Heading Into The All-Star Break (East Conf)

by Larry Ness

LeBron James and Kevin Durant will again be captains of the two teams in this year's All-Star Game, which is being held Feb 20 in Cleveland. LBJ has now been a captain in each of the five years the NBA has used the current system to pick its teams (anyone like the format?). For Durant, he's a captain for a second straight year. Both players 'earned' the honor by finishing with more fan votes than anyone else in their respective conferences. James has now made 18 All-Star teams, tying Kobe Bryant for second place all time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19). The NBA also announced the starters for its annual midseason showcase last Thursday night. The selection for the starters was based on fan ballots for 50% of the vote, with a media panel and current players each making up 25%. The real surprise was the selection of Golden State's Andrew Wiggins. He made a very late decision prior to the start of the season to get vaccinated (shunning the Kyrie route) and one imagines, he's pretty happy he did. Here's some interesting information, based on Elias Sports Bureau research. Wiggins is just the THIRD first-time All-Star to be named a starter in his eighth season or later (Bob Boozer in his eighth season in 1967-68 and Kyle Lowry in his ninth season in 2014-15 are the others). He is the 40th different No. 1 overall pick in the modern draft era (since 1966) to make an All-Star team in his career, but the FIRST of those not to make it until his eighth season or later.

Noting that the NBA's All Star game isn't being held until Feb 20, it's not exactly the mid-point of the season. As January closes (Monday) and February dawns on Tuesday, most teams have played right around 50 games of what is an 82-game schedule. This is the first of a two-part article (Heading into the All Star Break), starting with the Eastern Conference. I'll get to the Western Conference next Monday, Feb 7.

Let me begin with some NBA conference history. The NBA's first year was the 1949-50 season and George Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers won FOUR of the first NBA titles (1950, '52, '53 and '54). The 1952 title was won by the Rochester Royals, another Western Conference team. However, it was TOTAL domination by the Eastern Conference from 1555 through !970, as an Eastern Conference team won the NBA title 15 times in a 16-season span. The lone Western Conference winner? The 1958 St Louis Hawks of Bob Petit, who beat the Boston Celtics in a seven-games series. As most NBA fans  likely know, Bill Russell's Celtics won 10 of those 15 titles (in his 12-year playing career). However, over the next 20 seasons (1971-1990), it was a 50-50 split, as each conference produced 10 NBA champions. That led into the "MJ era,' in which Michael and the Bulls won SIX of eight titles (Hakeem's Rockets won the other two). With MJ leaving the Bulls, Western Conference teams won 10 of the next 13 titles, from 1999 through 2011. The Lakers won five titles, the Spurs four and the Mavs won that franchise's only NBA title in 2011. These last 10 seasons, it's back to a 50-50 split, with each conference winning five titles apiece.

This gets me to what the Eastern Conference standings look like on the morning of January 31. The Heat sit atop the East at 32-18, but just barely. The Bulls are 31-18, the 76ers are 30-19, the Cavs are 30-20, the Bucks (defending champs) are 31-21 and the Nets are 29-20. Even an Ohio U drop out like me, can see that the East's top-six teams (Seeds 1 thru 6 automatically qualify for the postseason, while seeds 7-10 enter a 'play-in' round to determine the 7th and 8th seeds) are separated by only 2 1/2-games! The 28-23 Hornets are No. 7, the 24-23 Raptors are No. 8, the 26-25 Celtics are No. 9 (how the mighty have fallen) and the 24-25 Hawks are No. 10, after a SEVEN-game winning streak. Currently, "on-the-outside-looking-in" are the 23-26 Wizards and 23-27 Knicks. We can 'put a pin' in the seasons of 12-37 Pistons and 11-40 Magic, plus the 18-33 Pacers are about to join Detroit and Orlando in the 'hopeless cause' category. 

Milwaukee and Brooklyn were the conference favorites at the start of the season, with Philadelphia right behind them, but dealing with the 'pouting' Ben Simmons. As noted, it's a logjam at the top, so NOTHING is even close to being decided. However, let me close by giving out some 'props' to the Heat, Bulls and Cavs, who not only own the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 seeds in the East, but also own the top-3 ATS records, as well. It's my opinion that Miami's Erik Spoelstra doesn't get his due when the discussion of the NBA's best coaches comes up. He led the 'South Beach 3' to four NBA Finals (2-2) and in 2020, shocked the NBA with his team's run to the Finals, before losing 4-2 to the Lakers. The Heat have dealt with numerous injuries and COVID absences, but despite all that, they are 32-18 (.640) up from last season's 40-32 (556) record. 

As for the Bulls, they were coming off a 31-41 record last season, missing the postseason for the FOURTH consecutive year. However, they have reinvented themselves as a threat in the Eastern Conference behind Zach LaVine and the free agent signing of DeMar DeRozan. They also picked up center Nikola Vucevic from Orlando last season (where his talents were wasted) plus added Lonzo Ball as a free agent prior to this season. There were 'whispers' that the 32-year-old DeMar DeRozan was on the downside of his career, but he's been one of the best players in the NBA so far this season, averaging 26.5-5.0-4.9 (note: he was named as a starter for the East in the All Star game).

The biggest surprise of all is the Cleveland Cavs. Since LBJ 'jumped ship' for the second time, this time 'Going Hollywood' after the 2017-18 season, the Cavs entered the current season 60-159 (.274) over the previous three seasons. The Cavs 30-20 (.600) record this season is even more amazing when one takes into account that they lost their best player, Collin Sexton (16.0 PPG) to a left knee meniscus tear in mid-November and then veteran PG Ricky Rubio (13.1 & 6.6 APG) to an ACL tear in his left knee in late-December. One last thing for you sports bettors. The Cavs are 30-18-2 ATS, the Bulls 28-20-1 ATS and the Heat 29-21 ATS, making them the three most-profitable teams in the East. Next Monday, join me for a look at the Western Conference. Spoiler Alert. 'King James' and his minions are not exactly dominating things.

Good luck...Larry 

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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