Beasts of the East growing in number

Back in the early 1990s when the feisty Detroit Pistons were known as the "Bad Boys" and Michael Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls' dominance, the East was regarded as the NBA's toughest conference. But even as Jordan continued to win titles in Chicago, the West regained its swagger – and eventually its superiority.

Since Jordan's Bulls were dismantled after their final championship in 1998, the Western Conference has won all but three titles, including last season's when the Los Angeles Lakers fought off the Orlando Magic in five games. While Kobe Bryant(notes) and the Lakers will enter this season as favorites to repeat, no longer should teams in the East be considered pushovers. Already, the East has split the past six titles with the West. And with the Magic again joining the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers as three of the league's top title contenders, the East could use this season to build a case for becoming the best conference.

"It didn't deserve respect for a while," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "It's been down for a while. Listen, I don't know that the Western Conference is better than the other conference. What I would always say is the East is not as bad as you think. Now it's really good."

Rivers confidently said time and again last season that three of the best four NBA teams were in the East. The standings proved him true after Cleveland, Boston and Orlando all tallied at least 59 wins. The Cavs further improved this offseason by trading for Shaquille O'Neal(notes), while the Celtics signed Rasheed Wallace(notes) and Marquis Daniels(notes) and the Magic traded for Vince Carter(notes).

The Lakers also could improve this season with Andrew Bynum(notes) returning to health and Ron Artest(notes) replacing Trevor Ariza(notes). The San Antonio Spurs could return to the league's elite after adding Antonio McDyess(notes), Richard Jefferson(notes) and rookie DeJuan Blair(notes), but they will need to answer questions about their health. The Denver Nuggets didn't make any significant additions.

"There are three teams in the East that are really good," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "But one through the group, I think you'll find the West still stronger."

Still, there's no denying the East's depth also continues to improve. While Orlando, Cleveland and Boston are heavily favored to win their respective divisions, Rivers points out there is a long list of teams in the East to keep an eye on: Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Toronto, Detroit and Washington.

While Charlotte, Indiana, New York, New Jersey and Milwaukee are not expected to make the postseason, Rivers believes those teams are far from pushovers.

"The last couple of years I've felt that there are no easy wins in the East," Rivers said. "If you look at it, Toronto did not make the playoffs last year. There were some good teams that didn't make the playoffs. It's a tough, physical conference and you have to deal with it all year."

Atlanta newcomer guard Jamal Crawford(notes) believes that Boston, Cleveland and Orlando shouldn't get too comfortable. The Cavs dominated the injury-plagued Hawks in the second round last season, but Atlanta added depth in Crawford, veteran big men Joe Smith(notes) and Jason Collins(notes) and promising rookie guard Jeff Teague(notes).

"We are really good," Crawford said. "We have our core intact. Then you add guys like myself and Joe Smith to bring everything to the next level."

The West still has strong depth, but Phoenix, Oklahoma City, the Yao Ming(notes)-less Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers are wild cards. After that, Minnesota, Memphis, Golden State and Sacramento drain from the conference's overall depth.

Rivers believes the East ultimately has to prove itself by winning head-to-head games against the West, as only five East teams had a record better than .500 against Western Conference opponents last season. But with the amount of top-tier teams, depth and talent increasing in the East, the conference has started to rekindle memories of two decades ago. Back then, the East feared just one team outside its ranks: the Lakers.

"The West has been up for a long time," Rivers said. "The East is pretty tough as well. But the East is deep."