It was a typical night in the NBA on Wednesday. The Nets lost to the Blazers, the Knicks lost to the Timberwolves, the Heat lost to the Spurs, and the Wizards lost to the Rockets. In other words, all the Western teams humiliated their counterparts in the East.
This is nothing new. Since Michael Jordan hung up his sneakers in 1998, the vast disparity in quality between East and West has been a constant. Every year there's a difference of several games between the average club in each conference. The West has also won six of the eight championships in that time, and one could make a case it would be eight of eight if not for the fact that the East automatically gets one team into the Finals regardless of how bad it is.
Lately, we've been hearing that the East might be shrinking the gap. After all, the conference has several of the top young players in the game — Le-Bron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Joe Johnson, for instance — while the West has comparatively few. Coming into the season, it seemed rising, young teams like the Cavs and Bulls would join forces with longtime powers like New Jersey, Miami, and Detroit to make the East just as competitive as the West.
Let's just say it hasn't quite worked out that way. In fact, the chasm between East and West is now wider than ever. Through Wednesday's games, there had been 64 interconference battles, and the Eastern side managed a win in just 18 of them — a piddling .281 winning percentage.
To try to put this in perspective, when the average East team plays the averaged West team, the East team turns into last year's Knicks — who had a .280 winning percentage en route to their 23–59 mark. Talk about playing the wrong way.
At the moment, only three teams in the East have a winning record. The only thing keeping the Eastern teams' records even quasi-respectable is the fact that most of their games are against each other.
This doesn't appear to be a fluke either. We can glean all kinds of data that show the East's rampant inferiority, but for one good example take a look at the "predictor" rankings used by USA Today computer guru Jeff Sagarin. In those, 10 of the top 11 teams are from the Western Conference, while nine of the bottom are from the East.
If that holds up for the entire season, two teams from the West will end up in the lottery despite being better than all but one team in the East. And three teams from the East will make the playoffs despite being worse than all but one team in the West. It's a brave new world where the difference between the conference finals and the lottery is determined less by what a team does on the court than by which side of the country it happens to play in.
The East's decline has important implications for the two local clubs, both of which are in the playoff race in spite of themselves. New Jersey just dropped a home-and-home series to Seattle and Portland, two of the West's worst teams. They're 5–6, but no worries — they woke up on Thanksgiving morning in first place. Even the Knicks, who dropped to 4–9 after getting waxed by Western doormat Minnesota, would be only a game out of the final playoff spot if the season ended today.
Sadly enough, if the Nets keep putting together stretches of 5–6 basketball they'll probably win the division. Let's go back to that awful .281 winning percentage between East and West again. If that holds up, the average Eastern team will end up with 34.4 wins (they'd be 26–26 in their own conference and 8.4–21.6 against the West).
Similarly, the average team in the West would win 47.6. Since eight of the 15 teams make the playoffs, the implication is that it will take about 34 wins to make the playoffs in the East and 47 out West — a whopping 13-game discrepancy.
In the Nets' case, it means they can go on bungling six games out of 11, because at that rate they'll end up with 37 or 38 wins. Of the other alleged contenders in the Atlantic, Boston is the only I could imagine threatening that mark, and they have to get their house in order before they can think about mounting a charge.
Even the Knicks aren't completely out of it by this standard. As bad as the Knicks have been, you'd have a hard time convincing me the Raptors or Sixers have been any better. Throw in rough starts by Milwaukee, Miami, Boston, and Charlotte, and the low expectations for Atlanta, and that makes seven teams the New Yorkers could finish ahead of — which, incredibly, would put them into the playoffs.
How did this miserable state of affairs come to pass? A couple of factors stand out. Foremost is the decline of the Heat and Pacers. Miami, though the defending champions, has been absolutely horrendous so far this season (though the Nets still managed to lose to them twice). Wednesday's 20-point beatdown in San Antonio was the fourth time in this young season they lost a game by 20 or more, and one gets the distinct impression it won't be the last.
Then there's Indiana, the great team that wasn't. The Pacers looked to be a dominant team for the coming halfdecade or so before Ron Artest went off the deep end, and they've really never recovered. Chemistry problems and injuries have made them just another humdrum team, depriving the East of a would-be powerhouse.
Beyond that, there's a recurring numbers theme — namely, the Eastern teams have a strange inability to put talented players around their superstars. James, Wade, Johnson, Gilbert Arenas, Allen Iverson, and the Nets' "Big Three" all suffer from a glaring lack of competent help at the end of the starting lineup or off the bench. Until their teams solve those problems, the East's big stars will continue to put up disappointing results in the win column.
But in the spirit of the season, perhaps the Nets' fans should look at the East's decline and be thankful. In any other year, New Jersey's rocky start might be seen as a prelude to a short drive to Secaucus for the lottery in May. Not this year. With so many other Eastern teams playing horribly, the Nets need merely be less awful than the rest in order to retain their Atlantic Division title.