The 2013-2014 version of the Eastern Conference became something of a punch line around NBA circles, as most of its teams were pretty bad from the start, setting records for futility and being mostly mediocre squads.
While Indiana and Miami were forces from day 1, other teams emerged quietly as the season went along, producing intriguing foes now that playoff time has arrived. For example, the Toronto Raptors started 16-17 before winning 32 of their remaining 49 games and securing a #3 seed. Also, the Chicago Bulls relied on the force that is Joakim Noah to finish fourth despite the absence of Derrick Rose and the mid-season departure of Luol Deng. Also, squads like the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats ended their lengthy playoff droughts to be part of the dance.
This means that the East enters unfamiliar territory when it comes to history, as most of its storied franchises will spend the spring watching the games at home. The 8 teams headed towards the Eastern playoff have combined for only 15 conference championships in history, and only the Miami Heat have actually accomplished the feat during the last decade.
The current 16-team playoff format was adopted way back in 1984, though the latest change came in 2003, when the first round was changed to the best-of-7 incarnation we know today. Taking that into consideration, today we take a look at a couple of key stats for Eastern champions since then: regular-season point differential, and playoff seeding.
With the NBA being a repetitive league and by far the most predictable among the major sports, revising this information should give us a good idea as to who will emerge as the Eastern champion during this playoffs. For the purpose of this exercise we will eliminate those teams who appear to have no chance, leading us to a solid prediction based on the evidence we find.
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS SINCE 2003
|Year||Conf. Champion||Winning Pct.||Seed||Point Diff.||Point. Diff. Rank|
As we can see, the 11 teams that have won the East under the current playoff format (5 of whom won the NBA title), have mostly done it after a dominating regular season. The most notable case came from the 2008 Celtics, who not only won over 80% of their games, they did it with the best point differential since the 1997 Bulls, ranking as the 7th best team in league history by that measure.
Taking a look at the 2013-14 standings, we can practically discount more than half of the East's playoff teams, as the conference only had 5 teams that posted a positive point differential. In fact, the 6th-seeded Brooklyn Nets were only the ninth best team by this measure. So unless they get to face the Heat, they could be in for a sour playoff experience.
The best differentials belong, not coincidentally, to the three top seeds in the conference. Miami leads the way with a +4.8 figure, followed by the +4.4 of the Pacers and the +3.3 of the surprising Raptors. With the previous conference champions having no lower than a +3.6, it seems easy to dismiss all teams seeded 4 to 8, which includes a bad Hawks team, and the other teams mentioned previously (Washington, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago).
With the top 2 seeds garnering 8 of the last 11 championships, Toronto may be left out of the conversation, as intriguing as they seem. Not only is their point differential middling, they also went a combined 2-6 versus Indiana and Miami, and their path to the Conference Finals will go through one of them.
That leaves us with Miami and Indiana, in what has seemed like a collision course since the season began. The Heat has made it to 3 straight Finals with LeBron James, though on all those seasons they had posted a superior differential and won more games. This year, a .659 winning percentage would mirror the 2010 Celtics as the last surprising team that won the East.
On the other hand, Indiana stormed out of the gate but stumbled in the end to finish with a nice .684 winning percentage, but its point differential is far from special. In the end, these numbers suggest that whoever ends up winning the East will face a tough task in the Finals, as practically every contender on the West had a better season than the top dogs in the East.
Having said this, the advantage Indiana has by holding the top seed and hosting a potential game 7 at home is enough to tip the scale in favor of the Pacers. Also, no Eastern team has made it to 4 straight Finals since the Celtics from 1984 to 1987, and the current NBA model should deter that from happening again.
Indiana entered the season with only one goal: dethroning Miami, and with a first-round cupcake (Atlanta) just to get things going, the team should be in good shape to fight it off for what promises to be a memorable Eastern Conference final.