A Recent History of Parity Between Conferences

EastWest

I’ve found all of the flap about how bad the Eastern conference has been this season pretty annoying. Annoying because it’s elaborating on the obvious. Annoying because it’s the same story we’ve been hearing for over a decade. And annoying because while everyone is talking about it, they’re all talking about it from the same angle. A few days ago, The Pest posted a closer look at this season’s Eastern conference, giving another perspective to the story. Now, I’m going to look at the recent history of the issue.

For the purposes of examining this era of the “Leastern Conference” I’m going to stick with the last 15 seasons (starting in 1998-99) as a definition of “recent” to make things simple and because Jordan’s departure from the Bulls is as fitting of a cutoff as any.

We can accept it as fact that the Western Conference has been somewhere between “better” and “much better” than the East over this period. I won’t belabor this much because anyone who’s been paying attention knows and has heard about it more than enough. Over these last 15 seasons, only one sub-.500 team has made the postseason in the West. In the East, there have been eight teams with a record below .500 make the playoffs and five teams make the playoffs with a .500 record exactly.

The same disparity exists on the top of the conferences. Ten of these last 15 (two-thirds) Championship winners have been from the West.

In one area, however, the East has dominated: parity.

Only 3 Western Conference teams have won those 10 Championships (Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks) and only 1 other team has even made it to the Finals (Oklahoma City). The same number of Eastern Conference teams (3) have won their 5 Championships and where the West has sent only 4 different teams to the Finals, the East has sent 9. The West won more championships, but being a deeper, “better” conference didn’t have anything to do with it. Most of the Championships belong to just two teams. For 7 straight seasons, and 11 of 12, only the Lakers and Spurs came out of the West. If Shaq had stayed in Orlando or an Eastern Conference team had gotten the #1 pick in 1997, the championship disparity might be gone or even favor the East. That’s a seismic shift based solely on the addresses of two tall people.

It’s also useful to note that the conferences have split championships 5/5 over the last decade, even though the West’s has been more dominant in inter-conference regular season play. As the East has gotten weaker overall, its share of the Championships has gotten bigger. A deeper West has not resulted in more champions.

As the articles about the terrible Eastern Conference have piled up this year, everyone wants to ask why this is happening and frequently, blame falls to management or ownership but are these owners really doing a worse job than their Western Conference counterparts? It’s nice that Denver hasn’t missed the playoffs in ten straight seasons but they only once made it beyond the first round and never had a true contender.

Minnesota during the Garnett years, the Suns during the Nash years, Portland, Utah… A lot of Western Conference teams have had regular season success without seeing the Finals. Most not even their conference Finals. These teams will be talked about in barber shops and and barrooms by ardent fans who remember the teams that had a shot and missed but outside of those states, they’ll be largely wiped from main stream memory. Who wants to hear about the Carmelo Nuggets who played while the Spurs and Lakers were dominating the NBA? Not many, outside of Colorado.

These things run in cycles and often times, the cycles depend on who the best couple of players are. Or rather, where they are. From 1999 to 2011, 10 of the 13 NBA Champions came from the West. But that followed a period from 1989 to 1998 where 8 of the 10 NBA Champions hailed from the East. As we know, a lot of those numbers have to do with where Michael Jordan got his mail. If Larry Bird had been drafted by a team out West, would Magic Johnson have made the Finals 9 times? Again, we’re talking about altering the conversation in drastic ways based on where two rich guys spend their Christmases.

The Detroit Pisons or New Jersey Nets haven’t had nearly as much regular season success over those years but by virtue of making a pair of NBA Finals both the Jason Kidd Nets and the Ben Wallace Pistons have a place in history, even among fans of other teams.

The caveat, of course, is that Denver fans never had to put up with a 12-win season or force themselves to root for the potential of Yi Jianlian like New Jersey had to. Since Detroit’s remarkable run of 6 straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances, they’ve fallen apart and have lost more than 60% of their games for 5 straight years.

The “Leastern Conference” jokes will continue but my Boston Celtics, horrible for most of these 15 years, have a Championship and the Utah Jazz don’t. I wouldn’t trade their 15 seasons for mine. I’m sure Detroit fans wouldn’t either.

As bad as the East has been this year, it still boasts two of the best teams in the league with the Heat and the Pacers. Arguably, these are the best teams in either conference. The East has at least as good of a chance of producing an NBA Champion as the West does and that’s what we’re all about, right? Win or go home. It sucks that there aren’t more true competitors in the East but only one of them gets a shot at the trophy anyway. And if the Heat make it a 3-peat or the Pacers win their first Championship in franchise history, that’ll be the third Eastern Conference team to win it all in a row. That counts as a streak, in my book.

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In Defence Of: The Woeful Eastern Conference

At first glance it looks like this is all LeBron has been doing in his home conference.

