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Paul Flannery | December 6, 2015

Sunday Shootaround: The East is back. Maybe.

The East is back. Maybe.

Way back in November, when nobody knew anything and the league was still sorting itself out, Pacers coach Frank Vogel talked about the need for patience. His team was attempting an interesting experiment, one they hoped would better meet the demands of competing in the modern NBA and unlock the potential of their star forward, Paul George. They would transition from an oversized ground and pound outfit that played inside out to one that was small and versatile. This is as complete a stylistic reversal as you can get in this league.

"It’s an adjustment for our guys who are playing it, and it’s an adjustment for me," Vogel said at the time. "There’s a lot of different layers to it. It’s coming. There’s still some stretches of games where it doesn’t look very pretty, where guys are a little bit out of sync but that’s to be expected. It’s going to be a work in progress for the first couple months of the season."

It’s now December, roughly a quarter of the way through the season, and patience is still required because very little seems to have sorted itself out. We know that the Warriors are devastating the league and the Spurs aren’t too far behind, but beyond those two givens lies a league full of unknowns. Nowhere are things more chaotic than the Eastern Conference where 11 teams are separated by only three games in the loss column.

It’s tempting to suggest, for example, that the Pacers have figured things out. At the very least they appear to be way ahead of schedule, having won eight out of their last 10 before dropping an overtime game in Utah on Saturday night. George went for a career-high 48 in that game and is playing as well as he ever has. Yet, the Pacers also have a jumbled big man configuration and a number of wings making threes at an abnormally high rate relative to their career norms. They might be really good or they might still be a bit of an early-season mirage. In that, they are not alone.

Consider the Hornets. Like the Pacers, they ditched their old-school offensive approach and embraced the four-out revolution with a heavy reliance on perimeter playmaking and long-distance shots. Like the Pacers, they have an emerging two-way player in Nicolas Batum who is playing the best basketball of his career. And like the Pacers, the Hornets have transformed themselves overnight into a surprisingly versatile squad through a handful of trades and a few under-the-radar free agent signings.

In many ways, Charlotte’s makeover has been even more astonishing. The Hornets were the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season, making less than 32 percent of their shots and ranking in the lower third in attempts. This year, they’re taking almost eight more shots from behind the arc each game and making them almost 36 percent of the time for an offense that ranks in the top five. By record, the Hornets are on the edges of the Eastern Conference playoff race. By other objective measures like point differential, they’re a top 10 team.

The rest of the East is just as random. Miami has a starting lineup full of top-end talent and a terrific defense, but it has been dragged down at times by a mediocre offense. Toronto has the conference’s best point guard in Kyle Lowry, but early-season surges have been an annual occurrence for both him and the Raptors. The Hawks do their Hawk thing, but the hole left by DeMarre Carroll seems even more noticeable with each passing day as they struggle to lock into a set lineup. The Celtics look like world beaters one night and a lottery team the next. The Cavs have hit a rough patch and have yet to hit their stride.

Entering the weekend, there were eight Eastern Conference teams separated by only four points per 100 possessions, ranging from Miami at +5.9 to Orlando at +1.9. That doesn’t include the Bulls, whose strong record is mitigated by an anemic offense or the Pistons who have a winning record. The Wizards and Knicks are hovering around .500.

If you include the disappointing Bucks and subtract the godawful Nets and 76ers from the equation, there are 13 teams in the East with playoff aspirations and no one really knows where they might land between No. 2 and the lottery. That assumes that Cleveland eventually figures out its own issues, which looks a lot less certain than it did even a few days ago. Every night it seems there are a new set of premises that get challenged by surprising results. This is what parity looks like in the modern NBA where annual roster turnover is an opportunity to experiment and three-point shooting is the great equalizer.

That the East is full of weirdo teams with little separation between them is nothing new. The same dynamic played out last season. What is different is that the Eastern Conference represents a huge swath of the league’s most competitive teams. The top three squads by net point differential are from the West: Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The next seven, and eight of the next nine teams, are all from the East.

The East has a 56-53 record against the West, which looks even better if you strip out Golden State and San Antonio’s collective 14-2 record in its out of conference games. Per basketball-reference’s forecasting model, it will take 45 wins just to make the playoffs out of the East, while the West is down to around 40 wins. This is a staggering turnaround that’s aided in no small part by stumbling starts from the Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies and Pelicans.

It’s still too early to tell if the East’s revival is an interesting blip or the start of a larger trend.

None of it may matter when viewed against the Golden State juggernaut or the immaculate precision of San Antonio. A deeper conference may still be no match for the overwhelming talent of LeBron James come playoff time.

But all of it makes for a mysterious and oddly compelling regular season. The Pacers and Hornets have shown that it’s possible to successfully reinvent yourself on the fly, while teams like the Celtics and Magic are proving that you can compete while still rebuilding. The old norms no longer have much meaning when the unexpected is the new normal.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

As we’ve reached the quarter point of the NBA season, it’s time to take stock of the various award races. There’s a lot of Golden State in here as you’d expect, but no Most Improved nominations in keeping with longstanding Shootaround policy.

