The common perception of the NBA for the past few seasons has been that the Western Conference is the tougher side of the league, and the Eastern Conference is just lagging behind.
And maybe there's something to that. Then again, the East — well, Miami — has been the side hoisting the last two NBA championship trophies.
The Heat are entering their fourth season of the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh triumvirate, and they have gone a staggering 36-13 in East playoff games since joining forces.
Here's a look at what the East playoff field might look like in April, when the Heat will try for a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals:
1. MIAMI HEAT: Everyone saw this one coming. James is at his peak, Wade is angered by doubters and Bosh is vowing to make this his best season. The next five players in the rotation — Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen — alone would probably be good enough to make the playoffs.
2. CHICAGO BULLS: Derrick Rose is back, and if preseason is any indication, he's back to normal, too. If the Bulls stay healthy, they have enough to give Miami big-time issues.
3. INDIANA PACERS: If they did a better job defending the rim at the end of Game 1 of last year's East finals, they might have ended Miami's title quest last spring. They're brash, have a bit of a swagger, don't mind speaking their minds — and back it up with their play.
4. BROOKLYN NETS: Probably good enough to win it all, and will have the benefit of playing in an Atlantic Division that might have only two playoff teams. Still, they check in at No. 4 here, which speaks more about the quality of the East than anything else.
5. NEW YORK KNICKS: It's a contract year for Carmelo Anthony, who obviously is one of the most gifted scorers of this era. There will be nights where they look unbeatable. There will not be anywhere near enough of them.
6. DETROIT PISTONS: Maurice Cheeks is the new coach. Chauncey Billups is back in the city where he celebrated a title. There's a core of young talent. And they're enormous in the frontcourt, which bodes well for East play.
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