At first glance it looks like this is all LeBron has been doing in his home conference.

The East stinks. A litany of narratives describing it’s odor have been flying this season. A friend recently related that 31-24 Memphis (9th in the West) would be a force in the East. It’s a popular narrative that resurfaces every few seasons in the post Michael Jordan era. Outside the Heat and Pacers all the dominant talent and teams are in the West. The entire East is incompetent, tanking or both.

But is that true? Has lack of Eastern talent caused this gulf in wins and losses?

Lets look closer.

The Top

The above sums up the Raptors season. :)

Miami, Indiana, Toronto. The first two are obvious. My Raps aren’t contending for titles (without some huge luck) but no doubt they are the team Miami and Indy does not want to play on their way to the conference finals. They can compete with any team in the league and play solid ball on both ends of the floor despite 3 of their 4 best players being under 25 years of age.

The Middle (in no particular order)

Boston: In it’s position because Rondo went down and there was no point in trying without him. PP/KG left. Not that they would be contending but they wouldn’t be nearly this bad. They would be good and a threat in the playoffs only because they know how to win together so well.

Chicago: I don’t think Rose would have made them super contenders but losing him has made what should be at least a semi-contending team middle of the pack.

Who the #1 worst contract in the NBA???

Who the #1 worst contract in the NBA???

New York: Totally predictable, but the steep downward trajectory of Amare Stoudamire’s career was never anticipated this early. Or the continued mental collapse of JR Smith (which IS an injury). You can blame other moves on the team but there is no doubt if they even had declining all star Amare instead of a huge cap burden, this team would be in a totally different position. If they had Kevin Love (making 8 million less) they’d be title contenders.

Atlanta: Would they be title contenders? No. But they would be regularly beating very good teams if Al Horford wasn’t done for the season. They would be a team deserving to be in the playoff race in either conference.

Brooklyn: They had a brutal start. Injured. Atrocious. But it’s not their fault that Brook Lopez’s career might be over. Old as hell and they still came back much of the way to beat every team in the league that matters and just beat the Heat. I still say look out in the playoffs for the old grandpas waking up.

Young Guns

Andre Drummond: Beast yesterday. Beast today. Beast tomorrow.

Andre Drummond: Beast yesterday. Beast today. Beast tomorrow.

Detroit: It can’t be denied. Drummond is a guy you can build around. Smith is a great player. Monroe is only 23 and is full of talent. If Brandon Jennings can figure out how to use his talent they could be a totally dominant team on both ends of the floor. They are some good coaching away from competing with anyone. And I really like what Will Bynum is giving them right now. ;)

Washington: Wall and Beal are both legit pieces. Not to mention, the team is playing so much better now. They’ve recently beaten Chicago twice, Miami, Phoenix, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Portland and unfortunately my Raps. That’s not some scrub team and would likely be in the same position out West since they have the talent to control their destiny instead of merely getting wins from beatable teams.

Charlotte: They don’t suck. At all. The Cats have an elite 6′th best defensive rating in the league. Al Jefferson is having his best year in I don’t know how many seasons. (I do actually, the season he started to KILL it in Minny, leading the NBA’s hottest team of the new year, and he busted his knee).

Kemba Walker is maybe overwhelmed but a team playing D like that gets you wins in either conference. Their problem is that they lack enough scoring talent to win the majority of their games. That’s also why Memphis is in 9′th though. I fail to see a hugely significant difference. Charlotte is a team that is clearly one piece away from turning it around on a dime. If a team should ever tank, or could get away with it, it’s them but they’re playing into 7′th because they are good, not because they stink.

Orlando: Vucevic is 23. Harris is 21. Oladipo is 21. Afflalo is the old man at 28. The magic are not a bad team. They’re just way too young to win a lot of games. Call them weak for that but like a lot of the teams on this list they’re using the season to learn how to be dominant. They just recently beat the Thunder and Pacers in back to back games. But lack consistency getting blown out to my raps by 25 even more recently.

The Rest

That leaves only 3 teams that are truly awful. The Bucks maybe don’t deserve to be here since losing Larry Sanders is really the reason they can’t beat anyone. Their defensive rating went from 12′th last year to dead last 30th this year. They didn’t lose that from Monta Ellis.

The 76ers who put out a tanking Bat Signal with their trade of Evan Turner.

A team everyone wants to be their's, but no one really wants to be on.

A team everyone wants to be their’s, but no one really wants to be on.

The Cavs who have loads of talent and 0 chemistry. They full deserve to be at the bottom of the barrel.

In comparison to the West’s bad teams there really isn’t as big a disparity as you’d imagine. The Lakers are terrible and not by accident. The Nuggets have Lawson/Faried but not much else to prevent being punching bags. The Jazz combine not being able to score with being the worst defensive team in the league.

