It’s safe to place LeBron James atop the list of those stunned at how poorly teams in the Eastern Conference have started, despite the hype and expectations entering the season.
Heading into Monday night’s games, only James’ Miami Heat (14-3) and the Indiana Pacers (16-1) were above the .500 mark in the East, and 12 of the 15 teams in the conference had losing records. With several marquee players on the move during the offseason, the East was projected to rival the West among teams expected to challenge the perennial conference powers.
But a combination of injuries, struggles to mesh and other issues have contributed to a disturbingly slow start for teams such as the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. Those three teams set their sights on the Heat and Pacers, but were a combined 15-33 entering the week. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose for the season to knee surgery, the Nets will be without Paul Pierce for up to a month with a broken hand and the Knicks are in the midst of one of their worst losing streaks in a decade.
“Obviously, we only worry about what we do, but I’m very surprised where some of the teams are in the East,” James said Monday after the Heat’s practice at AmericanAirlines Arena. “Coming into the season, there were a lot of expectations on a lot of teams. It’s still a [long] season. But early on, it’s surprising. I take pride in being an Eastern Conference player, and hopefully we can hold up our end of the bargain. As a collective group, we’re not doing that.”
Overall, 13 of the NBA’s 16 best records belong to teams in the West. Heat center Chris Bosh said he looked at the conference standings for the first time Sunday and quickly noticed the wide gap between the second-place Heat and third-place Atlanta Hawks, who were 9-9.
“I looked at it. It’s ugly,” Bosh said. “I totally didn't see it coming. I thought the East was going to be a beast this year. I’m sure things will turn around. But then again, maybe it won’t.”
The Heat will look to extend the league’s longest active winning streak to 11 games when they face the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday. Detroit, which upgraded in the offseason by bringing back Chauncey Billups and adding Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, expected a breakthrough season. For now, the Pistons hold the eighth spot in the East with a 7-10 record.
Meanwhile, Miami hopes to build on the best start in franchise history, although Heat players feel they haven’t come close to playing at a consistent level so far this season.
“It’s a great feat, but we don’t strive for that,” James said of the mark through 17 games. “It just happens, and we hear about it. Our record is pretty good, but we know we can play better.”
While Dwyane Wade isn't ready to push his body through a back-to-back set anytime soon, he’s finding his groove amid a stretch in the schedule that has the Heat playing every other night.
That slate continues when the Heat play their sixth game in 10 nights when the Pistons visit Tuesday. Afterward, Miami opens a four-game road trip Thursday in Chicago. By the time that trip ends, the Heat will have alternated game nights and off days over a span of three weeks.
The Heat determine Wade’s status on a game-to-game basis, but the 11-year veteran has not made mention of any significant soreness since he returned from a week-long absence to treat his still-recovering right knee that underwent shock-wave treatment during the offseason.
Wade said he’s been able to comfortably manage the day-on, day-off recent pace of games.
“It’s great to get that extra day in between [but] it would be even better to get two days in between,” Wade said. “Obviously, back to back, you don’t have a lot of time to cover, especially when you travel. But having the day in between gives you that day off mentally [and] physically, being able to work on your body. We've got an older team. Every day off we have is valuable.”
Wade is averaging 21.8 points, 5.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 62.3 percent from the field in the five games since he returned to the lineup -- which all trump his season averages.
“I just want to continue to play well,” Wade said. “Most importantly, continue to do what I can to help my team when I’m in the game for my 30 or 35 minutes.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said every player was able to participate in at least some part of Monday’s light practice. James is battling a sore back, sore ankle and jammed finger but said he’s not yet at the point where he needs to sit out.
DID YOU KNOW?
James spent part of Monday hanging out at the grand opening of his wife’s juice bar establishment in Miami before practice. After practice, Wade donated $25,000 to a Miami youth center as part of a campaign to launch his latest signature basketball shoe.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“We actually did less talking and just got out here, went to work on some details on both sides of the court. But it was more about sweating than it was about talking.”
– Heat coach Erik Spoelstra on the team’s search for consistency despite a 14-3 start.