It’s a bizarre season for the NBA at a bizarre time for the world. There is one constant, however. The ranking of the Eastern Conference is in disarray.
Brooklyn Nets goalie Kyrie Irving (left) receives a slap on the head from teammate James Harden during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. AP Photo
It’s a bizarre season for the NBA at a bizarre time for the world.
Most of those scheduled to attend the All-Star Game don’t seem particularly excited about these plans. The arenas are somewhere between almost empty and totally empty because of virus protocols. Match times are generally known months in advance; nobody knows what the second week of March looks like yet.
This is all very unusual.
There is one constant, however. The ranking of the Eastern Conference is in disarray.
Spending time trying to figure out how the East is going to degrade would be a futile endeavor, as it’s clear the teams themselves have no idea. Miami won the East last season and hasn’t gone over .500 days this season. Milwaukee – the NBA’s top regular-season team in each of the past two seasons, a team with two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo – just suffered a five-game losing streak. Each team in the East has had at least a three-game losing streak; 11 of those 15 teams have had multiple three-game slips and the season isn’t even half over.
If all that wasn’t enough, the Western Conference dominates its friends in the other half of the league. The West wins 57% of its matches against the East. It’s on pace to be the biggest margin since the West gained 58.4% in 2014-15 – and virtually ensures the West will win the regular season series against the East for the 21st time over the past 22 seasons. East won four consecutive years against West from 1995-96 to 1998-99; the only season in which the East has beaten the West since was 2008-09.
Now that’s to be expected.
Having just three teams better than a game above .500, two months into the season, is the East’s big surprise. Philadelphia (20-11) and Brooklyn (20-12) are at the top of the East, and Milwaukee (18-13) is right in their shadow.
This is where the ridiculously tight traffic jams begin, with the next 10 teams – Indiana, Toronto, Boston, New York, Chicago, Charlotte, Miami, Atlanta, Orlando and Washington – all within 3 1/2 games one the other.
Some offer a very simple explanation.
“I see a lot of inconsistent teams in the East,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And we are one of them.”
That being said, there are signs some teams are figuring it out.
Brooklyn just went 5-0 on a road trip out West, playing most of those games without Kevin Durant. Toronto started 7-12; the Raptors are 9-3 since. The Bulls and Heat have already won more games in February than in January. The Wizards beat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night for a fifth straight victory, which means they’re 5-0 from the start 6-17. And the Knicks – it’s true and incredible – have a chance to win their first calendar month since their 8-7 in November 2017.
“We are striving to be a 48-minute team,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, who has already made a huge impact in his first two months in New York. “We have a long way to go.”
The good news is that there is still plenty of time.
The teams will get their second-half schedule finalized by the NBA this week. Everyone, even those heading to Atlanta for the All-Star one-day events on March 7, will get a well-deserved little break after a few hectic first months of the season. The trade deadline of March 25 will be interesting, because with the play-in tournament taking place this year – and 20 teams essentially in the playoffs, although four will be eliminated very quickly – more teams than usual will be technically in the elimination race.
Simply put, there is a long way to go. And that means there is enough time for this Eastern blockade to break down a bit.
“Anyone who can find some consistency and reliability faster can find some separation in the ranking, but at the moment there is no separation,” said Spoelstra. “So what I see is an opportunity.”
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