The odds-on favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference and win the NBA championship this season is the Miami Heat. They are having one of the best seasons in NBA history, and LeBron James is having the best season of his career.
But if you take the Heat out of the equation, the Eastern Conference is actually very competitive. The standings going into the playoffs will play a big part in how far teams are going to be able to go.
Each team has teams that they match up well against and teams they match up poorly with. Excluding the Heat, the Brooklyn Nets are the toughest matchup for any team in the East.
The Eastern Conference standings currently look like this...
1. Miami Heat (62-16)
2. New York Knicks (51-26)
3. Indiana Pacers (49-29)
4. Brooklyn Nets (46-32)
5. Chicago Bulls (42-35)
6. Atlanta Hawks (43-36)
7. Boston Celtics (40-38)
8. Milwaukee Bucks (37-41)
Compared to these other teams, the Nets have a more balanced team. When you combine a top point guard, top shooting guard and a top center with a versatile player like Gerald Wallace, a rebounding monster like Reggie Evans and a deep bench, you get a matchup nightmare for any team.
Brook Lopez has proven many critics wrong and emerged as one of the top centers in the NBA. He has attacked the basket much better and improved his defense and rebounding.
This season, Lopez has averaged 19.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. He is probably the best true center in the East.
Deron Williams has started to play like a top point guard since the All-Star break. In the last 25 games, Williams has averaged 22.8 points and 7.9 assists a game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.
He is undoubtedly the best healthy point guard in the Eastern Conference.
Having a top point guard and a top center is very rare in the NBA. There is no other team in the East, including the Heat, that can say they have that.
If you combine Williams with Joe Johnson, the Nets have the best backcourt coming out of the Eastern Conference as well. Their size creates a mismatch in the Nets' favor.
While Wallace has struggled shooting the basketball, his leadership and defensive ability make him invaluable.
Evans has been more than the Nets could have expected. He played his way into the starting lineup and has emerged as a top rebounder in the NBA. Evans is averaging 11 rebounds per game and has nine games with at least 20 boards.
The Nets also have one of the deepest benches in the East. C.J. Watson could start at point guard for several teams, and MarShon Brooks can score in bunches. Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Bogans are veterans who consistently provide quality minutes off the bench.
The backup frontcourt of the Nets, consisting of Andray Blatche and Kris Humphries, isn't much of a downgrade from the starting frontcourt.
The Heat are coming off a 27-game winning streak, and the Knicks are currently riding a 13-game winning streak. These streaks have outshined just how well the Nets have played since the All-Star break.
Their chemistry is increasing, and they just beat the Celtics easily to give them a three-game winning streak of their own.
Another big advantage the Nets have over any other Eastern Conference playoff team is their health. Johnson and Wallace have been a little banged up of late, but those injury concerns don't compare to most of the other Eastern Conference teams, including the Heat.
Since the Heat lost their 27-game winning streak, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh have been getting a lot of rest. Wade is probably the only one of the "Big Three" that really needs the rest because of his apparent sprained ankle and bruised knee.
Wade's health is going to be a big thing to look for throughout the playoffs.
We knew the Knicks were an older team going into the season and there were risks involved. Despite this, they have remained relatively healthy throughout the season and are going to end the season in second place in the East.
But they have two big health concerns going into the playoffs. Tyson Chandler hasn't been 100 percent for a while. He has a neck injury that has been lingering for quite some time and kept him out of several games.
The other big concern is the ankle injury that Kenyon Martin suffered against the Washington Wizards. His knee was already bothering him before he sprained his ankle. He probably will be shut down until the playoffs.
Martin has brought an edge to the Knicks that has bumped them into being considered serious contenders again. So the loss of Martin, with Chandler's injury, could be detrimental to the Knicks in the playoffs.
Two teams that are missing their top stars are the Bulls and the Pacers. Derrick Rose has been out for the entire season, and Danny Granger has hardly played.
Granger won't be coming back in time for the playoffs, but Rose could potentially return. But Rose's effectiveness is uncertain if he does come back for the postseason.
The Celtics are also missing one of their top stars, Rajon Rondo, until at least next year. And the two remaining members of their "Big Three" are older and have been banged up as well.
Even if Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are fully healthy enough come postseason time, they might not be able to stay that way throughout the long NBA postseason.
The combination of the stars on the Nets, their balanced lineup, deep bench and health makes them a tough out in the postseason. Aside from the Heat, there might not be a team in the Eastern Conference that poses more matchup problems than the Nets do.
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