Can a less fancied team emerge from the East to reach the Finals?
Despite dominating the Eastern Conference through the majority of the regular season, both the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are showing signs of weakness.
The Pacers’ slump is arguably more alarming, given that Frank Vogel’s men have now surrendered their lead at the top of the standings having lost five of their last six and 12 of their last 19 games.
While he has moved to address the situation by resting his key players in the build-up to the off-season, it remains to be seen whether or not tiredness is the only factor in their downfall over the past month.
Critics suggest that their chemistry, rhythm and aggressiveness have all slipped, and while they continue to struggle on the offensive end, they will need to figure it out sooner rather than later.
However, when quizzed on Indiana’s problems, both LeBron James and coach Erik Spoelstra were dismissive as not only do they believe the criticism doesn’t compare to that the Heat faced in 2011, but they have their own problems to worry about.
While they have wrestled back the top seed in the East, it hasn’t been in the most emphatic of fashion and with the two teams set to face off in Miami on Friday night, it remains to be seen who prevails to take home-court advantage through the playoffs.
Nevertheless, a number of teams have emerged in what is largely accepted as a weak Eastern Conference this season and they undoubtedly threaten to end the dominance enjoyed by the two leading teams.
Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors
While neither are expected to produce a real shock in advancing beyond the first two rounds, both Washington and Toronto have shown a capability to produce something.
There are still doubts over their ability to perform in the post-season to put Indiana and Miami under real pressure given the mixed results in the regular season, but both have players capable of causing problems.
Whether it is Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in Toronto, or John Wall along with Marcin Gortat and the returning Nene for Washington to ask questions of the Pacers’ physicality and the Heat’s weakness inside, they may well be tricky obstacles.
Nevertheless, over the course of a possible seven-game series, you would back Miami or Indiana to prevail.
The loss of Derrick Rose through injury and the trade deal which saw Luol Deng move to Cleveland have been well documented, but the Bulls have let nothing slip this season.
Currently tied with the Raptors at 45-32 for the third seed, coach Tom Thibodeau has kept his men focused and they have faced adversity and prevailed. Joakim Noah has grown into a leader and ‘point-center’, while role players such as D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson have come to the fore.
As a result, no-one wants to match up against Chicago in the playoffs, and they have shown, particularly at the United Center, they can take on Miami and Indiana.
Similarly to the Wizards and Raptors, there are doubts over their ability to contest over the course of a playoff series, but the Bulls should not be written off despite their offensive struggles at times.
Having started the season on a 15-21 run, the future looked bleak for rookie coach Jason Kidd and his big-name acquisitions in the summer as they faced the risk of missing out on the playoffs.
Brook Lopez was lost for the season through injury while Deron Williams had niggling problems as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett struggled to settle.
However, the veteran players are now playing a consistent role, the roster is dangerous in various ways and Kidd has found a solution to their early season troubles.
The Nets completed a season sweep of the Heat on Tuesday night to remain as the only unbeaten team against the NBA champions this year, although they have found it much tougher against Indiana, losing all four games.
Nevertheless, with a settled roster and an effective rotation on both ends of the court as well as a formidable recent record at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn have emerged as one of the top outsiders to potentially represent the East at the NBA Finals 2014.