Celtics, Pistons Dominate List Of Contenders in Depleted East

Now that the NFL playoffs have ended (in the saddest possible fashion) and the baseball season is still some time away, sports fans have time to focus on basketball. As the NBA approaches its annual All-Star game a week from Sunday, the Eastern Conference still remains the weaker of the two conferences, but boasts two of the league’s strongest title contenders­: the league-leading Boston Celtics and the perennial powerhouse Detroit Pistons.

The Celtics are off to their statistically best start in franchise history. The main reason for this is Kevin Garnett. The Celtics’ forward is a leading Most Valuable Player candidate, combining his usual All-Star level numbers with his infectious energy and intensity on both sides of the ball. Guard Ray Allen has yet to hit his stride offensively, but forward Paul Pierce has once again shown us why he is an All-Star.

The trademark of this Celtics team, however, has been their stingy defense, which gives up a league low 88.80 points per game. This is a big reason I think they can do well in the playoffs.

The biggest question towards the end of the season for the Celtics will be whether point guard Rajon Rondo can lead this offense in the playoffs. Rondo has been quite good this season, but his lack of experience could hurt him during the pressure-filled playoffs. Boston is trying to get Rondo some veteran help down the stretch though, and appears determined to pry Sam Cassell from the Clippers. If successful, the acquisition would fill a major piece of a potential championship puzzle.

The Detroit Pistons are the true “Beasts of the East,” as they continue to be the biggest roadblock for any upshot contender in the East. They still put the league’s best starting five on the floor every night, led by Chauncey Billups who is having one of his best years. Detroit continues to play with high intensity and toughness on defense, and for good measure, they still lead the league in complaining about calls (unofficially of course). Their bench is as deep and talented as ever, and it would take a Herculean effort to knock these Pistons off (see LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers last year).

King James’ Cavs may again rule the East though. The Cavs are riding high on the ridiculously great play of their superstar leader. James has lived up to, and even exceeded, the considerable expectations placed upon him when he entered the NBA. This year, he may very well put on his Superman cape in the playoffs and single-handedly lead his team to the NBA Finals, like he did last year.

The only other real contender in the East is the Orlando Magic. Center Dwight Howard is already an All-Star and is destined to be a dominant force in the game for a long time. Former Seattle Sonics forward Rashard Lewis has helped the Magic this season, but the X-factor has been the performance of point guard Hedo Turkoglu. The skillful Turkish national has put up fantastic numbers and is the most glaring omission from the All-Star game, but it’s still unclear whether he, and Orlando, can continue to maintain this high level of play.

Besides these top contenders, some of the other teams in the East are still worth watching.

Look for the Washington Wizards to be a force when Gilbert Arenas comes back. The Toronto Raptors have been quietly doing well, and I’m not quite ready to give up on the Chicago Bulls just yet. The Miami Heat, just two years removed from an NBA title, are shockingly dreadful and seem to have thrown in the towel by trading Shaquille O’Neal to Phoenix for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks.

That’s all for the Eastern Conference wrap-up. A few trades in the East could shake things up, but don’t expect anything bigger than possibly Cassell to Boston. Next week, we’ll take a look at the wild, wild Western Conference.