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The Mess in the Middle

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For all the talk early in the season of how 'The East is so bad, everyone has a shot at the playoffs' it's actually the Western Conference where almost every team is still alive for postseason play.  It's not that the East isn't bad - they're bad all right.  But the decent teams in the East are successfully separating themselves from the truly horrible teams.  With 15 teams per conference and 8 making the playoffs, that leaves 7 on the outside looking in each season.  Currently in the East, there are 5 teams at least 6 games out of the last playoff spot in the loss column - the Celtics, Sixers, Bucks, Bobcats and Hawks.  Only the Nets and Knicks remain within striking distance of the playoffs, at 2 and 3 games back respectively.  (Speaking of dire predictions that turned out not to be true; Toronto is establishing itself as a semi-legitimate Division winner.  The Nets and Knicks are chasing Orlando for the regular-old 8th spot, not realistically planning to overtake the Raptors for the Atlantic Division's automatic berth.)

Meanwhile, in the West, the cream has risen to the top, and only a single team qualifies as dreggy - the Grizzlies are 12 games out of the last playoff spot.  In between, there's a big mess.  The Timberwolves hold the 8th position currently, but they are 3 games below .500 at 25-28.  Four teams sit directly behind them with 29 losses - the Clippers, Warriors and Hornets at 25-28 and the Kings at 23-28.  Even Portland (3 games back) and Seattle (4 games back) are still within reach, although it's unlikely they could pass all of the 5 or 6 teams ahead of them.

So, yes, there's some mediocrity in the middle in the West, which is keeping most of the Western teams' hopes alive.  So what makes me so sure the West is better than the East?  Well, conference records are a pretty good indicator.  Out of 30 NBA teams, only 10 have a winning record against the Western Conference.  18 have played .500 or better against the East.  Conference records are the new home/road records.  Anyone can win against the East - but can you beat the teams in the West?

(Interestingly, there are only two teams in the league with a winning record against the West and a losing record against the East - the Lakers and the Heat.  I don't think it's an accident that these two teams both have (a) a mega-star player with the capability to take over any game and (b) a legendary though enigmatic coach who understands that the regular season is too long, and is more concerned with winning important games.)

In looking at conference records, the Denver Nuggets jump off the page.  26-26 overall, and struggling mightily to find a way to win with Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson on the same team, they are a miserable 11-18 against the Western Conference.  This is significant not just because the Nuggets have gotten fat on the East so far - additionally, they've already played 23 of their 30 Eastern games.  Their remaining schedule is brutal.  I've never been a fan of the Iverson acquisition for them, but I always assumed that they'd put enough talent on the floor to easily qualify for the playoffs.  Looking at their conference record, I'm not so sure now.