In the NBA's Eastern Conference, everyone is playing for 6th

Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIRE

Danny Granger's injury is only the latest in a string of critical early-season absences for several Eastern Conference contenders.

Danny Granger is out three months, which sucks because Granger is a good player and the Pacers could really, really use a scoring forward right now. They will presumably muddle through because they still play good defense and there's a chance Paul George will break through as a small forward.

Muddling through isn't what Indiana had in mind this season, however, and therein lies the problem. The Eastern Conference is wide open, so long as you consider that everyone is playing for second place. Now it seems like everyone is playing for sixth.

Granger's injury adds to a long and unfortunately growing list of conference concerns. Andrew Bynum was supposed to kickstart Philly's never-ending rebuilding process before his knee injury. Amar'e Stoudemire is out six weeks, which may wind up being good for the Knicks in the short run, but isn't a positive harbinger for a team loaded up with fat contracts and old players. Derrick Rose, we know about. (Please, for the love of god Adidas, make it stop!)

It doesn't end there. Avery Bradley is out for another month or so in Boston, stalling an evolutionary transformation that is already feeling some growing pains. Tuesday night, Kyle Lowry was carried off the court in Oklahoma City. Even the Wizards, who were looking to make some noise this season, are stuck in their perpetual embryonic phase while they wait for John Wall and Nene to return.

In the absence of all that talent, there is an opening for teams such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Atlanta (hell, maybe even Orlando) to be something greater than we thought they were. But that's still a fairly low bar.

If we're being honest with ourselves, we'd note that the whole season comes down to a simple question: Can any of these teams challenge Miami when it counts? And honestly, the answer is likely no. Before we get to that point, somehow, someway, the rest of the conference has to simply make it to April with most of their pieces intact. The postseason figures to be a jumbled mess. That may make for some intriguing matchups, but it doesn't say a lot about the overall strength of the East.

We're barely a week into the season, but can anyone honestly hazard a guess as to how it will all line up come spring?

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