MVP: Stephen Curry. It’s Curry’s world and we’re all just making Vines of it. Steph is far and away the best player in the league right now, which is spoiling what would otherwise be a fascinating MVP race featuring LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant (when healthy), Kyle Lowry, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and sure I’ll say it: Draymond Green. It’s impossible to make an MVP case for Green when he’s the second-best player on his own team, but there is a strong case to be made that Dray is a legit top-10 player and maybe the best "center" in the league. Regardless, it’s a testament to Curry’s brilliance this season that this isn’t a debate at all.

COACH: Frank Vogel. Luke Walton was named Western Conference Coach of the Month for November despite not having officially won any games. (Those Ws go on Steve Kerr’s lifetime record). As good as Walton has been, the honor here goes to Vogel who came up with the ingenious idea of playing C.J. Miles at the four, thus keeping George at his preferred swingman spot. The Pacers have been one of the league’s best surprises and Vogel deserves an awful lot of the credit for overseeing this transformation.

ROOKIE: Karl-Anthony Porzingis. The true depth of this class will reveal itself in the future, but for now this is a two-person race between Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis whose numbers are remarkably similar. Let’s call it a draw although Towns gets the very slightest of edges in most of the counting stats. The other rookie of note has been Justise Winslow who produces a positive impact whenever he’s on the floor. (Jahlil Okafor has produced empty stats on a team going nowhere, which was true before his recent spate of incidents and is just as true now.)

DEFENSE: Draymond Green. This was my choice last year, and he’s my choice here again over Kawhi Leonard and Derrick Favors, although I suspect Favors will get some much deserved recognition now that Rudy Gobert is out with a knee injury. Green’s the man because he has completely altered the way we think about lineups with his ability to guard bigs on the post and wings on the perimeter. The important thing about the Warriors is that it’s not just offense or defense, it’s how each part of the game fuels the other and Draymond is the catalyst of their lethal transition attack.

SIXTH MAN: Andre Iguodala. This award has traditionally gone to high-scoring guards but it’s well past the point when we should honor two-way players who impact how the game is played, as much as how they fill the stat sheet. No one does that better than Iguodala who is the other key to Golden State’s small lineups. Iggy’s cause is aided by the fact that it’s tough to pick a Spur between Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and the ageless Manu Ginobili. I’ll throw one old-school candidate into the equation: Orlando’s Victor Oladipo has been terrific since moving to the bench and the Magic are thriving, but we’ll wait to see if the move is permanent.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"All things considered, our record is pretty good, isn’t it? Well, I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all." Cavs forward LeBron James in Lee Jenkins’ masterful profile.

Reaction: You get the sense that LeBron is still figuring out how to reach this Cavaliers team. Leading by example to the point of aloofness didn’t really work, so now he’s trying a more inclusive approach. People have also sensed from Jenkins’ piece that LeBron is unhappy, but I don’t think that’s the right read. Unfulfilled maybe, yet it’s the challenge that’s exhilarating. Given the emotional investment in delivering a championship to his hometown, this challenge is as big as any he’s faced in his career.

"If I’m able to link up with Pop in the afterlife, we can sit down and drink some wine and I can ask him how to pace. The Spurs know how to pace perfection. I haven’t figured that out yet." Bonus LeBron via Jenkins.

Reaction: This quote is just too great not to include. I love the idea of Bron and Pop the two masters of the modern game sitting down with a fine Cabernet and discussing the world through the dimension of space on a basketball court. I’d pay serious money to hear that conversation.

"Sometimes I see someone with a Brooklyn hat on, I say, ‘What is that? You need a Knicks hat.’ I joke around with them. Sometimes I see them. Not as many as Knicks fans, though." Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis who is perfect.

Reaction: It’s as if someone wanted to know just how much more Knick fans could love their rookie and that was before he dropped 19 and 10 on the Nets.

"'What is he doing? That’s what we were saying. And at that point you start wondering, Is KG maybe a little crazy after all?" Former Celtic Leon Powe to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan.

Reaction: Like Kevin Garnett himself, you’re either all the way with him or you have no use for him. It should mean something that most of the people who have been around Garnett for any length of time, be they teammates, coaches or media swear by the guy and defend his methods even when they veer into the indefensible. Do I think he’s a little crazy? Absolutely, and I also think that’s what gets him into trouble on occasion. One wonders what he’ll eventually do without this competitive outlet. Origami perhaps. F-You butterfly.

"I think there are a lot of ways to build toward a championship team and the draft is one of those ways and I think there’s a legitimate rebuilding process that teams can go through. My personal view is that being bad over a long period of time, whether it’s done intentionally or not, can be very destructive to sort of the character of the team and its place in the community." NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

Reaction: Silver was talking about the Blazers, and cited their rebuilding strategy as a positive development in both developing a team and maintaining credibility in Portland. He wasn’t talking about the 76ers necessarily, but I’ll make the point for him: Philly’s strategy may ultimately work and if it does, the fans will come back. We all know that. But what if it doesn’t? You can trust the process all you want, but there are no guarantees in the draft. The lack of a Plan B at this point is concerning.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

LeBron’s passing has always been the most underrated aspect of his game. This is just beautiful.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.