Miami's Chris Bosh gives a big thumbs up as the game winds down on a Heat victory over the Jazz on Monday night. (Robert Duyos / South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
The marquee game of the NBA takes place on South Beach Wednesday night, as the two-time defending champion Miami Heat will play the biggest challenger to its throne, the deep, physical and very chesty Indiana Pacers.
And that’s the quality of the Eastern Conference, in a nutshell. The Pistons will take their momentum from knocking off the Pacers at home, the first team to do it, into Boston to take on the rebuilding — and fourth-place Celtics.
Yes, that was said correctly.
The Celtics, by admission from general manager Danny Ainge, are not trying to compete in the East but due to good coaching, a few good players and a Detroit native named Jordan Crawford, have unexpectedly clawed themselves to the fourth seed in the East, giving them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs if the season were to end today.
“Making the playoffs is not a goal,” Ainge told the Boston Globe recently. “We’re not excited about being 10-14. That doesn’t bring excitement to anybody, but progress does.”
Last year, the Celtics were trying to compete, desperate for one last shot at their friends in Miami. Doc Rivers was the coach, Rajon Rondo was healthy for nearly half of the season (38 games) before tearing his ACL on a Sunday afternoon, and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett ably gamed themselves through a regular season for the chance to meet the Heat.
The Celtics went all in and wound up finishing 41-40, a seventh seed before falling to the New York Knicks in the first round.
And after tearing it down, with Rivers fleeing to Los Angeles, Ainge dealing Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn and Rondo barely cleared to practice, let alone play, this incarnation of the Celtics has a higher-standing in the East than the team with the championship aspirations.
Ainge won’t say it, but defining “progress” is code for “draft picks,” and you can’t get high-quality selections in a loaded draft by making the playoffs with a losing record, because the rest of the East is inept.
He’s got an eye toward the future, as in Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and a few other collegians projected as future superstars, but his counterparts in the East — you know, the teams trying to win — can’t get out of their own way, making basketball east of the Mississippi River look like junior varsity ball.
Or CYO ball.
Talent level runs short
There are a lot of factors as to why watching the East is so painful.
Certainly the Western Conference has plenty of quality teams with dreams of knocking off the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, and this isn’t the first time there’s been conference imbalance, but it looks so pronounced
Orlando was forced to trade Dwight Howard when Howard decided he needed to be in a bigger pond, sending the Magic into a rebuilding process.
While they have some pieces, as former Pistons VP Scott Perry has eyed and helped Magic GM Rob Hennigan land promising prospects Victor Oladipo (Indiana University) and Nic Vucevic (trade), they’re still a year away from really making some noise.
Howard’s request prompted Philadelphia to help facilitate a trade, giving up their superstar role player, Andre Iguodala, in a blockbuster move that netted them a lemon with two bad knees and a permed afro in Andrew Bynum, who didn’t play at all last season, sending them to full-tank mode now.
Cleveland struck gold with Kyrie Irving, but getting the first pick in this past June’s draft, Anthony Bennett, hasn’t panned out, in a move that was questioned as soon as David Stern announced his name.
In fact, he’s been the most unproductive first pick in the league’s history, which is hard to do considering the busts who’ve been selected first. Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters — who was selected over Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes, to name two, hasn’t found his footing next to Irving.
And despite Cleveland’s best-laid plans and pipe dreams, LeBron James isn’t coming back to Ohio anytime soon — not wearing that jersey, at least.
The Chicago Bulls’ hopes are pinned firmly on Derrick Rose and, unfortunately, he’s unavailable until next season — enough said.
Then there’s the Big Apple — the big rotten apple.
Brooklyn and New York are the biggest disappointments by far, and after a summer where players traded barbs about which team was the “King of New York,” they’re both looking like court jesters, with the Knicks being third from the bottom in the East and the Nets two spots (and two games) better.
The Nets swung high on Jason Kidd as head coach months after he retired, but he’s struggled in his role and his assistant, former Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, seemed to overstep his bounds, leading to banishment.
Frank is now filing daily reports, no longer attending practices or games. But that’s only a glimpse of their issues. Garnett and Pierce seem to have gotten old overnight, and instead of being the best fourth and fifth wheels, look like old boxers on their last legs.
The Knicks are a hot mess because the infrastructure was never sound to begin with. They won 50-plus games last year with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, but the veteran leadership (Kidd, Rasheed Wallace) is now in coaching and Chandler is hurt, making Mike Woodson a hot candidate — to be fired.
Either way, teams such as the Pistons and even Washington Wizards are in prime position to make progress in giving their young players valuable playoff experience — because somebody has to be the sacrificial lambs to the Pacers and Heat before their late May faceoff.