Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Has the Tide Turned to the NBA’s East?

By Ross Lancaster

Since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls for the second time in 1998, the Western Conference has dominated the NBA in the past generation to a stunning degree.

While West teams have won 12 of 17 championships in that time, the dominance can be seen more in any years' standings and playoff teams.

In the average year since 1999, an East team can qualify for the playoffs with a record on the wrong side of .500. In the West, it's rare to qualify with less than 45 wins in a non-lockout year.

The disparity has reached ridiculous levels in the past few years, culminating in the 2013-14 season, when Phoenix finished ninth in the West with 48 wins, which would have tied for third in the East. It's now a common thing to see writers call for doing away with conferences altogether, and moving to a single, European soccer-style table with roughly balanced, league-wide scheduling to determine postseason teams.

After all, the West has a better head-to-head record against the East in 14 of the last 15 82-game seasons. In the only exceptional season, 2008-09, the East's mere 8-game advantage was helped by the West having five teams that won 25 or fewer games.

The conference chasm wasn't exactly much different last year. This season figured to be no different, with every West playoff team from 2015 except Portland and Dallas returning its nucleus or getting significantly better on paper. Additionally, Utah, Phoenix, and Oklahoma City all figured to be in the playoff mix or better.

Meanwhile, the East figured to be Cleveland's playground, with a handful of teams behind LeBron's crew to be in contention to win playoff rounds.

Yet, at the quarter-pole of the season after Monday's games, the East holds a two-game head-to-head advantage against the West. Furthermore, 10 East teams are above .500, while only six are in the West. And if you take away the 22-0 Warriors and the 18-4 Spurs, by far the class of the first six weeks of the season in either conference, the West is a staggeringly bad 117-155.

Have the tides shifted that quickly in the NBA, or will the conferences' hierarchy return to their nearly 20-year averages before too long? It's very unlikely that the East will keep up the head-to-head advantage and thus the superior win-loss records from top-to-bottom in the playoff race all season. Yet, it also might be equally unlikely that the West returns to its ultra-dominant position.

To be sure, some West teams have been disappointing. Houston is the clearest example, although they may have turned the corner a bit since putting Patrick Beverley back into the starting lineup. The Rockets' defense still isn't playing nearly up to the level it was at last year, however.

The Clippers, my pick to be the best challenge to the Warriors in the West prior to the season after retooling their bench, have been as dysfunctional as ever in the biggest moments of the games against the league's best, and don't have a defense good enough at the moment to win games when the offense isn't clicking.

New Orleans has taken a huge step back, as it's really hard to be a successful team with a superstar big man in this day and age when the shooters around him aren't making shots and aren't defending the other team's shooters.

But elsewhere in the West, with the possible exceptions of the Mavericks being strong (Rick Carlisle is a Jedi of a coach) and the Kings being this bad despite a resurgent year from Rajon Rondo (that roster was always asking for dysfunction), the order of the West standings isn't too far off what we might have expected. The records just look poor.

But this is much more of a case where the East is simply better than it has been in past years. Part of that is that more teams in the East have joined in on some of the dominant trends across the league.

Over the past few years, Indiana had a deserved reputation of being a plodding, half-court-oriented team that relied on its defense under Frank Vogel. The Pacers also went against the grain and employed a traditional power forward and center in their top lineup in David West and Roy Hibbert, respectively.

This year, with West and Hibbert gone, Vogel went to small ball and is having his team play faster, playing a fully healthy Paul George at power forward to create matchup problems for other teams. And after Monta Ellis joined from the Mavericks this offseason, George, Ellis and George Hill can all bring the ball up the floor.

The result is that the new-look Pacers have a more dynamic offense that they did at any time in their relative 2012-14 heyday, and their defensive numbers have remained excellent. While Indiana is only taking about the league average for three-point attempts per game, when they shoot them, they make 40 percent of them, which puts them only behind Golden State league-wide.

Speaking of three-pointers, only six teams took less of them a season ago than the Charlotte Hornets, and no team made a fewer percentage. That's a lot of extra points they missed out on. This season, Charlotte is shooting 40 percent more of them than last, as the acquisition of Nic Batum has been supplemented by players like Marvin Williams taking more of them.

Additionally, point guard Kemba Walker is shooting both twos and threes at career-best clips this season.

When Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of the league's best perimeter defenders, went down with a season-ending shoulder injury at the beginning of the preseason, it figured to be a death knell for any faint playoff hopes Charlotte had with a remodeled roster. But not only are the Hornets 12-8, they have a top-10 defense.

Then, there's teams like the Knicks and the Pistons, who each have a more coherent team than they did a year ago. In the case of New York, Kristaps Porzingis is outperforming any possible realistic expectations as a rookie. People love to compare him to Dirk Nowitzki, but not even Dirk came close to shooting .460/.361/.845 as a 20-year old.

The East, all things considered, is still not superior to the West. But the fact that the conferences look more equal than they have in quite some time through the early season is remarkable.

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