Remember the NBA’s “Leastern Conference,” as some wags have called it?
It certainly felt like that over the summer. One-third of the NBA East’s 2017 all-star lineup departed for Oklahoma City, Denver, or Minnesota.
It got so bad that Adam Silver and the owners have started discussing revising the whole playoff format to make up for the league’s left-coast tilt.
Yet as the league season reaches the one-month-old mark on Thursday, the young greyhounds of the East have pretty much fought their way to a word usually reserved for the NFL: parity. Indeed….
The 39-41 bullies
Through November 13, games between Eastern and Western Conference teams in the NBA were pretty close to even.
In fact, even as the Golden State Warriors put the finishing touches on the Orlando Magic Monday night, the East was a respectable 41-39 against the all-star-laden bullies of the West.
You can add all the asterisks you want. Tweet us (@celts247) to nitpick which teams have more injuries, will take longer to get it in gear, were playing on a road back-to-back, and so on.
If you flip a coin 2-3 times and it comes up heads, you question the sample size, or wonder if it’s a trick coin.
But if you flip it 80 times and it’s close to 50-50, you know it’s not a trick coin — or anyway, not a very good one. And your sample size is large enough to tell you that, yah, this coin is very unlikely to be heavily dominated by heads or tails over the next 800 tosses.
Top-balance, mid-balance, bottom-balance
It’s also fair to say that nobody really cares about who wins the race to the bottom between, say, Sacramento, Dallas, Chicago, and Atlanta. Maybe the East just has a few more mediocre teams that are able to edge out some of the slightly more awful bottom-feeders in the West.
But a glance at some of the top of the two conferences shows a similar parity.
The top two teams in the West, Houston and Golden State, have feasted on the East, with a combined record in inter-conference play of 11-2.
Then again, the best of the Eastern Conference, the Celtics and Pistons, are a combined 8-1 against the West.
And the top 8 teams in the East have a combined record of 31-16 against the West. The West’s top 8 teams have a marginally less impressive record against Eastern teams of 29-19.
So what’s going on?
The East is getting younger. longer, faster, deeper. All these things are generally a plus in basketball.
Experience, which comes with age, is good too, especially in the playoffs, and the West is more laden with older star-power than the East (except for LeBron, who is old and experienced, but still fast, long, and strong.)
Think about the top emerging stars age 25 or younger in the league: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embid, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving. East, East, East, West, East.
Think about the top players in their first or second year… long 2-way emerging stars. Ben Simmons, Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, Lonzo Ball (maybe), Karl-Anthony Towns, Jayson Tatum. East, East, East, West (maybe), West, East.
Think about the kind of young, long, lean, fast, 10-deep, 2-way, spread-the-floor rosters that resemble Golden State of 5 years ago — and we picture Milwaukee, Boston, Orlando, Minnesota, Miami. East, East, East, West, East.
(Those east rosters, generally, are a little lean on shooting, to an extent. But non-athletic shooters are not that scarce, and whereas athletes often improve their shots, great shooters have a hard time getting faster, and an impossible time getting taller and longer. “You can’t coach height.”)
Sure, it may well be that by December or January, as Kawhi Leonard returns, and Minnesota and OKC and Denver develop chemistry, the West will start putting it to the Other Conference. But at least for one month, it’s been pretty balanced.
And it’s also the case that young guys and young teams have more room for development. As scary as teams like Milwaukee, Boston, and Miami were last spring and this fall, they may should be, *ulp*, improving.
Coming conference vs. conference attractions
The best test of any theory is it’s ability to predict. So here’s some dates to circle on your calendar to see if the Eastern brats are really competitive — or just had a nice little 4-week run.
Warriors-Celtics November 16. The consensus top-two in most power rankings face off in Boston, hopefully at full strength (save for Gordon Hayward.) The Warriors move on to face the 76ers and the Nets on the same road trip.
Pistons-Thunder and Heat-Timberwolves, both on November 24, both road games for the Eastern teams. Yes, we take the Pistons seriously under the veteran leadership of Avery Bradley, “the next Joe Dumars,” and yes, we take the Heat seriously with Whiteside back.
Celtics-Spurs December 8. The Celtics won round one in Boston, but this battle, in San Antonio, should take place with Kawhi Leonard on the floor.
Bucks-Rockets December 16. This will also be a good test of the “reverse synergism Ewing theory” — Chris Paul should be back for the Rockets, who’ve had a hot start without him. The NBA has announced there will still be only one basketball in Rockets and Thunder games, per league rules.
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