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.
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)||Indiana (10-1)|
|Portland (10-2)||Miami (9-3)|
|Oklahoma City (8-3)||Chicago (6-4)|
|Golden State (8-4)||Atlanta (7-5)|
|Dallas (8-4)||Minnesota (7-6)|
|L.A. Clippers (8-5)||Charlotte (6-6)|
|Houston (8-5)||Phoenix (5-6)|
|Memphis (7-5)||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.
Tonight the Suns will face the Charlotte Bobcats on the road, in an attempt to break a four game slide that has been the result of mostly missed opportunities and an inability to close out games. Will the Suns be able to break their unfavorable streak against the Bobcats?
Where: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, NC
When: 5:00 p.m. (AZ)
Watch: FSAZ (Locally) , NBA League Pass
The 5-6 Phoenix Suns and the 6-6 Charlotte Bobcats have a lot in common going into tonight's game. In addition to holding a similar record, both teams have star players who are questionable to play as of now...Eric Bledsoe for the Suns, and Al Jefferson for the Bobcats. Additionally, both Goran Dragic and Kemba Walker scored 31 points, both season highs, for their teams in their last game. One key difference being that Kemba's effort helped lead the Bobcats to a win over the Nets, while Dragic's performance still wasn't enough to overcome a loss to the Kings.
G - Goran Dragic
G - Gerald Green (Eric Bledsoe)
F - P.J. Tucker
F - Channing Frye
C - Miles Plumlee
G - Kemba Walker
G - Gerald Henderson
F - Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
F - Josh McRoberts (Al Jefferson)
C - Bismack Biyombo
The biggest key to victory for the Suns in my opinion is Eric Bledsoe. In his absence, Bledsoe has proven to be an irreplaceable components of the "good" Suns team. While Dragic has performed admirably in his absence, the Suns are missing a true go-to guy, and the 4th quarter closer to help propel this team to victory.
If Bledsoe can't go, the Suns are going to have to try to turn things around without him, which means taking care of the ball, first and foremost. The Suns are one of the most turnover prone teams in the league, averaging 17.4 per game. The Suns still need to hustle and run the floor, but they need to make sure they aren't playing too sloppily while doing so.
The other major key is execution. When the Suns are moving without the ball, finding the open man, and playing aggressive while making fast rotations on defense, they are a force to be reckoned with. However, they cannot afford to fall asleep like they seemed to do during the 3rd quarter against the Kings in their last game.
On the plus side, the Suns owned the Bobcats last season, sweeping them 3-0 during their last three match-ups. However, the Suns can't depend on history to be their x-factor tonight. Despite their reputation over the last several years, the Bobcats are on the rise and capable of playing very well, as evidenced by their recent win against the Nets. So, the Suns must play with full effort and attention to detail, with or without Bledsoe, if they hope to win this game.
Per multiple reports (Paul Coro among them), Eric Bledsoe is doubtful for this game after not being able to make it through shoot-around, while Al Jefferson will play and start for Charlotte.
A look at Suns-related news floating around the internet from the last week. Also an open thread to discuss anything and everything.
The Suns are on a 4 game losing streak, with three of them coming in a nail-biting, heart-breaking fashion. The last loss - a 113-106 defeat at home to the Sacramento Kings - was definitely the ugliest one. The Suns looked out of sync for most of the night, reminding us of the atrocity of a team we watched all of last year. The game itself was pretty wacky - the Suns scored a season-low 12 points in the third quarter and followed with a season-high 44 points in the final period.
So the last week included a two-point loss to Brooklyn, and two losses to Sacramento by a total of 10 points. It definitely wasn't the best week for the Suns, but there were some positives to take away (other than the obvious good news for fans of "tanking"). Eric Bledsoe didn't play in either of the games against the Kings and the Suns clearly missed him.
In the first game, Dragic didn't have any help at the end of the game and as a result had about as awful of a quarter I've ever seen him have. The following night, Dragic ended up with 31 points but didn't get much help from teammates not named Gerald Green. Lastly, the Suns stormed back at the end of the game when the game was all but over, displaying their tenacity and unwillingness to quit (hence the 44 point outburst). Phoenix will go on the road and try to break this losing streak in Charlotte Friday night.
Anyway, it's time to take a look at some random Suns-related content that floated around various parts of the internet this last week.
Most of these power rankings were published earlier in the week, so keep in mind that they haven't accounted for the two losses to Sacramento.
CBS Sports (Nov. 18) - #12:
Still look like a team that plays well early and runs out of ammo, but they're also very fun and stay within striking range at most times.
Sports Illustrated (Nov. 18) - #12:
The Suns were three points away from a 7-2 start, but suffered two heartbreaking losses last week. In fact, all of their four losses have been by seven points or fewer, a painful rite of passage for a young NBA team.
ESPN (Nov. 18) - #13:
Interesting theory volunteered last week by ex-Sun Marcin Gortat, who says the new defensive coordinator in Phoenix -- Mike Longabardi -- is as much of an impact newcomer in the desert as Eric Bledsoe or boss Jeff Hornacek. All four losses by just 13 points combined for the Cinderella Suns so far.
USA Today (Nov. 17) - #13:
Eric Bledsoe refuses to let general manager Ryan McDonough rebuild in peace.
NBC Sports (Nov. 18) - #14
They keep playing close games — every one of their games has been within five points in the final five minutes. That’s fun to watch, and while that’s not how you win sustainably it’s better than we expected from them preseason.
Good god, Utah. I think it's now obvious who the real tanking team in the West is...
Check out Marc Spears' profile on the Morrii over at Yahoo Sports.
Archie's steal and slam against Sacramento
Goran Dragic's dish to Gerald Green for the high-flying flush
Bledsoe said his shin "definitely got a lot better" and is about to test it. He said "I almost bit my nails off" watching last night's 4th.— Paul Coro (@paulcoro) November 21, 2013
Am I having more fun watching Goodwin play, or is Goodwin having more fun playing? Tough to say.— Jack Winter (@ArmstrongWinter) November 20, 2013
Suns have dropped their last three games by a combined six points. Ironically six is also the number of years they've taken off my life.— Espo (@Espo) November 20, 2013
According to a GM, the Suns will do everything possible this summer to sign Gordon Hayward to an unmatchable offer sheet....— Peter Vecsey (@PeterVecsey1) November 21, 2013
Thanks a lot PJ and Gerald 😑😑😑 http://t.co/Ew8t9vfxEM— Archie Goodwin (@A1Laflare10) November 18, 2013
The third Bright Sider award of this season goes to someone who delivered my favorite comment of the week. Congratulations, Alex Skinner! And thank you for your eloquent, much-needed comment about the levels of insanity we often encounter on this website:
And on that note, the runner-up award goes to dooder for providing some of the said insanity. Thank you for the hilarity, dooder. Unfortunately, you don't win the award because you are not a singular Talent worth the price of admission in and of yourself. So it’s not like you inspire awe the way MJ did in his infancy. Better luck next time, buddy.
Any other news you'd like to share? Any suggestions for what else you'd like me to do/include in these weekly segments (I'm open to anything!)? As always, feel free to discuss below!