The NBA Eastern Conference is muddled by injuries right now, as the middle class tries to sort itself out. Three teams—Chicago, Philadelphia and Indiana—have hopes of eventually emerging as the pre-eminent challenger to the Miami Heat by springtime, but all three have their signature player on the bench. TheSportsNotebook will take a brief look at each team so far this season, who’s stepping up, and what the prospects are for their injured stars.
Chicago (11-8): Why is it that the Bulls seem to have such a hard time getting any respect as the top challenger? They’ve been the #1 seed in this conference for two straight years and might have won it all last year if Derrick Rose hadn’t blown out his knee in the first playoff game. We were told at the start of the season that Rose would be back in either late January or around the All-Star break and every report coming from the Windy City since has confirmed that timetable. The point guard is working on his cuts, starting to run sprints and he’ll have several weeks to play his way into playoff shape. So what’s the problem with considering the Bulls a real contender?
Even without Rose, Chicago’s signature of stingy defense remains, as they’re tied with Memphis as the NBA’s best at defensive efficiency, and they’re also the best in the game at hitting the boards. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer continue to own the glass, and small forward Luol Deng has emerged as the top scorer, at 18 ppg.
There are big problems with the offense—Noah, and veteran two-guard Kirk Hinrich are the leaders in assists, suggesting that Nate Robinson has not adequately filled Rose’s shows. But if we look at this team in light of a healthy Rose, and suddenly they look pretty good. For my money, this is still the second-best team in the East and with Rose, quite possibly the best.
Philadelphia (11-9): It was with much hype that the Sixers acquired center Andrew Bynum as part of the multi-team Dwight Howard trade, but a knee injury has Bynum sidelined until at least early January and we’re even starting to hear reports he may not return at all. For the time being let’s assume he comes back next month—because if he doesn’t, this whole section of the article is pointless and the Sixers are, at best, a borderline playoff team.
But with Bynum it’s a different story. Point guard Jrue Holiday is having an excellent season both scoring and distributing and Evan Turner has made a similar elevation of his game. Thaddeus Young is providing both scoring and rebounding help at the small forward spot. What Philadelphia is not doing very well right now is rebounding the ball, and it should be self-evident that a healthy Bynum goes a long way to fixing that problem.
I’m not as sold on a best-case Philadelphia team as I am with Chicago—Bynum’s noted immaturity still remains an issue, but the Sixers could at least be a top-four team, win a playoff round and if they meet Miami in the spring, the Heat’s biggest nightmare is a team built around a high-quality center.
Indiana (10-11): The Pacers lost small forward Danny Granger, their best offensive threat, to a knee injury. Granger is off crutches and the team hopes for him to be back by February, but of the three injured stars we’re focused on, Granger is the biggest question mark.
Granger’s also the biggest question mark when he’s healthy, because the Pacers are exactly the kind of team that can—indeed, should have beaten Miami in last year’s playoffs, with the presence of Roy Hibbert in the post and David West at power forward. West is stepping up this season, with 18 points/9 rebounds per game, but Hibbert, at 10/8, needs to elevate his game whether Granger comes back or not.
Indiana’s depth on the perimeter is also not what it was a year ago, and there’s considerable pressure on George Hill to maintain his strong start. Right now I’m still down on Indiana because of how unready-for-prime-time they looked in last year’s playoffs, and Granger was as big a culprit as anyone. That’s why I find them the least interesting team of this trio right now.