The Starting Five: This week’s hot topics in the NBA

While wondering which seed the Washington Generals might snag in the NBA’€™s Eastern Conference, let’€™s begin this week’€™s reading of The Starting Five:

Pacers forward Paul George does a fist pump during Indiana’s victory over LeBron James and the Miami Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.  

Well, didn’€™t the Pacers’€™ victory over the two-time defending champs signal a shift in the balance of Eastern Conference power?

Nah, it was Dec. 10.

All this showdown did was supply a reminder of how compelling the Eastern finals series is going to be.

We already knew the Pacers-Heat had the potential for memorable basketball; seeing an Indiana win simply provides us with more evidence that Miami might not three-peat.

But there’€™s considerable distance separating "might" and "will."

Anyway, in the unexpected event that we’€™re allowed to forget about Miami’€™s vulnerability along the baseline, Roy Hibbert punished the Heat with 24 points. Indiana was plus-10 on the boards and managed to make half of its field-goal attempts against the Heat defense.

If you’€™re prepared to believe Miami has been eclipsed, however, take a deep breath and remember the Heat — starting Feb. 3 — won 27 games in a row last season.

The Pacers do own a three-game edge in the Eastern Conference standings, and their quest for home court in a Game 7 is something to chew on.

NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver has suggested that the league might do away with divisional alignments.

Deputy commissioner Adam Silver this week dropped a real bombshell: The motivations for divisional play aren’€™t exactly working out, so divisions may be scrapped.

Wow, terrific news, right?

Wait a second while we yawn.

OK, if the NBA — which considered the idea — had given weight to winning a division by bestowing a higher seed upon division winners than some non-division winners with better records, this would be terrific news.

But the league already seeds 1-8 based on overall records and not divisional placement, so this is little ado about next to nothing. Even without tidy divisional alignments, teams would play the same conference foes about the same amount as they’€™re competing against them now.

If the league decided to scrap conferences and grant a playoff spot to teams with the 16 best records –€ well, isn’€™t that something we can get behind? Right, the schedules would need to follow some regional format to keep travel reasonable, but it seems more viable than the 11-11 Atlanta Hawks sitting in as a three seed and the 13-10 Dallas Mavericks out of the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant wasn’t exactly the Black Mamba of old against the Phoenix Suns this week, but he’s getting better.

Well, he looks –€ mortal.

True, there have been times when Kobe Bryant’€™s mad-chucker routine has made him appear to be nowhere close to immortal, but he’€™s never looked this physically vulnerable.

An Achilles rupture certainly has a way of hauling you back to the pack.

But while scoring 20 points against the Phoenix Suns in his second game this season, Kobe was pretty efficient (6 of 11 from the field, 8 of 8 at the line) against a nasty defender named P.J. Tucker.

If anyone can adjust to relatively significant limitations, it’€™s the guy who knows the game, understands the process and will fight to remain relevant.

Unfortunately, that might not be enough to push the Los Angeles Lakers into the playoffs.

What Bryant will provide, however, is a nightly lesson on how footwork, timing, technique and intelligence have been undervalued by players and player developers.

Regaining an appreciable measure of his pop might take a while. Regardless of how much of his mobility and burst return this season, Kobe will find a way.

Don’€™t think of him as the Bleak Mamba.

Jeff Hornacek’s work with a talent-challenged Suns roster rivals that of any coach in the league.

At this season’€™s quarter pole, we’€™ve noticed a lot of coaches struggling to develop continuity in all phases of basketball.

We’€™ve also noticed that Portland’€™s Terry Stotts has steered the Trail Blazers to a hardly expected first-place start in the Western Conference. But Stotts is working with LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nic Batum.

That’€™s a bit more firepower than Jeff Hornacek starts with in his first season coaching the Phoenix Suns. Hornacek, whose first-string front line is Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye (after missing the previous 18 months or so) and P.J. Tucker, is our choice here.

Through 21 games, Hornacek and the Suns have 12 wins. That’€™s good for seventh seed (at post time) and about the same number of wins many expected Phoenix to generate over the entire season.

Hornacek does have two really good guards in Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, but they play the same position. The new coach and his staff are attempting to put those two in on-court positions to succeed despite having both of them together (and healthy) at the same time for about half the schedule.

While it’€™s true that player improvement (rampant in Phoenix these days) is the responsibility of the player, Hornacek has come in and launched a development system far more efficient than what the Suns have had.

By the way, while it helps to have a young, captive audience, Hornacek’€™s demeanor figures to work when and if the Suns develop some star power.

The immense potential of Kansas’ 7-foot freshman center Joel Embiid of Cameroon has captured the attention of the NBA’s talent scouts.

Most hoop enthusiasts are aware of Embiid, a 7-foot, 250-pound freshman now working at center for the Kansas Jayhawks.

But he could become pretty popular with casual fans if his progress continues at current levels.

According to some of the wise guys who track draft potential for a living, Embiid is a candidate to crack the top three in next summer’€™s NBA Draft — if he makes himself eligible.

One prognosticating site even had the kid from Cameroon projected as first overall — ahead of ballyhooed KU teammate Andrew Wiggins and Duke freshman Jabari Parker.

While these projections are fluid and/or iffy, Embiid isn’€™t exactly a newcomer on the radar screens of talent evaluators employed by NBA teams.

After watching Embiid practice in preparation for last spring’€™s Nike Hoop Summit event, a current NBA general manager told me Embiid probably could go in the top five of the 2014 draft and could have an impact equal to or greater than anyone selected next summer.

Through his first eight games as a Jayhawk, Embiid — who played at the appropriately-named The Rock School in Florida last year — was averaging 9 points and 6.6 rebounds in only 19 minutes per game.