(originally written 1/2/14)
I'm 33 years old, and I'm fairly certain the last time the NBA Eastern Conference featured eight deserving playoff teams, I was about four. Okay—that's being extreme. But not that extreme.
The casual fan realizes (correctly) that Miami and Indiana are powerhouses, and any road to the NBA Finals goes through them so long as King James and King George have pulses and functioning collateral ligaments. I'm fairly certain that you could surround James with the original Miami Heat—Grant Long, Kevin Edwards, Rory Sparrow, etc.—and beat half the teams in the league today, January 2, 2014. If and when the Heat wrap up the top seed in the EC, Pat Riley should put that theory to the test against some tanking team playing out the string. (They're not that old; we're talking 25 years ago.)
Getting back on point, despite franchises such as Brooklyn and New York throwing all their dollars towards winning now, other franchises such as Cleveland, Orlando and Charlotte featuring some of the league's best individual young talent, and a Chicago team that always contends regardless of the obstacle...the Eastern Conference is terrible. Fifth-from-the-top-to-bottom is a wasteland, and I fear my Golden State Warriors will (again) lose out on a playoff spot in a deep Western Conference while a rebuilding/tanking/mediocre Eastern Club plays into May.
There are exactly three teams (out of 15) with winning records in the East. And one of those teams, Atlanta, probably won't be much longer after this freak play. Meanwhile, Golden State is playing very well on both ends of the floor and has been for most of the season. They're now 20-13—sixth in the West, but with a few other teams within striking distance. Thru January 2, the WC's top three squads (OKC, POR, SA ) are 31-3 vs. the East this year. The West is an aggregate 105-50 against the East, with only three teams (Sacramento, the Lakers and Utah) below .500. Those teams, by the way, are a combined 33-63 (.343) but 12-18 (.400) against the East this year.
You've surely heard by now how both New York franchises—featuring the two highest payrolls in the NBA, mind you—are a combined 19-41. Yet Brooklyn is only three games out of the final playoff spot, and the Knicks four.
That is scary. It is frightening to think that old, beat-up, tired, wouldn't-know-team-basketball-if-it-bit-them-in-the-nose Knicks roster could be challenging for a title in May, while my Warriors—the young, exciting, hungry, scrappy and worthy Warriors—might be forced to go home just because home is no longer Philadelphia.
In the Western Conference, where the Warriors presently dwell, eleven teams are over, at or near .500 (that number was higher before the Nuggets hurt my argument by dropping seven straight games recently.) Deserving teams are going to miss the playoffs and, just like in 2008, the Dubs (who currently hold the sixth seed) could be one of them.
One might argue: "If they win 50 games they'll be in; if they don't, it's their own fault." And that is true, to a degree. But it's also a short-sighted and flawed approach, not really different than advising one's daughter to combat her fear of a broken heart by joining a convent.
Your local high schools send their top five GPA students to a state competition every year.
Your son's high school is funded and run well; he's a good student but only ranks sixth in GPA (3.89). Your niece's high school evokes memories of Parkmont High pre-Pfeiffer. The best students there average 2.9 and under, yet they still send their requisite group of five while your son—who would run circles around anyone from the other school—remains home.
One of the "Parkmont" kids—who's often truant, flippant and more concerned with getting high than getting A's most of the time—somehow outdoes everyone else in the competition and is rewarded with a scholarship. Not very fair, is it? Changes should be made to the system, shouldn't it?
The last time an Eastern Conference team missed the playoffs with a winning record was lockout-shortened 1998-99; the 26-24 Charlotte Hornets stayed home. Since then, eight Eastern Conference teams—hard to believe that few—have been rewarded for losing basketball with playoff berths. All eight have been bounced in the first round. Only one series, the memorable Celtics-Hawks seven-gamer from 2008, was even competitive. No other losing EC franchise won even two games. Five of the other seven were swept out.
Changes should be made to the NBA (and all other pro leagues) as well. Maybe the pitiful performance up and down the Eastern Conference we're seeing this season will be the ignitor. It's bad enough tanking teams are rewarded with high draft picks; barring a major shift in the tides a few will recieve playoff berths in addition. There's still a lot of season to play out, but today, January 2, I can't envision any scenario in which more than three or four EC franchises make the playoffs with winning records. Not with Derrick Rose and Al Horford done for the year, the Knicks and Nets being the Knicks and Nets, and the prospects of landing a potential superstar this spring in what's projected as the most loaded NBA Draft in years too tempting for certain franchises to muck things up by competing now.
My question is this:
Why are they even there?
I am a person who loathes the rewarding of failure, in sports (and all of life.) When the Seahawks clinched the NFC West a few years ago with a 7-9 record, I was beside myself—and not because they're the hated rivals of my 49ers. That a team lacking the talent and/or coaching to win even half its games could compete for and even win the Super Bowl ate away at me so much that I couldn't even watch the playoffs until Seattle was vanquished. I only support the current draft system because so many teams waste their top draft picks on stiffs in all the major sports.
Imagine an episode of Jeopardy! where all three contestants finish with negative dollars. Alex Trebek is not going to invite a guy with -$5000 to Final Jeopardy. He's going to correctly disqualify all of them because they all stunk.
If I, and not Adam Silver, were selected to succeed David Stern as commissioner next year, my first order of business would be banning any more Michaels with hyphenated last names. My second order: instituting a rule requiring any playoff teams to post at minimum a .500 record. Much is made of the "We Believe" Warriors of the 2006-07 season that advanced to the Western Semifinals, but the 2007-08 team won six more games, scored more, protected the ball better and brought the house down at Oracle too many times to count—you always got your money's worth watching the Warriors live.
Let me leave you with a little data...
2013 Bucks (38-44, swept by Heat in first round) 2013 Jazz (43-39, OUT)
2011 Pacers (37-45, lost to Bulls 4-1 in first round) 2011 Rockets (43-39, OUT)
2010 Rockets (42-40, OUT)
2009 Pistons (39-43, swept by Cavs in first round) 2009 Suns (46-36, OUT)
2008 Hawks (37-45, lost to Celtics 4-3 in first round) 2008 Warriors (48-34, OUT)
2007 Magic (40-42, swept by Pistons in first round)
2006 Bucks (40-42, lost to Pistons 4-1 in first round)
2005 Wolves (44-38, OUT)
2004 Celtics (36-46, swept by Pacers in first round)
2004 Knicks (39-43, swept by Nets in first round) + Hornets and Bucks at .500 (both lost in first round to Heat 4-3 and Pistons 4-1 respectively)
2004 Jazz 42-40 (OUT)
2003 Rockets (43-39, OUT)
2002 perfect. All teams over .500 made it in. One .500 team missed (Bucks)
2001 Rockets (45-37 OUT) and Sonics (44-38 OUT). .500 Pacers in; lost to Sixers 3-1 in first round.
2000 perfect. All teams over .500 made it in. One .500 team missed (Magic; Rivers won Coach of the Year)
1999, Hornets 26-24, OUT. Two .500 teams in West; one made it in (Wolves in, Sonics out)
(The current Philadelphia team, I should add, is 8-21—and 4.5 games out of that final spot.)