Consider what is at stake in the Eastern Conference. The team that finishes the season first overall will only have to play one of the other two contenders, and it will have the home-court advantage. Everything else being equal, that is a very desirable place to be.
The teams that finish second and third will have a war with each other, and then the winner of that series gets to play the (probably well-rested) number one seed. The third place team, in particular, will have a much greater degree of difficulty. To get to the finals, it will have to defeat the other two contenders, and not have the home-court advantage in either series. Moreover, its first-round game against the sixth seed will likely be against a superior team to what the other two contenders face in their first round match up. So a matter of finishing ahead or behind in the East by simply one or two games can dramatically alter the odds of a team getting to the Finals.
Yes, the Finals. It has to burn the fannies of the three contenders in the East that the Lakers get a relative cakewalk in comparison. I do not wish to demean the other teams in the west, because they are of much higher quality than the Eastern Conference teams once you get past Boston, Cleveland and Orlando. But they are not the caliber of Boston, Cleveland or Orlando.
Homecourt advantage is going to be huge in the Eastern Conference. But the Western Conference isn’t going to be a cakewalk. Look, I understand why everyone is enamored by Boston, Cleveland and Orlando. But there are two teams in the West that have failed to play to their potential. And there are reasons to believe they’ll get it together before the playoffs.
1. San Antonio
Despite losing Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to a combined 21 games, the Spurs sit 4.5 games behind the Lakers for the top spot in the West. The Spurs are notorious for sleepwalking through regular seasons and turning it on come playoff time. And yet every year, there are analysts that pronounce the Spurs “finished.” Nearly every expert picked San Antonio to lose to the Suns and Hornets in last year’s playoffs, but the Spurs proved the naysayers wrong and advanced to the conference finals before falling to the Lakers in 5 games. The 4-1 outcome is misleading because Ginobili was hobbled by a sprained ankle and failed to to get it going versus the Lakers. Ginobilli struggled mightily in San Antonio’s four losses. The Spurs are 1-1 against the Lakers this season. Barring injury or a setback to Ginobili’s surgically repaired ankle, the Spurs will be firing on all cylinders come April. I guarantee it.
2. New Orleans
New Orleans has been hampered by injuries to Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and David West. The trio has missed a combined 21 games. And yet the Hornets are only a game or two behind last season’s pace when they won a franchise-best 56 games and established themselves as championship contenders. Chris Paul has had a phenomenal season. Paul is averaging 21.1 points and a league-leading 11.1 assists per contest. The Hornets have struggled defensively, but should be equipped to defend the league’s elite once Chandler returns to health. Like the Spurs, the Hornets have split their season series with the Lakers thus far.
San Antonio and New Orleans’ ceiling is every bit as high as Orlando’s. I know the Lakers, Cavs, Celtics and Magic are trendy picks, but don’t underestimate the Spurs and Hornets, they’re more than capable of challenging for the Western Conference crown.