The Mavs do well but it’s on Dirk who’s really this great while being this old (35, yikes!). Other then Monta guys around him like Vince and Marion are on their last legs. Memphis is still a good team but realistically this is the first year that Zach Randolph is showing that he’s past his prime and this is the biggest reason they’re not winning games.

The West lacks the rising young teams and has fared a little better health wise. Barring a 100% return by Eric Gordon it seems like the Pelicans need more to win around Anthony Davis. The Kings have talent but I’m not sold on Rudy Gay being the guy Sacramento needs to pair with Demarcus Cousins. And that’s really it. Phoenix and Portland are playing great but there’s a nagging feeling this is their peak, like Denver last year.

The West is no doubt getting more W’s this year but the it’s the size of the gap that’s a hyperbole. It may require shifting some semantics, but after factoring in the reasons for the disparity in those W/L columns and how some teams are building for the future accusations of a whole conference tanking starts looking less like wisdom and little more like slander.

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Pau Gasol and the Hall of Fame Probability Game

Basketball-Reference.com has all kinds of fun stuff. Today I found myself staring at their list ranking the probability of active players making the Hall of Fame. Kobe Bryant is the only active “lock” for the hall (1.000 probability) while Tim Duncan sits at 0.9999 (What more can The Big Fundamental do?!).

The system for how basketball-reference ranks the players (http://www.basketball-reference.com/about/hof_prob.html) is far from fool proof. Ray Allen has an impressive .9649 probability (right below Paul Pierce) but should probably get a few percentage points just for last year’s Championship-saving shot. Meanwhile, 2-time MVP and 5-time assist leader Steve Nash has a silly .5572 probability (18th in the ranking, behind Tracy McGrady). As a two-time MVP, Nash is a lock for the hall but awards aren’t part of the metric being used here.

So there are flaws. That doesn’t make this less fun.

Pau Gasol currently sits at #16 on the list with a probability of .6087. He’s a two-time champion and 3-time NBA Finalist (and probably earned himself a FMVP but doesn’t actually have one, I digress) but he only made 4 all-star games and 3 All NBA teams (no 1st teams). That’s on the low side for a hall of famer. He also was never dominant in any one area. He never led the league in any category, or averaged as much as 21 points per game in a season. His career average of 9.2 rebounds per game is good but not all-time-good. Same with his 3.3 assists per game, which don’t adequately convey how good of a passer Gasol has been.

It needs to be said that he spent the first 6 years of his career in Memphis with little to no help, making only 1 all star appearance in the West even though guys like Zydrunas Ilgauskas were getting selections for the East. And his “peak” hasn’t lasted as long as a lot of other hall of famers. Unless he has a late-career resurgence, he played in his final all star game at the age of 30. Meanwhile, his contemporaries are playing past 35, if not at all-star levels, near it.

Gasol could still improve his hall chances. Dwindling numbers could be boosted by a change of scenery to a team that values him more than the Lakers have (and pairs him with a top-tier player more complimentary than The Black Mamba). If he’s relatively healthy there’s no reason he couldn’t play another 5 years in today’s NBA. If he found his way to a contender, he could yet be a major cog in a championship machine. Imagine if, after this season, Gasol became a cheaper replacement for Chris Bosh in Miami and he wins another ring or two alongside Lebron James. Stranger things have happened in the NBA.

Right now, it’s hard to say anything with confidence. Gasol’s career could still end a number of different ways. This season he’s putting up his second-worst point average on the worst FG% of his career but he’s also rebounding well and the Kobe Bryant question still lingers. He could finish the season with drastically different numbers than he has now.

Even with potentially good years left, it’s still not certain that Gasol can hit any of the milestones a lot of hall voters look for. He might reach 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds but he might not and even those landmarks aren’t as meaningful as they once were (ladies and gentlemen, Antawn Jamison). Those are hard truths for anyone who watched Gasol during that 6 year stretch he made his all-star appearances and was one of the smartest players in the NBA. Remember when he was the best low post scorer in the league? As a Celtic fan, I still remember being scared to death of him in the ’10 Finals when it felt like he was picking apart my team’s weaknesses and recreating his own game on the fly to fit whatever the Lakers needed (this was all the more pronounced when juxtaposed with Kobe Bryant’s own stubbornness that cost them games in both ’08 and in ’10). Baskbetall-reference also can’t account for Gasol’s international success for the  Spanish National Team. That matters.

For now, Gasol’s hall probability of .6087 is right where it should be. He’s more likely to make it than not but if the trend of these last few seasons continues and Gasol’s meaningful NBA minutes are behind him, voters might not find themselves disenchanted with stats and accolades lacking when compared to contemporaries like Duncan, Nowitzki, Garnett, Dwight Howard or the potential numbers a player like Kevin Love is on pace for.

