For years the Eastern Conference has been ridiculed by NBA fans and considered to be inferior to the West. Sub-.500 teams have routinely made the playoffs in the East over the last several years while winning teams miss out in the West. This year, the East has really stepped it up - in the worst way possible.
The Western Conference is rolling along as it usually does. Nine teams currently have winning records with seven or more wins, including two with 10. Heck, there are competitive teams all the way down the conference (until you get to Utah anyway).
San Antonio is rolling along at 10-1, and that's with a limited Tim Duncan who has already missed two games and is shooting under 40 percent from the field when he has played. I swear Gregg Popovich has some sort of deal with the devil.
Since a rough start to the season, the Portland Trail Blazers have turned it around and won their last eight. Replacing J.J. Hickson with Robin Lopez and upgrading the bench has really paid off for Rip City.
Then we have a group of five teams with eight wins each, including Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the most entertaining teams in the league in the Golden State Warriors, Point God Chris Paul and the Clippers, the Howard and Harden led Houston Rockets and ... the Dallas Mavericks? Yep, the Dallas Mavericks (Monta Ellis is killing it, somehow, and he's doing it efficiently!).
Rounding out the group with seven wins apiece are Memphis (riding a four-game win streak after a rough start and looking like the Grizzlies squad we expected) and Minnesota (another very entertaining team powered by Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio).
The Western Conference is going to be a battle all season long and yet again it looks like at least one, if not more, winning teams will miss the cut come playoff team.
However, as we head east, the picture isn't so pretty.
Indiana opened the season with a nine-game winning streak before suffering their first loss and the Pacers are currently tied with the Spurs for the best record in the league. Back-to-back defending champs the Miami Heat are right behind the Pacers at 9-3, and as long as they have that LeBron James guy I think they'll be fine. These two teams can go head to head with any team in the league, regardless of conference.
After those two the conference dives off a clip. The Chicago Bulls are third with just six wins (and just lost to the Denver Nuggets, who are currently tied for 10th in the West). The Bulls will be fine in the long run once everyone gets healthy and Derrick Rose shakes off the 18 months of rust, but right now they aren't anything special. And they're still the third best team in the East. Despite losing Josh Smith to free agency, the Atlanta Hawks stand at 7-5 behind the sharpshooting of Kyle Korver (oh, and a couple other guys are playing well also in Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Paul Millsap, but it's clearly Korver's team).
And now we've reached the end of winning teams in the East. After naming four teams. And you know who the fifth best team in the East has been? The Charlotte Bobcats. Yes, those Bobcats. At 6-6, with big name free agent acquisition Al Jefferson only playing in three of those games.
That means there are three teams currently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture that are below .500: The Toronto Raptors, the Philadelphia 76ers (so bad they can't even tank right) and the Detroit Pistons.
What's even worse is that Toronto, at 5-7, is leading the awful Atlantic Division and therefore is sitting as a top-four seed. The Knicks and the Nets have been disasters so far at 3-8 and are only a half game out last place. I had my reservations about both teams, as I'm sure many others did, but I don't know if anyone saw THIS coming.
Making matters even worse, teams that were expected to make big jumps due to active offseasons (Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers) have all struggled early on.
The Pistons are 4-7 and their three major additions - free agents Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings and lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope - together are shooting 42.4 percent from the field. They have a talented front line in Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but with Smoove at small forward they've struggled with spacing (shocker) among other things.
The Wizards are also at 4-7. Their two best players, John Wall and Bradley Beal, have done a lot of good things this year but they've both struggled to score efficiently, and the team as a whole has been awful on defense. Injured lottery pick Otto Porter hasn't even played yet.
The Cavaliers are half a game behind the other tow at 4-8, and they've struggled mightily to score the ball. Star point guard Kyrie Irving got off to a rough start and the only player on the entire team shooting over 50 percent from the field is Anderson Varejao. No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett has given them absolutely nothing. There is more talent on this team than a year ago, but the pieces just aren't fitting together right now.
The season has barely begun, and there is still plenty of time for these teams to turn things around. But some troubling trends have revealed themselves. The East just isn't very good.
Thus far, the West has dominated competition with a 37-17 record in games against Eastern Conference foes. Eight of the top 10 records in the league are in the West. Disregarding divisions and putting the leftover Western teams in the East, here's what a playoff bracket would look like.
|San Antonio (10-1)
|Oklahoma City (8-3)
|Golden State (8-4)
|L.A. Clippers (8-5)
||New Orleans (5-6)
That looks at least a little bit better, right? Even with the help of the West, there still aren't enough good teams to field an all-.500-or-better playoffs. The East needs to step it up.
Despite their recent struggles, the Suns still have on of the 16 best records (technically 17 best, but Denver's on the outside looking in at 5-6 due to tiebreakers. They would make the playoffs in the East. What does that mean? Nothing, but it makes me feel good at this stage of the season.
I'll leave you with this: As I was preparing to publish this, Grantland's Zach Lowe published his own column on a similar topic, and makes the case for eliminating divisions. Give it a read. Lowe is really good at this writing thing.