East is still least in the NBA

BY foxsports • December 17, 2009

One of the many things we all love about the NBA is its charming predictability.

For example, we all expected the Eastern Conference to have fewer solid teams than the Western Conference rolled out (again) and we haven't been disappointed. With this season now comfortably past the opening lap, we see that only five Eastern teams have won more games than they've lost. The Western Conference offers nine.

This depth of relative competence also translates to head-to-head matchups, where Eastern Conference teams have a record of 54-76 against the West. To be fair, it should be noted that the East has a 4-3 edge in teams winning at a clip of .700 or better, thanks to a mildly unexpected uprising by the Atlanta Hawks.

Anyway, many of you had high hopes for the improvement of at least three Eastern Conference teams. Unfortunately, the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls are who we thought they were last season ... either nothing special (sorry, Chicago) or downright bad. Their inability to improve deserves considerable credit for the conference's inability to compete with the overall perception of solid basketball attributed to the West.

For answers, let's begin in Washington, where the arrival of Coach Flip Saunders was sniffed as a positive move for a franchise seemingly prepared to make a run. The pieces that were in place had been considered efficient enough to make this happen. The Sporting News even achieved a level of cuckoo that was profound enough to project Washington as eventual winner of the Southeast Division.

Why such high hopes?

Well, the offseason included a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves for veterans Randy Foye and Mike Miller, with the Wizards' lottery pick used as bait. Foye, something of a legit commodity in the Twin Cities, is giving the Wizards just 6.8 points per game on 37-percent shooting. Miller had rallied to shoot well from deep to start the season, but tore a calf muscle after nine games.

The Wizards (7-16 at the moment) also had point guard Gilbert Arenas returning after sitting out almost an entire season with a bad knee. They had a developing big man in Andray Blatche and a promising wing kid named Nick Young.

The additions weren't enough to offset early-season unfamiliarity with Flip's system and an injury to baseline sniper Antawn Jamison, who missed the first nine games. Small forward Caron Butler began the campaign in a productivity funk, while Arenas facilitated much of what's been wrong with the offense by (to this point) squeezing off 100 more shots than any other Wizard and connecting on a robust 39 percent of his attempts.

Washington also checks in at 21st in defensive efficiency and 20th in defensive rebounding. It's funny how not scoring often creates a disinterest in playing hard or together at the other end of the floor.

However, with a little ping-pong magic in Secaucus, the Wizards could end up with John Wall, who would be paid more than $12 million less in his first season than the point guard the Wizards send to the bench (if nobody trades for and eats the final four years of Agent Zero's contract).

Two years ago, Derrick Rose was John Wall. Now he's attempting to shrug off a mild sophomore slump that has assisted the Chicago Bulls' 8-15 start. Point guard Rose, last year's NBA Rookie of the Year, presides over an offense currently ranked 28th in the league for efficiency. It doesn't help that — thanks, in part, to a nagging ankle injury — the anticipated increase in Rose's productivity has not occurred; the local hotshot is slightly down in all statistical categories.

The Bulls also have been diminished by injuries to forward Tyrus Thomas and Kirk Hinrich, although Hinrich was bagging less than 37 percent of his field-goal attempts before going down. And even with slow-starting Luol Deng back from his own physical issues last season, the Bulls have been unable to overcome the loss of free-agent marksman Ben Gordon.

Losing Gordon means Chicago (2-10 on the road, it should be noted) now lacks a consistent deep shooter to go with its chronic inability to score inside.

And they aren't exactly accomplished at applying pressure on defense and creating turnovers for easy scoring opportunities in transition. The Milwaukee Bucks are pretty good at that ... by the way, who coaches the Bucks these days?

Defense and turnover creation is almost nonexistent in Toronto, where the Raptors (11-17) are the league's worst in both categories. With Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon and Hedo Turkoglu in the starting lineup, opponents aren't exactly quaking in their Nikes over the potential for defensive pressure.

At that steep price tag ($52 million and change over five years), big free-agent ticket Turkoglu hasn't exactly been a savior on offense, either, giving the Raptors just 14 points per game on 43-percent shooting.

Backup point guard Jarrett Jack was hired to help make the Raptors a bit less terrible defensively, but his chilly shot-making does little to inspire more playing time from Coach Jay Triano. Rookie DeMar DeRozan was drafted, in large part, because he possesses the bounce and speed that general manager Bryan Colangelo was able to watch while working for the Phoenix Suns. But DeRozan's athletic chops haven't been enough to produce more than 7 points, 41-percent shooting or 20 minutes per game.

We almost forgot ... the Raptors may lose Chris Bosh to free agency next summer. If that happens, they no longer have to worry about being listed in a review of teams that fail to meet expectations.

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