference Finally Has Both Talent and Excitement

By Matthew Stern

As the NBA kicked off its season on Monday, the conferences have changed considerably since we last saw them. Remember when the Eastern Conference represented pitifully small teams with 6’9” centers (e.g. Kurt Thomas, who played the 5-spot for the Knicks for years) and contributed to boring NBA finals matchups (e.g. Philadelphia v. Los Angeles). Well, those days are over. With four strong teams gunning for the East’s top spot, the Eastern Conference is definitely the one to watch.

While the San Antonio Spurs, who are guaranteed to win 10 games more than anyone else in the West, will run away with the title this year, the East will have all the drama and all the excitement. I’m not saying that the double overtime Dallas win over Phoenix wasn’t exciting, but a Miami-Detroit game will have much more behind it.

The teams in the East to watch are Miami, Detroit, Indiana, and New Jersey. Miami stole James Posey and Jason Williams from Memphis this summer and only gave up Keyon Dooling and Eddie Jones. Translation: they replaced a backup point guard and an aging veteran with two potential starters. At that point, they should have just sat back and called it a success. Except the Miami Heat is just not that smart.

They decided that they should trade for and sign Antoine Walker and Gary Payton. Why? Have they learned nothing from the Lakers two years ago? Gary Payton and Karl Malone decided that they were tired of getting overpaid for no chances of rings and signed minimal salary contracts to join Shaq and Kobe on the winning side. There just weren’t enough balls on the court to satisfy everyone, and the title fell to a real team, the Detroit Pistons.

Antoine Walker is a proven ball hog, and Payton is the same. These two will demand minutes, demand the ball, and miss shot after shot while Dwyane Wade passes the ball to them; Wade happens to be a team player. I’m not saying this team isn’t any good. Wade and Shaq should be enough to get to the Eastern Finals, but if Detroit can’t beat them this year, then the Spurs will. Those two have talent and role players; they are teams.

Detroit has the same team with the same players and a new coach. Larry Brown is a great coach, but Flip Saunders isn’t so bad himself. That, combined with the presence of up-and-coming Darko Milicic, make the Pistons good enough to beat anyone. Expect them to even steal a game or two from the Spurs during the regular season.

I’m not so keen on Indiana myself, but they’ve been getting a lot of praise recently from the media. The hype is sometimes enough to earn them a closer look. Jermaine O’Neal is a 20-10 guy, but he can’t shoot free throws and hasn’t shown the ability to win games by himself. If the Pacers are going to do anything, they need Ron Artest to score 18 points a night, play well enough to win the defensive player of the year award, and remember not to punch anyone in the process.

Is there anyone wondering why the NBA has a dress code? Blame Artest. The NBA looked like a bunch a punks last year when he started running through the stands hitting people, and now all the players will be wearing suits to work, just like most Americans. Overall, the Pacers have talent and that could take them pretty far.

New Jersey has three players: Vince Carter, Jason Kidd, and Richard Jefferson. That’s about it. If they can get 35 to 40 points out of the rest of the squad, then they would surpass expectations. The catch to all of this is that the Nets are guaranteed to be at least in the top three playoff spots in the East. There is no one else in the Atlantic close to the Nets, and that’s enough to give them a seed in the playoffs.

That pretty much wraps up the East’s best teams. A lot of people have expected the second coming of Jordon to appear in Cleveland this year, but even if it happens, LeBron James doesn’t have Scottie Pippen beside him, and Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, and Drew Gooden will have to be stellar to eclipse the big four. Let’s not forget that Cleveland won’t win the division over Detroit and Indiana, which leaves them with the fourth seed at best. The East still has a lot of good, mid-level teams like Chicago, Milwaukee, New York and Philadelphia, all of whom could easily outperform expectations. The bottom line is this: Miami will beat Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals, but get killed by the Spurs, who will play like a team, like champions.