Going into the NBA season, you would be hard pressed to find an analyst that did not pick either the Chicago Bulls or the Miami Heat to win the Eastern Conference this season.
After all, the teams met in last years Eastern Conference Finals, and seemed to both improve their squads in the offseason.
A third of the way through the season, to no one's surprise, those two teams have been exactly what we expected to be, the class of the East. The Bulls are led by last year's MVP Derrick Rose, and their hard nosed defensive mentality has brought them to a 19-6 record, the conferences best. Miami, despite injury problems from their big three, have been playing extremely well when they are all on the court together and LeBron James is having one of the best seasons in his career.
So the question that needs to be asked is, who if anyone can challenge these two powerhouses in the East?
Going into the season, the top candidates seemed to be Boston, New York, Orlando, and Atlanta.
However, The Celtics have been inconsistent, the Magic can't seem to score any points and will likely end up having to trade Dwight Howard, The Hawks are the same old Hawks (they do hold a solid 16-7 record still) and The Knicks...well don't even get me started on the Knicks.
So with all four of those teams out, who is left to fill the number three and four spots in the East? Thankfully, two teams have stepped up. The Philadelphia 76ers, and the Indiana Pacers.
Philadelphia has started out the year 16-7, the fourth best conference record. They have a 3.5 game lead over Boston in the Atlantic Division as of this writing. The Sixers have been doing it with a combination of balanced offense and great defense. It is the Sixers in fact, not the Bulls who have the NBA's top defense, allowing a mere 86.5 points per game.
The Sixers have been guided by second year head coach Doug Collins who seems to be making the most out of his young cast of players. The Sixers don't have a star by any means, but they have eight players who average over nine points a game and are one of the deepest teams in the conference.
The Pacers come into the day 16-6, even in the loss column with the Bulls in the Central Division. Indiana leads the NBA in rebounding and has the sixth best defense. The Pacers, like they have been for the last several seasons, are led by one of the NBA's quietest great scorers Danny Granger. The difference this year though is his teammates are beginning to develop and help him out. Roy Hibbert is growing into one of the NBA's best Center, and Paul George and Darren Collison are really excelling in their roles as well.
While their 16-6 mark is good, their road wins have been particularly impressive for such a young team. Indiana already has picked up road victories this season against Dallas, Orlando, Chicago, Boston and the Lakers.
Both of these teams made the playoffs last year, and ironically enough both of them had a series with the Bulls or Heat in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs (Indiana played Chicago, Philadelphia played Miami). They both showed signs of being able to compete at that level in the future, before falling in five games. However, very few expected that "in the near future" tag to come this season.
So are the Pacers or Sixers good enough to win the East? Probably not yet. Chicago is still the best defensive unit, and Miami the best complete team in the conference. However, if these four teams happen to be final four teams when all is said and done in the East, I would be shocked to see both series go only five games once again.
Both of these teams have grown leaps and bounds this season, and their fan bases have a right to be excited. One of the most promising things about these teams is that they are both young. If they can stay together they will continue to challenge for the East for the next several years if they can add one or two more championship level pieces.
The question asked in this article may be a bit premature, but the Pacers and Sixers have been impressive enough this season where that outcome is entirely possible.