I don’t wish to alarm you, but slowly and surely over the past few years, something has changed in the Eastern Conference, little by little. And this season, it’s more evident than it has been in quite some time.

The East isn’t really the Least any more.

The 2004-05 season was the last time the Eastern Conference featured a playoff bracket without one team with a record either at .500 or below. You have to go back to the last lockout season, 1998-99 to find a season in which a team made it to the playoffs in the Western Conference with a .500 record. The West has been the best, in terms of volume of strong teams, for quite some time.

And the West is still deeper this season, with current eight seeds, the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies generally well regarded and currently sporting 10-7 records.

But this season, the Eastern Conference is as tough as it’s been 1-8 since the middle of the 2000s. The current top five is Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami and Philadelphia. Miami, Orlando and Chicago features superstars with supporting casts that have been tinkered with for multiple seasons now in an attempt to play to the strengths of their stars. Orlando has been an early surprise, but if they intend to keep Dwight Howard, and it seems they do at least through this season, they’ll always be relevant. Chicago and Miami are legitimate title contenders.

Atlanta and Philadelphia are on opposite ends of the “pretty good, but not great” spectrum. Philly is young and coming up. Jrue Holiday could still be something special and they have a number of guys in their early 20s learning how to be really good NBA players. We don’t know how good they’ll be by the end of this season or next, but we know they are a team worth watching for now thanks to their 12-5 record. The Hawks still have Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, so they still matter, as Bucks fans can attest to after Monday night’s loss. Al Horford is hurt, but the Hawks are still a tough team.

It gets no easier after that.Right below the Hawks are the Indiana Pacers. A bad, playoff team last season, but likely a good one this season. They added David West and George Hill. Paul George is another year older and an inch or two taller. They are not a team to be taken lightly.

The Celtics are older and are dealing with injury problems, but are you ready to write them off? More importantly, if you’re a Bucks fan, are you ready to safely assume Milwaukee will be able to leapfrog them in the standings? I sense some serious “nos” right now. The Celtics sit seventh in the West. One spot ahead of the New York Knicks.

I know, Milwaukee waxed the Knicks less than a week ago. How can I be seconds away from writing about the Knicks like they are a team that matters? They have carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. You really think they won’t figure it out eventually? They point guard situation isn’t going to improve much, even when Baron Davis debuts. But would you rather have Milwaukee’s roster or two star/superstar players? Maybe Mike D’Antoni gets fired and everything comes together. Or maybe Mike, Melo and ‘Mar’ figure it out. Regardless, I’d bet on them to finish better than .500.

I’d bet on each of these teams to best that .500 mark actually.

Would you bet on the Bucks to do the same?

Watch This Guy Not Other Guys

  • Kyle Lowry

He’s not just a character from Bad Boys When I wrote that, I was under the impression that Will Smith’s character in Bad Boys had the first name Kyle, not Mike. I corrected it because it’s inaccurate, but I stand by the line as one I enjoyed. So read it again and then read this next sentence. He’s been a bad man this season.

The Rest

In Houston, it’s raining quite a bit. The Rockets have been very good at home this season, and while they didn’t land that superstar they were hoping for this off-season (or any off-season lately for that matter), they still have waves of talent to throw at teams. They aren’t all that unlike the Bucks, but they are a little better across the board.

And Andrew Bogut has always struggled against Samuel Dalembert in his career, so be on the watch for that.

Game tips at 7:00 PM on FSN.

Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.