Mediocrity a major struggle for the bottom tier teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference

The Associated Press

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown, right, talks to Kyrie Irving in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

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By STEVE REED, AP Sports Writer

The NBA's Eastern Conference is awful — and it only appears to be getting worse, particularly at the bottom of the standings.

The shortage of quality teams in the East has left the door open for mediocre squads to earn playoff berths. Only four teams in the conference have winning records.

NBA analyst and former head coach Jeff Van Gundy said Thursday, "Some teams have made a conscious choice to be bad."

Van Gundy is talking about tanking games — and he believes it's prevalent in the Eastern Conference this season. Overall, the East is 94-177 vs. the West entering Thursday night's games.

He wouldn't say which teams he believes aren't giving it their all in an effort to better position themselves for a good pick in what looks to be a loaded 2014 NBA draft, but he said the problem is real.

"It doesn't necessarily mean the guys on the floor aren't trying hard, but it means teams have put some really bad rosters on the floor," Van Gundy said. "A lot of teams right now are happy with losing and that's really too bad for the league. That's too bad for the fans."

Especially for fans of teams that can't make the playoffs in the East.

If mediocre, or even sub-par, gets a team in the East into the postseason — that doesn't say much about Detroit, New York, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Orlando and Milwaukee.

They are currently bringing up the rear in the East. None of the teams have won 20 games and the All-Star break is next weekend.

Cleveland couldn't even beat the Lakers on Wednesday night, even though Los Angeles was down to just four eligible players with 3:36 left in the game. On Thursday, the Cavaliers fired general manager Chris Grant.

"I've never seen the discrepancy (in talent) like it is in the East," Van Gundy said. "It's as bad as it gets."

Van Gundy said the lottery system is part of the problem and needs to be changed.

"What was set up to be a good thing is now being abused," Van Gundy said. "You never want to give an incentive to losing in any sport."

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Here are five factors that have contributed to the futility that engulfs the bottom of the Eastern Conference:

LOST IN TRANSITION: Boston, Orlando and Philadelphia are among the teams in the midst of major rebuilding projects. Some, like the Celtics, have purposely taken on huge contracts this season in hopes of clearing salary cap space for the future and adding draft picks in the process. The Magic, for instance, made no bones about the idea they were going to play young guys like rookie Victor Oladipo and allow them to develop. The same goes for the 76ers, who handed to reigns of the offense to Michael Carter-Williams.

TALENT DEFICIENCIES: It's hard to reach the playoffs or be a major factor when facing the Miami Heat with unproven starting lineups. In Philadelphia, the 76ers start Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, James Anderson and Carter-Williams. Philadelphia's best player off the bench is either Tony Wroten or Lavoy Allen. But Philadelphia's lineup is not dissimilar to the challenge other teams in the conference cellar face. "Right now the East has some bad basketball teams," Van Gundy said.

INJURIES: Several teams have struggled to keep their difference-makers on their floor — perhaps none as much as Milwaukee. At different times, the Bucks have had to play without Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo and Caron Butler. Other teams feel their pain. Rajon Rondo missed Boston's first 42 games with a knee injury and the Knicks have played 24 games without Tyson Chandler.