When it comes to all-round quality you must go West
Out of 16 teams, only two have a winning record. The NBA Eastern Conference is, quite frankly, an embarrassment at present.
While the West is full to the brim with forward-thinking management, superb coaching and exemplary player development programmes, the East is a mongrel of dysfunctional line-ups, bloated contracts and no ability to internally improve. As a result, a gaping chasm has developed between the league’s two conferences.
Granted, the likelihood is that this year’s NBA champion will be from the East. The Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers are, at this moment, probably the two favourites to pick up the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But behind them is a stream of barely mediocre teams and some that are just terrible. The Toronto Raptors, for example, are on pace for a home seeding in the play-offs despite losing nearly 66 per cent of their games.
To put the gap between the two conferences in sharp perspective. The inter-conference record (based on games between teams from the two conferences) at this stage of the season is 60-23 in the West’s favour. If you remove the Heat and the Pacers from the equation the record slumps to 16-59.
The Charlotte Bobcats – one of the worst offenders from the East – finished with a 21-61 record last year. Basically, if the Eastern Conference was a team, it would be the worst in the league.
This isn’t necessarily an anomaly. The East has long been worse than the West, even if they still have a solid share on the NBA title. But this season is perhaps the worst there has ever been.
The biggest inter-conference discrepancy ever was back in 2003-04 when the East had a winning percentage of 36.7 per cent. This year it is 27.7 per cent and there is nothing to say that it will get better.
The reasons are unknown but you can theorise. This year is likely the worst because the upcoming draft class is expected to be the best since 2003 when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade came into the league.
Every team wants to get their hands on one of the top six or seven prospects that are expected become All-Stars. With the East already boasting a wealth of abysmal teams, there is an arms race of sorts as teams look to become as bad as possible. This isn’t to overlook the fact that most of the tanking teams – the 76ers, Bobcats etc – weren’t poor to begin with.
Or it could just be that the Western teams, for whatever reason, have just made better decisions regarding recruitment and development.
Maybe the worst in the East will hit the jackpot on lottery picks this year and in five years the situation will switch. But at the moment, the atrocious basketball coming out of the East is dragging the NBA down.
Pacers set standard for defence
One bright spot from the East has undoubtedly been the Indiana Pacers. A small market team without a single top-nine lottery pick have got to the top the old fashioned way, with two big men and stifling defence.
A shocking bench was probably the only thing that stood between them and an NBA finals spot last year when they took the Miami Heat to seven games. The additions of Luis Scola and CJ Watson have massively upgraded that unit while the starting five of Roy Hibbert, David West, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill is probably the best in the league.
More than just a great start to the season – on admittedly the easiest schedule any team has faced so far – the Pacers are on course to have the greatest defence of all time. An unbelievable achievement for a team that can’t attract free agents. Coach Frank Vogel has done a superb job in building a brilliant defensive scheme that is designed to blot out shots at the rim and from behind the 3-point line – the most efficient shots in basketball.
Currently, the Pacers have a Defensive Rating – points conceded per 100 possessions – of 93.5. The San Antonio Spurs are second with 98.8 and the only other team to allow less than 100 points.
Whether they can maintain that level once their schedule gets harder remains to be seen. But what the Pacers are doing at the moment isn’t just impressive, it’s historic.