The NBA’s East is loaded at the top, and might stay that way

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Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, right, drives to the basket as Philadelphia 76ers’ Josh Richardson, left, will accidentally pokes him in the eye during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 121-109. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The West is used to being loaded at the top.

The East, not so much.

But a new year is arriving with a new look in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. The league will wake up on Wednesday — the first day of 2020 — with six teams with winning percentages of .600 or better, the first time that’s been the case on New Year’s Day since 1998.

“This is a tough part of the country, a tough part of our league,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said.

He didn’t say “finally,” but he could have.

Just last spring, Brooklyn got the No. 6 seed in the East playoffs at 42-40. This season, it won’t be inconceivable if two teams in the East reach 50 wins and start the playoffs on the road anyway — which would be amazing, considering that every 50-win team in the East since 1998 has gotten a top-four seed.

Has there been a power shift from one conference to another? And can what seems to be happening in the East race last until April?

“My gut feel is, I think it can,” Brown said. “To your overall question, is there a power shift, I’m biased but I think quite possibly.”

That one could easily be argued. Going into 2020, the basic structure of the standings in each conference is basically the same.

There’s a team that has broken a bit away atop the pack — Milwaukee in the East; the Los Angeles Lakers out West.

Then there are five teams jostling for spots 2 through 6 — Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Indiana in the East; Denver, the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston, Dallas and Utah in the West.

There’s a team around .500 hovering in seventh — Brooklyn in the East, Oklahoma City in the West.

And then there’s a below-.500 team in eighth — Orlando in the East, Portland in the West.

The East and West have split the last eight NBA Finals, so it’s not like there’s been a huge disparity in talent at the very top. But the West, top to bottom, has unquestionably been the stronger side of the league for some time.

Things seem different now.

“It’s really competitive and you have to like this,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to enjoy it as a competitor. People have been disparaging the Eastern Conference for so long. You have some really good teams here in the East and the teams are proving it.”

DECADE IN REVIEW

There were seven different franchises with at least one NBA championship in the 2010s, Golden State leading the way with three followed by Miami with two.

San Antonio was one of the five clubs with one — but a case could be made for the Spurs being the team of the decade.

The Spurs had the most wins in the 2010s, whether just counting the regular season or adding both the regular season and the playoffs together. Oklahoma City was No. 2 in regular season wins, followed by Golden State, Houston and Miami.

The fewest wins? That would be Sacramento, followed by Minnesota, Brooklyn, Phoenix and New York. But a special decade-long award for futility should go to Detroit and Sacramento — the only teams in the NBA that didn’t win a playoff game in the 2010s. The Pistons have lost 14 consecutive postseason contests since winning Game 4 of the 2008 Eastern Conference finals.

Other high marks from the 2010s:

Most points — Devin Booker scored 70 points for Phoenix against Boston on March 24, 2017.

Most rebounds — Kevin Love had 31 for Minnesota against New York on Nov. 12, 2010.

Most assists — Rajon Rondo had 25 for New Orleans against Brooklyn on Dec. 27, 2017.

Most steals — Lou Williams had 10 for the Los Angeles Clippers against Utah on Jan. 20, 2018, and Draymond Green had 10 for Golden State against Memphis on Feb. 10, 2017. Green’s was part of a most unique triple-double; he also had 11 rebounds and 10 assists, but only four points.

Most 3-pointers — Klay Thompson made 14 for Golden State against Chicago on Oct. 29, 2018.

Most blocks — Poor Chicago. JaVale McGee had 12 for Washington against the Bulls on March 15, 2011, and Hassan Whiteside had 12 for Miami against the Bulls on Jan. 25, 2015.

THE WEEK AHEAD

A game to watch each day this week:

Tuesday, Dallas at Oklahoma City — The final game of the decade, and two West teams playing well.

Wednesday, Orlando at Washington — The first game of the decade, and two East teams that are ailing.

Thursday, Toronto at Miami — The Raptors and Heat are in the thick of the race, likely surprising many.

Friday, Philadelphia at Houston — Game 5 in a 10-game run of the 76ers are facing likely playoff teams.

Saturday, San Antonio at Milwaukee — Begins a Gregg Popovich-Mike Budenholzer home-and-home that ends Monday.

Sunday, New York at L.A. Clippers — The Knicks have lost 13 of their last 14 against Doc Rivers’ club.

Monday, Denver at Atlanta — The Nuggets, very quietly, are rolling along. The Hawks are not.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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