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Psst … The Eastern Conference is Improving

Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports

The NBA’s Eastern Conference has been a punchline throughout the entire 2014-15 season, and really, it deserved to be. Out of the eight teams that made the playoffs in the East, the Nets finished an astonishing six games below .500 and still got the No. 8 seed, the Celtics were a slightly better two games under .500 to get the No. 7 seed, and Milwaukee finished sixth at exactly .500.

In the West, meanwhile, the No. 8 seed went to the New Orleans Pelicans, who finished eight games above .500. The Pelicans finished seven games better than the Nets and they received the same honor! The Thunder, Suns and Jazz all missed the playoffs in the West while having better records than at least one playoff team in the East. (The Jazz tied the Nets at 38-44, but you get the point.)

So yeah, the East is kind of a punchline. Understandable. But that’s going to change.

I think we can safely include a few teams in next season’s Eastern Conference playoff field: Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, Washington and Miami (who missed the playoffs this season after an unbelievable amount of injuries) are all talented enough to make the playoffs, and it would take a massive roster overhaul or significant injuries to derail any of those teams moving forwards. Things start to get interesting after you get past those six teams, with virtually every team in the East having some sort of upside for next season and beyond.

The Milwaukee Bucks are a bit of an enigma. They finished 41-41 but were pretty bad following the All-Star break and basically finished as the No. 6 seed by default. They have their franchise player in Giannis Antetokounmpo. They have a young point guard in Michael Carter-Williams, although nobody really has any idea if he’ll ever be a contributor on a good team. They have Khris Middleton, but he’s set to hit restricted free agency this offseason and it’s fair to wonder if the Bucks will match a potential max offer sheet for him. They have Jabari Parker currently recovering from a season-ending injury who may turn out to be the best player on this roster. They have Jason Kidd, who could turn out to be a pretty good coach after all. This roster isn’t perfect, but there are enough interesting individual pieces to at least keep them relevant next season.

After the Bucks you have the Celtics, who made the playoffs this season following their deadline day acquisition of Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics have one of the league’s best young coaches in Brad Stevens and one of it’s most electrifying players in Thomas. They appear to have a few solid role players in Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart along with a trio of serviceable bigs in Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk along with whatever the heck Evan Turner is developing into. Perhaps most importantly, they have potentially eight first-round draft picks over the next four years that they could use to turn into a legit franchise player. (Looking at you, Boogie?) The fact that a team this young managed to finish 40-42 is a testament to Stevens and speaks very highly of this team’s future.

The final playoff team for this season is the Brooklyn Nets, who don’t have a super positive future outlook, and that’s being generous. They owe several future first-round picks to Boston and Atlanta, respectively, and their core is aging quickly. The Deron Williams and Joe Johnson contracts are limiting their flexibility going forwards, although they have no money on the books following the 2016-17 season so … at least there’s that? It’s tough to see the Nets taking any steps forward soon.

On a more positive note we have the Indiana Pacers! The fact that they were even near the playoffs while not having Paul George all year speaks volumes to Frank Vogel’s abilities as a coach. There’s some uncertainty surrounding Roy Hibbert’s future with the team, but he wasn’t particularly useful to them this season, so I think they’re okay with that. Having George at 100 percent next season certainly puts them in the playoff race with upside to make some noise if they get there.

Charlotte has one of the league’s most underrated players in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and if not for constant injuries to Kemba Walker, MKG and Al Jefferson all season, they may be in the playoffs right now in Brooklyn’s place. If MKG can progress offensively this offseason, they should be able to contend for the eight seed once again next season.

Detroit looks like its going to lose Greg Monroe to the New York Knicks via free agency this offseason, but let’s be honest, that probably isn’t the worst thing for them at this point. They have an elite coach in Stan Van Gundy, but they do have a bit of a roster problem on their hands – two of their three best players play the same position and may have a hard time coexisting. Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings are both fine players on their own, but I don’t know if you can put them on the floor at the same time. It’ll be interesting to see how SVG handles that situation next season. Oh, and Andre Drummond averaged 13.8 points and 13.5 rebounds for the second season in a row at age 21. So that’s not bad. If he can lay off the fouls and become at least a passable free throw shooter, Detroit may really have something.

Orlando! Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton combine to form one of the most fun backcourts in the league, and if you expect both of them to make another leap next season like I do, then I think they’ve got potential to surprise a lot of people. Nikola Vucevic is an awesome scorer and rebounder, but his ineffectiveness on the other end of the floor limits his upside as a player. Orlando will probably take a big in this season’s draft to help round out its core moving forwards.

Nobody really knows what Sam Hinkie’s plan is in Philly, but he seems to be hell-bent on collecting assets until something finally clicks. They won’t compete next season, but Nerlens Noel averaged nearly two steals and two blocks on the year and should continue posting numbers like that for the foreseeable future. Joel Embiid is an enigma right now due to his injury, but he was very highly rated entering last year’s draft, so we’ll see what they have in him once he finally takes the court.

And last and probably least, the Knicks. The positive? They have Carmelo Anthony, who should be healthy by next year and is still a star. They’re going to have at least a top five pick this year, which should definitely help them going forwards. The bad? They’ve really got nothing else besides that. For their sake I hope they nail the pick, because if not, it’s going to be a looooong few years in The Garden barring some perfect free-agent signings.

None of this is to say that the East is suddenly going to overtake the West as the NBA’s dominant conference. Because it isn’t. But this may be the last season for a while where we have a team six games under .500 make the playoffs, and frankly, I’m expecting all eight teams next season to be at least above that mark. It’s unlikely that any of these teams develop into title contenders over night, but the East will no longer feature 10 doormats for the rest of the league to beat up on.

So yeah, the East is improving. Shhhh.

 

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