Can the Eastern Conference Do it Again?

In the 2021-22 season, for the first time since 2008-09, the NBA's Eastern Conference won the season series over the Western Conference, by a razor-thin final margin of 226-224.

(And yes, the hyphenated date is entirely appropriate, both in the NBA and the NHL — but not in the NFL, where, unfortunately, it seems to be slowly gaining popularity.)

Through Monday's games, the East is 141-138 against the West — so if the season ended today (a nauseating cliche in my estimation, but we'll make a one-column exception here), the East would win the inter-conference season series for the second year in a row.

During the East's 12-year drought that began with the 2009-10 season, the conference won 43.9% of the interconference games (2267-2892) — recording its "best" showing in 2015-16 (218-232) and its worst two years earlier (166-284) — echoing two similar droughts suffered by the NFC vs. the AFC in the NFL: from 1974 through 1980, the NFC lost the inter-conference season series seven years in a row — 111-181, including 16-36 in 1979 — and not winning the series for 15 consecutive years starting in 1996 (though tying it in 2000, 2001, and 2007), with the most lopsided outcome in 2004, when the NFC went 20-44 versus the AFC.

In the NFL, things got so bad that some proposed a total realignment of the NFL into an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference (it was so divided from 1933 through 1969, although the respective labels "American" and "National" were used in 1950, 1951, and 1952), which besides solving the problem, would have set up annual home-and-home meetings between the Giants and Jets, Redskins and Colts, Dolphins and Buccaneers, Cardinals and Chiefs, Cowboys and Oilers, 49ers and Raiders, and so on, greatly reducing both the rigors and the expenses of travel into the bargain — and the new rivalries would have been epic (think Rangers/Islanders in the NHL: going to Madison Square Garden wearing Islanders garb is not for the faint-hearted, especially when the Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups, while the Rangers hadn't even won one since 1940, a fact that Islander fans never hesitated to point out).

Meanwhile, in the NBA, the "overlap" — Western Conference teams missing the playoffs despite finishing with better records than Eastern Conference teams that made it — became the rule rather than the exception, prompting widespread calls for the NBA to simply send the 16 teams with the best records, without regard to conference or divisional affiliation, to the playoffs, as the NHL had done in the late 1970s and early '80s — but NBA commissioner Adam Silver resisted these calls, citing the increased travel that could result from such a change.

This season, the Eastern Conference owes its lead in the East vs. West series to the Atlantic Division, just like the NFC won the inter-conference season series — 41-39 — this year (the NFC won it 40-39-1 in 2021) pretty much solely to the strength of a single division, the NFC East, which went 17-3 in out-of-conference play. The Atlantic Division is 52-36 against the West, accounting for the East's margin in the East vs. West series and then some.

And once again — ugh! — if the season ended today, four of the Atlantic Division's five teams would make the playoffs (although the fourth-place Knicks would do so as a "play-in" team) while last-place Toronto is just two games behind Chicago for the last play-in berth (and three of the conference's top four playoff seeds would come from this division — the Celtics, Sixers, and Nets).

Furthermore, the Atlantic Division has been the "pretty duckling" of the Eastern Conference for quite some time: you have to go all the way back to the 2016-17 season to find the last time the division finished with an aggregate record below .500.

Although the Celtics lead not only the Atlantic Division, but also both the Eastern Conference and the entire NBA with a 35-12 record, it is the Sixers in general, and Joel Embiid in particular, who are grabbing the headlines at the moment: After a desultory 12-10 record in October and November, the Sixers have gone 18-6 since, including a current 7-game winning streak on the road — and after back-to-back runner-up finishes in the NBA MVP race (both behind Nikola Jokic), maybe the idea of not wanting to become the Susan Lucci of the NBA is motivating Embiid, who leads the NBA so far this year with 33.6 points per game after having led the league last season, as well, with 30.6 points per game.

And the distraction that the Eagles are providing cannot help but benefit the Sixers — in that if James Harden misses two free throws in the fourth quarter of a close game, he won't get screeched at non-stop by the hot-takers on the city's two sports talk radio stations, WIP and WPEN.

After the Phillies made it to the World Series this past November — still can't wrap my mind around that one — and the Eagles one win, at home, from making it to the Super Bowl, the Sixers could make it three out of three by getting to the NBA championship series ("Finals" being a registered trademark of "the Association"), making this a totally awesome time to be a Philadelphia sports fan, no matter what the talk-radio loudmouths say.

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