I remain optimistic. If I’m wrong, then this is a lot of words spent on the second-best player on a lottery team in 2013. But if Gasol can find a new, more amenable home next year and solidify his legacy then this can be a snapshot of a time when things weren’t so certain for the elder Gasol. Age isn’t going to take away his basketball acumen or his passing ability or his height and length. He can still be the first Gasol to carve out a spot in Springfield. I think, eventually, he will be.

And anyway, Manu Ginobili’s probability is only .1291 so this whole list is fakakta.

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Does the NBA Need Point Guards?

Are All Time Point Guards A Thing Of The Past?

Last season, the Spurs came within a miracle shot of winning the NBA championship and they did so with a real good point guard (PG) by the name of Tony Parker. But for all of last season, the 10-15 minutes a game that Parker wasn’t on the court, the Spurs didn’t have a back-up PG. Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal became lead playmakers even though both are natural SG’s.

On the other side, the Miami Heat start Mario Chalmers at the point. He’s a true PG but his main role in the offense is to bring up the ball and then spot up while either Lebron James or Dwyane Wade run the offense. When Chalmers sits, the Heat don’t have a true PG on the bench, either. The closest thing to a traditional PG on the roster (other than Chalmers) is Norris Cole, who has PG size but SG mentality.

Over the last handful of years, the NBA has seen an explosion in PG talent but how many of them are “true” PG’s? Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving are all young PG’s who average respectable-to-good assist numbers but whose games are built around their scoring first and passing second. Throw in the likes of (more arguably) Damian Lillard, Derick Rose and Jeremy Lin and the list grows. The strange thing about this list is that Irving is the only one whose team looks likely to miss the playoffs this year. He’s the outlier (note: I wrote this before the tragic Rose injury).

The case of Jeremy Lin is fascinating. After starting last season and the beginning of this one, he’s been moved to the bench and found great success there. The theory at work is that both he and James Harden are too ball dominant to reach their respective potentials while on the floor at the same time but when Lin can play PG during the times Harden is sitting, he’s more effective. Lin’s replacement in the Houston starting lineup is Patrick Beverly, a defensive specialist who averages less assists per 36 minutes than Chandler Parsons or Omri Casspi, the team’s forwards. Houston still has a lot of question marks going forward but this guard rotation seems to work.

There’s Little Doubt There Have Been Linsanity Sightings In Houston

 

In Golden State, some pessimistic prognosticators foresaw doom for the Warriors without “true” PG Jarrett Jack coming in off the bench. Jack got some 6th Man of the Year noise last season, often playing alongisde Curry with Steph in the defacto 2-spot. Curry averaged almost 7 apg last season and is over 8 per game early this year but it’s impossible to think of him as being cut from the same cloth as Bob Cousy, John Stockton, or Chris Paul. The Warriors are finding success so far and not only are they doing it with Curry at the point but also without a Jarret Jack-type backing him up. Golden State is another team that playS significant minutes without any PG at all and when they do use their backup, it’s Toney Douglas. Everyone remember Toney Douglas?

This is not to say a team can’t win with an old school PG. The Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 Championship starting Jason Kidd and the aforementioned Spurs won titles not so long ago with Tony Parker, even if Parker didn’t have a “true” PG backup. But the most successful teams of the last 20+ years were the Phil Jackson coached Lakers and Bulls teams, running a system that asked to PG’s to be able to shoot and defend but left major playmaking duties to versatile forwards like Scottie Pippen and Lamar Odom. The Shaq-led Lakers just ran their offense through two of the most dominant scorers to ever play on the same team and started Derick Fischer.

Pro sports are as subject to trends as any big industry. Maybe even more so. In the 90′s, every team wanted twin towers. Last season, NBA players made more 3-pointers than in any other season (they’re on pace to break that record this year) in no small part because traditional wings like Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony saw themselves playing “stretch 4,” something teams seem more intent than ever to experiment with. Meanwhile, PG’s like Curry, Lillard, and Jameer Nelson were hoisting over 6 treys a game. Teams are finding success filling rosters with willing passers at other positions and letting their point men off the leash. Things are different now and they’ll continue to change.

Does This Make Sense Anymore?

A lot of NBA circles were in awe of the Heat winning with small ball these last two seasons but maybe the lesson wasn’t about the advantages of going small as it was a lesson in playing to your team’s strengths. The Heat didn’t need a traditional lineup as long as each player was put in a position to maximize their potential together (and, yeah, Lebron James). If the Heat were to make their way back to the NBA finals and be defeated by a a team like the Warriors or the Timberwolves (stop laughing, I’m making a point!) the NBA would claim the death of the small-ball experiment. But what will actually have happened is that teams played their best players in a way that made the most sense to the team. Talent is trumping system. What’s dying, is the mold of NBA positions.

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