Parity is a word that gets thrown around by journalists and analysts year after year within professional sports. The NFL is a league where any team can win on any Sunday. Big spending MLB clubs can be beaten by teams possessing a quarter of their budget. The NHL sees perennial cellar-dwellers develop into Stanley Cup contenders. This year’s NBA conferences represent a different type of parity. To quickly summarize, the Western Conference finds equality within strength in numbers. Meanwhile the Eastern Conference is collectively bad. The East features several teams accused of “tanking”, while the West displays a dead sprint of six truly deep contending squads. Let’s take a look into this night and day split as the NBA playoffs near.
Just by simply examining the standings, we can see the East currently has only six squads with records over .500 (an ironic number seeing as the West is comprised of six strong teams). Conversely, the West currently has 10, count ‘em, 10 teams, with records of .500 or better. An amusing point to mention here; 16 teams make the playoffs each year. Some believe that the best 16 should be the playoffs seeds and these 16 teams happen to be .500 or better. However, let’s leave that point aside. One has to think teams, especially in the East that are not contenders, tend to tank or hold something back in hopes of a receiving a better draft pick. Why do teams in the East seem more willing to do so? LeBron James is currently etching his name within basketball history, perhaps leading teams to believe they cannot compete or get in his way. As a result, teams will attempt to stock pile picks and clear cap space, leading to a bad product and poor competition.
OK. We got it. The East is bad and full of tankers (this remains a larger topic and issue for a later date), which means the conference playoffs will be a breeze for Indiana and Miami. Wrong. Nobody wants to face Chicago in a series as they have proven to be scrappy and competitive. They will wear you down and have shown they will take shots at your team’s superstar. Similarly, the Nets seem to be hitting stride. Now I am not saying the Pacers and Heat will not face off in the conference finals again, but to use a cliché, that is much easier said than done as we have seen both top teams struggle throughout the year. While the East remains predictable and a cakewalk to some, the West is an all out bloodbath.
Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference’s current eighth seed. The Atlanta Hawks sit at 31-41. Flip their record to 41-31 and they would still not have a record worthy of making the playoffs in the Western Conference. Conversely, the West’s current leader is the San Antonio Spurs at 58-16. Flip their record and they would be tied with the worst team in the East (76ers). The Memphis Grizzlies stand at 43-30, a record that would make them the 3-seed in the East, yet they are currently a half game out of the final spot in the West. Additionally, The New Orleans Pelicans, a team at 32-41 who is already eliminated from playoff contention in the West, would actually be the eight-seed in the East. Lastly, the Western Conference is composed of nine teams with 43 wins or more, while the East has only two. These two teams are the top two seeds in Miami and Indiana. Great, what do all of these numbers mean? What playoff implications lie in these words as the regular season winds down?
Assuming the Western Conference Playoffs will be more competitive and challenging, these last remaining weeks will prove vital. In the East, it seems to be a race to 35 wins for the final spot. It may be a season where 50 wins in the West will mean your team has held on to the final playoff spot. Normally 50 wins would be quite an achievement for a team and land them in an opportune spot for a playoff push, such as a three-seed in this year’s Eastern Conference. This year, the lucky 50-win eight-seed wins a matchup against the streaking San Antonio Spurs who have just won their 18th game in a row, ironically over the top seeded Eastern Conference team, the Pacers. This writer personally hopes that Memphis either falls short or bumps up to the seven-seed. No team wishes to face the frontcourt duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on a very competitive team that recently knocked off the top seeded Spurs a few seasons ago. While Memphis remains the last team out, Phoenix and Dallas hold a slight half game edge for the final spot. Memphis is a dangerous first round team and for those who say it was a fluke when they beat San Antonio in 2011, I’d point you in the direction of the Baron Davis-led Golden State Warriors who sent top-seeded Dallas packing in 2007. While one can boldly say an eight-seed in the West may stand a chance in the playoffs, one could not even dream to think the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, or (congrats to you) Charlotte Bobcats could honestly challenge Indiana or Miami.
So what are the matchups looking like as we come to a close? San Antonio would face long time division rival and familiar foe Dallas (Because Phoenix holds the tiebreaker for the seven-seed). Oklahoma City would square up against a fiery, quick-to-shoot Phoenix team. You may be thinking to yourself, “Really? These are the competitive playoff matchups presented?” Certainly the odds are in the top seeds favor but these matchups will be more interesting than Miami or Indiana versus Atlanta, New York, or Charlotte.
HERE’S THE KICKER – The LA Clippers will have to play a streaky Golden State team who can get hot and stay hot. This will surely hold the crowd’s attention between Blake Griffin catching lobs, The Splash Bros knocking down 3’s and DeAndre Jordan giving a “stank face” at every opportunity. As if this matchup of two quick, well-coached teams was not enough, we are given a potential Houston and Portland series. These teams have busted onto the playoff scene as they both have made great personnel moves. Portland soldiered on after draft busts like Greg Oden and Brandon Roy and as a result has built something special. Damian Lillard and Lamarcus Aldridge have proven they are for real as they are teamed with a solid supporting cast. Houston has made megamoves in trading for James Harden and signing Dwight Howard. Both teams, Houston and Portland, have very good role players and one would think both LAC/GS and HOU/POR would surely turn out to be six game battles at the least.
One thing is absolutely for sure in this year’s Western Conference Playoffs; the three through six seeds are going to be really banged up after the first round. Whoever comes out on top will be gassed and not in tip-top shape to face off with the Spurs and Thunder (assuming they win). Taking a closer look at the three through six matchups we can see that Houston has beat Portland in three out of four matchups this year and the Clippers and Warriors have split. One last tidbit, the top five teams in the West are incredible home teams as they each have less than 10 losses at home.
With all of this being said, it is unfair to discount the entertainment value of the Eastern Conference Playoffs with stars like LBJ, Paul George, and John Wall, but it is clearly obvious that a divide is present in the league. Tops teams will be top teams, but bottom feeders refuse to be true bottom feeders in the West as the conference has been competitive (mostly) top-to-bottom all season long. I feel certain that fans are much more curious to see how big men Blake Griffin and Andrew Bogut battle while their teammates jack up 3’s and display “ooooh” and “aaahh” moments. Surely Dwight versus Lopez will be an intriguing matchup and the one-eight matchup could turn into a scare if the Grizz sneak in.
Personally, I feel San Antonio and OKC will find their way back to the conference finals, so long as the Clippers and Rockets do not provide too much of a shakeup. Any fan of basketball has to get excited about this time of year as we transition from motivated amateur ballers gutting it out to equally-motivated, paid professionals attempting to cement their legacy as a professional forever. While disparity certainly exists between conferences, there is little doubt that the NBA Playoffs will not disappoint.