NBA Sunday: Five Things to Watch in East

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For much of the 2013-14 NBA campaign, the Eastern Conference has served as little more than comic relief for the Western Conference. A date with any East team other than the Indiana Pacers and the Miami HEAT has basically been a chance to rest starters and get ready for the next West opponent. However, as the stretch run approaches, the East has seen some storylines develop that should prove interesting as the run-up to the playoffs ensues.

1 – The Toronto Raptors’ emergence as a top East team

First and foremost, we have the quickly-improving Toronto Raptors, who by all accounts were supposed to be tanking for a high draft pick this season. After dealing Rudy Gay, the Raptors made it known that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan could be had for a steep price, but before they found a taker for either of their backcourt leaders, they found themselves quickly climbing in the standings. After a paltry 7-13 start and the Gay trade, the Raptors have gone 25-13, they rank as the NBA’s best fourth quarter team and they have moved into the East’s third seed. Not bad for a team that was looking to tank.

The Washington Wizards breaking their postseason drought

Another team that is currently rocketing up the Eastern Conference standings hails from Washington D.C., where the Wizards are starting to look like they could be a tough out come playoff time. They scored a thrilling triple-overtime win over the aforementioned Raptors on Thursday night. John Wall played like an MVP, Marcin Gortat stepped up big time to fill the void left by Nene’s injury and the entire team showed a level of fighting intensity that has long been missing from the organization. The Chicago Bulls currently sit between the Raptors and the Wizards in the East’s fourth seed, but if the Raptors and Wizards finish in a bracket where they play each other in the first round, that could be one of the most interesting series in the NBA prior to the respective Conference Finals.

3 – The Chicago Bulls continuing to win

When the Chicago Bulls traded away long-time starting small forward Luol Deng for what amounted to cap space and a draft pick, it looked like they too were planning to blow things up and shoot for a franchise player in the draft lottery. If that was what they had in mind, however, things have not gone according to plan. Much like what happened in Toronto, the Bulls have not only not tanked, they are slowly but surely climbing the Eastern Conference standings. Down two All-Stars with Deng gone and Derrick Rose hurt once again, the Bulls have had plenty of players step up to fill the void. They’re winning by committee, with six players scoring in double-figures, and they look like a very tough out come playoff time.

4 – The Charlotte Bobcats making their second postseason appearance

One of the more surprising free agent signings from last summer happened when Al Jefferson left the Utah Jazz to sign with the Charlotte Bobcats. Plenty of playoff teams had expressed interest in the big man, but he chose instead to be part of a rebuilding project on a team that has struggled even in the weaker conference. As it turns out, Jefferson might have made a pretty good choice. With a new, visionary head coach in place  in Steve Clifford and a front office crew that finally has the team headed in the right direction, the Bobcats are on track to make the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. They might be toast at the hands of the HEAT or Pacers once they get there, but the Bobcats are dead set on getting back into postseason play, and that goal is well within reach.

5 – The Indiana Pacers integrating Evan Turner

It may seem strange to see the Indiana Pacers on this list; after all, they have been one of the best teams in the NBA since the opening tip of the regular season. Still, they made arguably the biggest move of this year’s trade deadline, sending long-time franchise cornerstone Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner. On the one hand it was a risky move, as Granger’s leadership has been key for Paul George and the younger members of the team. On the other hand, Granger’s knee will never be the same and he was struggling on both ends of the floor. Turner is not known as a great leader off the court, but the Pacers are hopeful that he can put up solid numbers for them as a leader of the second unit. Turner was having a stellar year as the Sixers’ starting small forward, and if he can play anywhere close to that well for the Pacers, he could be the key to Indiana getting past Miami in postseason play.

Watching East games this season has been about as interesting as watching paint dry, with the majority of its teams worried more about the summer’s star-laden draft than about winning games now. However, as we head down the stretch, these are some interesting stories to keep an eye on while we wait for the inevitable postseason showdown between Miami and Indiana.

The Best Answer Thibodeau Could Possibly Give

When things go radically bad for a franchise the way they have for the New York Knicks this season, the story quickly turns from what happens on the basketball court to other things. First, of course, it became about Carmelo Anthony being traded. Weeks and weeks of speculation persisted that the Knicks would be forced to seriously consider trading Anthony because otherwise he would walk away as a free agent and leave them empty-handed this summer. Knicks management met with Anthony and felt reasonably assured that he would re-sign next summer, thus opting not to trade him. The very next day people were saying that losing was wearing on Carmelo and he was just sure to leave at the end of the season.


Perhaps Anthony will leave at the end of the season and perhaps he will not. Either way, that storyline is interesting for about 10 seconds and then one quickly realizes that it’s all speculation and there is no immediate answer. Time to move on.

A new story line is now developing to help bored Knicks fans find some other reason to pay attention to their team, though it probably has even less substance to it than the aforementioned Anthony trade silliness. This one has to do with the head coaching position, which has long been the subject of debate. Mike Woodson has been taking plenty of heat for his team’s poor performance despite the fact that management handed him something akin to a Rucker Park pick-up league team. Now, speculation about Woodson being fired has turned into speculation about his replacement.

This is where the story gets squirrely. The New York Post writes that the Knicks may pursue Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, despite the fact that Thibodeau has three years remaining on his contract with the Bulls, is extremely loyal to the organization and has the team’s full support.

“He is not going anywhere,” Bulls VP John Paxson told The Post. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say our team is the best prepared in the NBA with Tom as our head coach.”

“He loves Chicago,’’ a coaching source who has worked with Thibodeau told The Post. “They gave him his first head-coaching opportunity. I don’t know why coaches and GMs don’t get along better. But when someone throws a boatload of money at you?”

The best quote, however, came from Thibodeau himself.

“No matter how you answer, it will keep coming up, so I don’t waste any time with that,” he said.

As great as Thibodeau is at coaching, with that one simple remark he showed he is equally adept at handling the ever-growing number of people wearing media credentials around their necks.

Has there been tension between the Bulls’ front office and their head coach? Sure. Is that unusual? No. Is it a sign that the Bulls are about to pay Thibodeau to coach another team for three years, knowing that he will have a half-dozen job offers immediately? Not at all.

Another non-story bites the dust.

NBA Chat with Bill Ingram

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