East meets West: How the NBA’s Eastern Conference Caught Up and how long it will last
For much of the past decade, there has been an imbalance between the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NBA. The apex of this phenomenon was in 2014. The Phoenix Suns won a whopping 48 games and found themselves sitting at home despite a record that would have tied them for third in the East. Since then, things have gotten better but the imbalance has remained.
Coming into this season, some projections had sub-.500 teams making the playoffs in the East. Meanwhile, the Western Conference seemed poised to return the halcyon days of 49-win eighth seeds. After all, star players like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul Millsap moved west while Gordon Hayward was one of the lone Western defectors. He went down less than a game into the season. Naturally, the Western Conference would be a dominant force yet again.
Not so fast. About a quarter of the way into the season, the Eastern Conference has the higher winning percentage. How have the teams in the East managed to close the gap and what is going on in the crazy Western Conference?
The Main reason for the East’s success thus far has been its young stars. The NBA is a star-driven league and the Eastern Conference has amassed a cadre of elite young talent poised to take over the league.
Anyone who reads our Power Rankings already knows that Detroit basketball is back. Andre Drummond has led the Pistons to a top-four seed. The big story has been his free throw improvement but Drummond looks like a different player. He is facilitating offense from the elbow and running dribble handoffs at the top of the key. As a result, he is blowing away his previous career-high in assists. He is playing more minutes than ever and his aggressiveness is showing up in his rebounding. In short, Drummond has transformed himself into a star and his play is carrying the Pistons back to the playoffs.
Most observers knew that Philadelphia had talent but few expected it to gel so quickly. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons already form the foundation for a contender even before factoring in the potential of Markelle Fultz. Simmons seems to be in reach of a triple-double every time he steps on the floor while Embiid might already be the best big man in the NBA. Embiid is playing at an MVP-level this season as he stifles opponents at the rim while bludgeoning smaller players or shooting and driving by plodders when he has the ball. He has quickly become the modern archetype of an NBA big man.
While the Knicks are currently outside of the playoff picture, it is still remarkable that they have managed to hover around .500. The obvious reason for their success has been the play of Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis has been a dark horse MVP candidate so it is not surprising that the Knicks are 0-5 when he does not play this year. Tim Hardaway will miss at least two weeks with a stress fracture so this season’s playoff dreams may be over, but the future of Knicks’ basketball is just beginning.
The wild and injury-ridden West:
While the Eastern conference has been full of excitement, surprises, and storylines, the West has featured a lot of disappointment. Injuries have played a huge role in the lack of success for many of the teams out west. Many fans have watched their team’s playoff changes evaporate as their stars succumb to injuries.
The Los Angeles Clippers have faced the worst injury luck of any team with Blake Griffin, Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari, and Patrick Beverley all going down with injuries. Those players were all potential starters including Griffin, the team’s best player. Those losses and the poor play of their replacements have changed the Clippers from a contender to a potential lottery team. Griffin had been showcasing his perimeter skills to start the season but the lack of success after a hot start was already raising questions about his ability to play with a non-shooting big man like DeAndre Jordan. This season looks like a bust at this point and that might mean that Jordan leaves before that question is answered. The shakeup likely will not end there if the team misses the playoffs with Doc Rivers being a prime target.
The Grizzlies have faced fewer key injuries than the Clippers. However, the loss of Mike Conley hurts even more due to their lack of depth at the position. Without Conley, Memphis could be heading to the lottery. The struggles go beyond Conley though. Years of poor decision-making in the front office led to the washout of numerous draft classes. The subsequent lack of young and affordable talent combined with disastrous moves (looking at you, Chandler Parsons) has led the Grizzlies down a dark path.
When assessing trades GMs and pundits both talk about “fit” and “floor geometry”. Talent wins basketball games but only if the talent works in conjunction. One of the reasons Kevin Durant chose the Warriors was that he felt he would fit in better there. Likewise, LeBron’s infamous quote directed at Kevin Love highlights the importance of buying into the system even on the most talented teams. It is no wonder that the teams finding success in the East are the ones who have been able to integrate their new pieces.
The Celtics sit atop the East despite losing Gordon Hayward. The main reason for that has been the addition and integration of Kyrie Irving. Irving has stepped out of LeBron’s shadow and into the MVP race this season. Irving is making life easy for players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown by creating open looks. Both have shown their ability to knock down open threes and defend at a high level. They would be perfect fits for the 3-and-D moniker if they were not already overqualified.
The Pacers have already caused some observers to reverse their opinion of the Paul George trade. Victor Oladipo is making his case for the Most Improved Player Award and Domantis Sabonis is showing his skills. Sabonis is flashing some nifty playmaking skills out of the pick and roll. Meanwhile, Oladipo is averaging over 23 points a game now that he has the rock in his hands. Those two have been the best players for the resurgent Pacers and could lead Indiana back to the playoffs.
Reno Avenue Freeze-Out:
The Thunder has been the most disappointing team in the NBA. It is inconceivable to have this much talent and be below .500 this far into the season. The struggles have led to questions about everything from Billy Donovan’s coaching ability to Russell Westbrook’s leadership skills. Westbrook continues to do it all but does that really matter if the team is not winning?
Suffice to say the integration of the new pieces on the Thunder roster has not gone smoothly. Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Patrick Patterson have all posted the worst shooting percentages of their careers. The same is true of Paul George if you omit his attempt to return from injury in the 2014 season. Some of that is certainly luck and their shooting should regress to the mean. The players and coaches have been unable to design an offense that keeps the ball moving. As a result, the Thunder rank dead last in passes per game despite Westbrook’s gaudy passing numbers.
The Thunder have slipped from 17th to 21st in offense this year. Much of that is due to the lack of ball movement. It is hard to imagine George and Anthony hurting the offense but Melo’s ball-stopping has killed any offensive flow. Meanwhile, the bench units do not have the players to juice the offense when the stars sit. Raymond Felton is the only player outside of the starting lineup capable of creating offense and he is well past his prime. Melo scoffed at the idea of being a bench player in the preseason. The Thunder should replace him with a player like Alex Abrines in the starting lineup. His shooting would space the floor on offense and give Melo the opportunity to run the second unit. If the Thunder does not start making changes, they might watch another star walk out the door.