Wasn't this supposed to be the season that the Eastern Conference began to mount a comeback against the West? The Miami Heat have brought the last two titles to the right side of the map, but the West has been dominant in interconference play for the entire career arc of a group of players at this point. Only once in the past decade has the eighth seed in the East had a record above .500, and it's been 11 seasons since the East's eighth best team had a better record than the West's ninth team -- in other words, for more than a decade, the playoff system has NOT featured the 16 best teams in the NBA.
With the season four weeks old -- that is to say, a small but not insignificant sample size -- fully a dozen of the 15 Eastern Conference teams have losing records. And one of the three teams above .500, the Atlanta Hawks, have a record of 1-3 against the West and 0-4 against winning teams. So basically they also stink, they just stink less than a dozen other teams out East.
These sorts of imbalances are supposed to be cyclic, but the problem is getting much worse, not better. For NBA institutions built on Conferences -- like the All Star Game and more importantly the postseason, the season is shaping up to be a bad joke.
When Jrue Holiday was traded from Philadelphia to New Orleans, he was constantly described as an "All Star". But being selected to the All Star team in the East is a very different matter than accomplishing the feat in the West. All you need to know is that Holiday was an All Star last season while Steph Curry was not. Holiday will never make an All Star team in the Western Conference; OK, never say never, but it's not going to happen unless he gets a whole lot better or his West peers get a whole lot worse. He wouldn't have been in the conversation last season, and he certainly isn't in the conversation this season.
If you were to pick the 24 best players in the league as of this moment, four weeks into the season, the list would include at least 19 players from the West and maybe five players from the East -- five players from two teams. But the rules require 12 players from each conference, so we'll likely have Jeff Teague and Arron Afflalo (among others) on the Eastern squad, while players on the order of Mike Conley or Tony Parker will miss the cut in the West (and the problem will only be worse if Kobe Bryant is voted in by the fans, as I suspect he will be). Right now, the East's starting center would come from the 3-10 Nets.
As for the postseason, at this point all we're doing is awaiting the Heat versus the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals -- and wondering if LeBron James or Paul George will get injured, since that's the only thing that can derail the inevitable. Barring said injury, the only drama in the Eastern Conference for the next five months will involve lottery positioning.
Every Eastern Conference team that seemed on the cusp of possibly being good if things fell correctly -- the Wizards, the Pistons, the Cavs, the Raptors, the Bucks -- has been pretty bad to very bad. Meanwhile, every borderline West team -- the Timberwolves, the Blazers, the Lakers, the Mavericks, the Nuggets, the Pelicans -- has been good to very good. Bear in mind that the schedule is unbalanced, with East teams playing the majority of their games against East competition, and West playing West -- so the reality is even worse than the discrepancy you see in the standings. The Pelicans 6-7 record and +0.8 point differential is better than Toronto's 6-7 record and +1.2 point differential BECAUSE New Orleans plays in the Western Conference (though it should be noted that the Raptors have done surprisingly well against the West). Bottom line, four weeks into the season, the Pelicans are 13th in the West, and they'd probably be fourth or possibly third in the East.
In retrospect, we probably were judging those East teams' chances through the prism of the race for playoff spots -- and frankly, someone is going to get them. We shouldn't be surprised that the Pistons and Wizards are bad -- they are bad. They're certainly not as talented as the Timberwolves and were never close.
I assume that either the Nets or the Knicks (coming to STAPLES Center tomorrow night) will figure it out and be OK by the end of the season, but if they don't (and things are so bad right now that it's certainly not a given) we could actually see a division champion with a losing record for the first time in league history. Winning a division ensures not just a playoff spot, but a top four seed, in the NBA's weird scheme, where division's are meaningless except in the ways they can screw up the playoffs. That would be a big problem -- if there were more than two decent teams in the East. As it happens, the Atlantic champ can avoid Miami/Indiana for a round, but the other six playoff teams are just fodder to be chewed up anyway, so it's no big deal that the Atlantic Division is a joke.
I've said for years that the top 16 teams should be seeded into the playoffs by record. In a perfect world, you would also normalize the NBA schedule, but the fact is that excluding West team's with better records in favor of East team's with worse records is a double whammy in the current situation -- since the tougher conference is by definition also playing the tougher schedule. Saying that you can't fix problem A because of problem B only makes sense if there's a causal relationship. The 43-39 Jazz were indisputably better than the 38-44 Bucks last season -- why were the Jazz watching the Bucks lose the Heat in the playoffs rather than losing to them themselves?
There's some bad luck involved here in the form of injuries to Derrick Rose and Tyson Chandler and a whole bunch of Nets. But Kobe Bryant and Marc Gasol and Andre Iguodala are also hurt, and what exactly did anyone expect to happen with all those mid to late 30s guys in Brooklyn?
The East is a mess right now, and it's going to make a mockery of the All Star teams and the first two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs. And there's really no end to the cycle in sight.