December 08, 2015

MIAMI (AP) After six weeks of the season, the Eastern Conference looks better than it did a year ago.

Looks messier, too.

Out West, it's easy to see who stands out. Golden State's record-setting 22-0 start has the reigning NBA champions as the league's unquestioned favorites, and San Antonio is the only team that hasn't let the Warriors run away and completely hide in the early season standings.

But in the East, Cleveland's 13-7 mark is good enough for first place right now, Indiana's 12-7 mark is second-best - and Detroit's 12-10 start wouldn't be good enough to get in the playoffs if that field was decided today, after two teams with losing records got into the postseason mix last season.

''I think the players and the teams should take pride in it,'' said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team fell from first to third with its loss to Washington on Monday night. ''This is what you want as competitors. You want it to be really competitive in your conference. You want your games to have significance and meaning every single night.''

That's been the case so far, without question.

The top 10 teams in the East are separated by two games, the top seven separated by only one. To put it in further context, the eight-game gap between No. 1 Cleveland and No. 14 Brooklyn in the East is actually smaller than the nine-game divide between No. 1 Golden State and No. 3 Oklahoma City in the West - probably both a testament to the parity-laden start on one side of the league and the dominance by the Warriors on the other.

''It's not like kind of the past couple seasons in the East where there was three, four teams and then it was a big gap between everybody else,'' said New York's Carmelo Anthony, whose Knicks are off to a 10-12 start. ''Seems like everybody is playing good basketball this season, especially in the East, so we don't want to dig ourselves a hole.''

The season isn't even one-quarter complete, so this logjam almost certainly won't last. But it's a sign the East isn't dreadful, either.

''Seems that way,'' Washington coach Randy Wittman said. ''From top to bottom, it's a lot more competitive than it has been.''

Well, maybe not the actual bottom.

Philadelphia fell to 1-21 with its blowout home loss to San Antonio on Monday night, the 31st defeat in the last 32 games for the 76ers going back to last season. The Sixers are on pace to finish with the worst record in NBA history and seem well on their way to seeing their win total drop for the fifth straight season - so it's a safe bet that even the most ardent Philly fan isn't exactly counting on a playoff berth happening next spring.

Everyone else, there's still reason for optimism.

''I think it's a lot better personally,'' Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said. ''Of the three years I've been here, it's been by far better. And I think the discrepancy between the East and the West has narrowed a lot too. There's a lot of good teams in te East now. You're going to have to play well any night to win.''


AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in New York and AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed.

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