You may already know that the Eastern Conference is bad. They're worse than you think.
While we endure "don't sleep on the Nets, Knicks, or Indiana!" warnings from various NBA analysts, you should feel comfortable snoozing when any team but Miami is mentioned. While the Miami Heat appear to be the class of the NBA, the conference they dominate hasn't offered much resistance.
- Exactly two teams in the Eastern conference have winning records against >.500 basketball teams. The Heat (26-12) and the Knicks (squeaking in at 19-18). Brooklyn - currently the East's 4 seed - sports a smooth 12-25 record against winning teams (paired with a sparkling 31-6 record against losing teams). Brooklyn has an anti-bullying PSA somewhere in its future.
- But the Knicks are on a 10 game winning streak! Carmelo Anthony is healthy! Knick fans are exuberant! Unfortunately, only one of those wins earns much respect - a win in the Garden over the Memphis Grizzlies. And no, Knicks fan, a win at Miami without Lebron and Wade means nothing. Great work against Toronto and Charlotte, though!
- 11 of the 16 teams in the West have winning records head-to-head vs. the Eastern Conference. The East has 3 teams with winning records against the West. Further, given that back-to-backs on consecutive nights headed East should impact Western teams more than their counterparts doing the opposite, this inequity is even more alarming.
The post-season drama for the Eastern Conference is whether or not New York or Indiana can manage a respectable six game series loss in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Treacherous West
Like Game of Thrones, even the lesser houses of the realm can be dangerous kingmakers. Will the Western Conference be strengthened by its competitiveness, as diamond cuts diamond? - or will a well-rested Miami face a beaten down Western Conference Champion that's suffered through a long season and brutal playoff series?
The potential for neither Oklahoma City or San Antonio - the current Western Conference leaders - making the NBA Finals is real.
The 6-8 seeds in the West are legitimately dangerous, capable of dispatching or threatening their betters (and sports bettors) in a short elimination series.
- Houston is 21-20 against teams >.500 and can score against anyone. Unfortunately for them, the very best teams in the West generally tend to work them over. While OKC would probably handle them quickly, an interesting San Antonio series is possible.
- Golden State is the best three point shooting team in the NBA, can control the boards, has a decisive home court advantage, and Andrew Bogut gets healthier every week. No walk in the park. And I'll advise you not to walk in Oakland parks.
- The Lakers have struggled - particularly against good teams, but they still boast a starting All-Star line-up that can fill up a box score, if less often the scoreboard. Whatever their modest level of actual play - this isn't your typical 8 seed. And if Utah steals this spot, the threat level is probably greater.
The 3-5 seeds are REALLY dangerous.
- Denver is a sparkling 29-14 against teams >.500 (best in the West, in fact) and they use endless depth and altitude to run the best teams in the league into the ground. And they've been on fire since the All-Star break.
- The Memphis Grizzlies boast the most physical front line in the NBA, great on-ball defenders, and will take their toll on any opponent, even one that advances over them.
The top two seeds have chinks in the armor
San Antonio will probably be missing Manu Ginobili in the early playoffs and it's hard not to shake the notion that this is a beautifully constructed, well-coached NBA team built more for regular season dominance than playoff runs. The criminally underrated Tony Parker - no Top 10 NBA player gets less national hype - is the straw that stirs the drink (the point guard is averaging an incredible 21ppg on 53% shooting) and they have balance, role players, poise and everything else always present in a Popovich team, but one gets the nagging sense that they're better at deftly navigating a NBA season than an extended 7 game look against an elite team that can acclimate to their style of play and exploit their defensive weaknesses.
What happens when a Spurs team that lives by the 3 and ball reversal sees playoff intensity defense and real close-outs? A Spurs title rests as much on the trio of Green, Splitter and Leonard maintaining sky-high Adjusted Field Goal percentages as the familiar Holy Trinity of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili.
Oklahoma City is the popular (and my personal) favorite for a rematch against Miami and the logic here is pretty straightforward. They have the 2nd best player on the planet in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook is a competitive force of nature who defies conventional categorization, Kevin Martin has proven to be a capable #3 scoring option, Serge Ibaka has raised his game considerably, and they have a reasonable supporting cast. Even with the loss of James Harden, this is a fantastic, still-very-young team with incremental growth across the board that may exceed what was lost with James Harden.
Still, there are some nagging facts that should give real pause.
Scott Brooks is still the coach. Sometimes the right coach for your young team isn't the same coach needed for a championship team. Brooks is average. He's slow to recognize match-up issues, sticks stubbornly with "his guys" (aka Kendrick Perkins) over players or small line-ups that are better performing, and his time out adjustments feature more more adjectives than nouns and verbs. Paired with an emotional floor leader like Russell Westbrook who needs guidance and structure in key moments, you have a recipe for late-game issues.
OKC is 22-16 against teams >.500. Very much on par with the Clippers and Memphis, trailing San Antonio and Denver. While that's not an alarming statistic in and of itself, add this component: OKC is 3-7 head up against San Antonio, Memphis, and Denver. Interesting, no? And in any NBA game decided by 3 points or less, they're 3-6. OKC can explode offensively like no other team in the NBA, but deep playoff basketball is written more often in stealing 2 point wins than rolling through 22 point slaughters.
Ignore any pundit who cautions against crowning Miami in the East and entertain any and all scenarios in a wide-open West.
Those are my thoughts.