The Knicks and Heat are heading up the newly strengthened East.
The Miami Heat and New York Knicks are bona fide beasts in the East, but the Western Conference is still the toast of the NBA.
With the way the Heat and Knicks are rolling, there's a good chance that an Eastern team will end up hoisting the O'Brien Trophy this coming June.
The defending champs are rolling as usual. LeBron James is all over the floor, Chris Bosh is playing All-Star basketball again and the Heat are sitting atop the East with a 23-9 record. Two of those losses were 20-point blowouts at the hands of the resurgent Knicks, who are riding great ball movement and a three-point barrage to a 23-11 record and second place in the conference.
Factor in three feisty, hard-nosed teams in the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, as well as intriguing star-powered squads in the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, and the East begins to look even more formidable.
Though the East is stronger than it has been in years, the Western Conference is still as tough as ever. Both in terms of the strength of its title contenders and the depth of its talent, the West is still the NBA conference to beat.
Power at the Top
The fight to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals is going to be a wild one.
There are no fewer than four teams out West that have legitimate shots at the 2013 NBA championship: The Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies.
Any one of those teams could take down the Heat or Knicks in a seven-game series.
Los Angeles' other team is drawing comparisons to the most legendary team in the city's history. Chris Paul has emerged as an MVP candidate, and the Clippers have paired their Showtime-caliber offense with the third-most efficient defense in the league.
Even without James Harden, the Thunder are as strong and mature as they've ever been. Another year older, the Spurs are still operating like the well-oiled machine they've been for years. With much-improved three-point shooting, the staunch Grizzlies are even more imposing than usual.
All four of those teams look better prepared for the long haul of the playoffs than the aged Knicks, who are as injury-prone as they are explosive.
As for this season's iteration of the Heat, LeBron and company are shooting the lights out, but lack their signature defensive spark.
Mediocre rotations on the perimeter have undermined Miami's offense.
That's been the glaring issue for Miami this season, something the three-point-happy Knicks revealed as they surgically dismantled a great team. The reigning champs are still good enough to beat anyone, but they are more flawed than they were before.
Perhaps there is an argument to be made for the Bulls here too.
Adding Derrick Rose to Tom Thibadeau's defensive powerhouse seems like a championship-winning formula, but it's contingent on the MVP point guard's full recovery. It sometimes takes upwards of a year for a player to return to form after tearing his ACL. Until Rose shows he is healthy again, the Bulls aren't a part of this class.
For now, that leaves us with the Heat and the Knicks. Neither Eastern Conference power is definitively better than any of the Western contenders. That's not a claim that either team can make.
Until then, the West is still superior.
Best of the Rest
When you look at the second tier of NBA teams, the talent still skews West.
The Golden State Warriors' dramatic victory over the Heat seems less surprising with each subsequent win. With David Lee having a career year inside and Mark Jackson at long last getting the Dubs to play defense, this team has now played too well for too long to be a fluke.
Ditto for the Houston Rockets, another Western upstart outperforming expectations. James Harden and Jeremy Lin are finally starting to jell, and Houston has plenty of young talent to support them.
Both the Warriors and the Rockets have played themselves into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. Their unanticipated performances are not a sign of a weakening West, however. Rather, it is a testament to how deep this conference is.
Despite playing 23 of 36 games against teams .500 or better, the Denver Nuggets keep rolling with their high-octane yet scrappy play. The Minnesota Timberwolves are hanging around without a healthy Kevin Love or Ricky Rubio. Even the Los Angeles Lakers, with all the discord surrounding that team, is ranked sixth in the league in offensive efficiency.
Toss in the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, who are both also scrapping for the final berth in the West, and this conference has 11 viable postseason teams for eight spots.
As for the East, the lower half of the playoff picture is less inspiring.
Riding good old-fashioned grit and defensive effort, the Hawks, Bulls and Pacers have all earned their playoff spots. After that, there is a noticeable drop off to the bottom three seeds of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The Celtics are uncharacteristically lagging on defense, with no one capable of picking up Kevin Garnett's slack when he sits. Meanwhile, the Nets and Milwaukee Bucks have similar stories: They each sport a pair of underachieving guards and have parted ways with their head coach.
Which is the better conference?
Those three teams would likely all be left out of postseason play if they were in the Western Conference. In the East, their spots are safe. Unless the Philadelphia 76ers get an unexpected boost from Andrew Bynum sometime soon, the Eastern Conference playoff slate is more or less set, filled out at the bottom by three paper tigers.
New York and Miami have brought some hype back East, but from top to bottom, the NBA's power still lies predominately in the Western Conference.