Welcome back, East!

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The Eastern Conference is back, and the NBA is better for it.

Drawing conclusions from anecdotal evidence provided by taxi drivers, old friends and bartenders can be dangerous. But we don't need a full demographic survey to know that the NBA's regular season has captured the attention of people who were previously disinterested in pro ball -- certainly before mid-May.

The television ratings are conclusive. Ratings are up 27 percent on ESPN and 38 percent on ABC over last season. And it's not just the Heat driving interest. Strip away Miami games and ratings are still up 17 percent over last season on ESPN. The nation's economy is sluggish and much of the United States has endured a brutal winter, conditions that tend to keep folks inside and in front of their sets.

But there's a more likely diagnosis for the uptick in interest: The league is more competitive and its storylines more fascinating than ever. And much of that can be attributed to a revitalized Eastern Conference.

It's not just that superstars have relocated or that the overall strength of the conference has increased. Sure, competitive balance always makes for a more interesting landscape, but what's emerged is far more riveting than that. The current Eastern Conference reads like a good novel.

For the first time in a long while, we have a scrap heap atop the standings of teams that have carved out compelling identities. The upstart Chicago Bulls have established themselves as a squad with a high collective basketball and emotional I.Q. -- a team that has fully bought in and doubled-down on the defensive philosophies of the rookie savant coach who paces the sideline. Watching the Bulls' confidence grow over the season has been hugely entertaining.

You can't ask for a better incumbent power than the Boston Celtics. The C's are struggling right now -- just as they did a year ago at this juncture of the season -- but there isn't a team more serious about the business of basketball than the Celtics. That level of austerity has repeatedly victimized and intimidated playoff opponents, no matter how much raw athleticism, star power and camaraderie those opponents bring into a series.

Fair or not, the Heat elicit more hate than any team in NBA history. The late-80s Pistons more readily embraced their loathsomeness, but nothing compares to the venom the Heat attract from detractors. Maybe that's a manifestation of the Internet and the several million ways fans can convey their disgust for the Heat, but like our editor here says, that hate is the salt in the ocean that is the 2010-11 NBA season. Even though that ire doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, I appreciate it as an essential feature of the story. The NBA needs villains as a narrative vehicle and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have served admirably in that capacity.

The Magic's gutsy but desperate attempt to hang in the ranks of the East's elite has made for good theater. Some nights, Howard's presence under the rim and the precision of their inside-out half-court scheme look like the machine that hummed through the bracket in 2009 (and the first two series in 2010). The Magic's precariousness coupled with the ingenuity of their combustible coach make Orlando the wild card as the No. 4.

For dramatic purposes, it's good for the 5-through-8s to carry some intrigue, and no team has offered more than the Knicks. Carmelo Anthony's protracted story continues to swirl, as the success of his former team outshines what's transpired on the west side of Manhattan since the trade. After crawling through the wilderness for the better part of a decade, Knicks fans unleashed a barrage of boos on their team Wednesday night as the seconds ticked away on another home loss.

The reclamation project in Philadelphia has coaches studying film furiously to identify exactly what Doug Collins has injected into the bloodstream of his squad. The Heat might not say it aloud, but they'd much rather try to score buckets against New York or Atlanta than grind out games against the Sixers' quick, athletic and responsive defense. Even poor Atlanta, wallowing in its lost potential, will every once in a while show flashes of that team we fell in love with when they scrapped with Boston as the No. 8 seed in the 2008 postseason.

Arguing about the best (or worst) sports cities in North America is a timeless parlor game, but New York, Boston and Chicago are unquestionably in a select group -- old, ethnic cities that place a premium on civic pride (which is different than boosterism). These cities serve as national reference points. They aren't places I want to live -- I hate it when my contact lenses freeze onto my eyeballs -- but their relevance as NBA destinations draws in impartial fans and excites the more diehard ones.

The East has been building momentum for a few seasons, but its full-scale relevance has finally arrived. It's no longer the NBA's alternate reality -- but its actual one.