For a league where over half the teams receive postseason berths, making the playoffs in the NBA remains a huge deal. If you are not a contender and you make the playoffs, the season is a success to at least some degree. Reaching the playoffs, regardless of the context therein, is considered an accomplishment, particularly if you were not expected to going into the season.
The 2016 Trail Blazers are a great example of this. Portland was expected to be a bottom-dweller; I foolishly picked the Blazers to have the worst record in the league -- whoops. Instead, they stormed out to a ... 14-21 record on Jan. 1. Then they finished March and April by going a stellar ... 12-10. OK, so they weren't good to start the year and they were only OK in the back section when the schedule got tough. But in the middle for January and February, they went 18-7. That two-month run was enough to get them into the playoffs; they were 26-31 outside of those two months.
This isn't to indicate that the Blazers were frauds. Those games in January and February count just as much as any other game and featured some impressive wins vs. quality teams. However, it does seem notable that for as much as the Western Conference has dominated over the past two decades, the Western Conference's fifth seed basically made the playoffs because of a two-month stint in January and February. That's all that was needed.
Just as interesting is the fact that Portland finished with 44 wins, compared to the Eastern Conference's fifth seed, the Boston Celtics, who finished with 48 wins. Which is just one of many things that lead us to a big question: What will it take to make the playoffs in the East vs. the West this upcoming season? And maybe more important, has the balance of power really shifted to the East?
Not necessarily. Let's quickly set the table.
Put simply, last year was the first time since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season that the East's No. 8 seed finished with more wins than the West's No. 8 seed (Detroit Pistons 44, Houston Rockets 41). Only in another lockout-shortened season, 2011-12, did the East really even come close. The gap was almost laughably large for the five seasons preceding 2016.
Here's a look at how many wins the eighth seed finished with in each conference since 2012:
|2012*||35 (43)||36 (44)|
*2012 was the lockout season; the league only played 66 games. Parentheses indicates wins averaged for 82-game season.
This is not new information. It is commonly held knowledge that the Western Conference has been substantially better, not only in record but overall strength of conference year after year for decades. You have to go back to the mid-'90s to find the balance significantly tipped in the East's favor, and that includes the dominance of Jordan's Bulls. Even then you can make an argument for conference strength favoring the West with David Robinson's Spurs, Olajuwon's Rockets, Barkley's Suns, the Payton-Kemp Sonics and the Jazz with Malone and Stockton.
Even last year, to say the East substantially closed the gap is somewhat deceiving. It depends what part of the conference you're looking at. Let's look at the top four seeds in each conference last season.
|No. 1||57||73||West (+16)|
|No. 2||56||67||West (+11)|
|No. 3||48||55||West (+7)|
|No. 4||48||53||West (+5)|
The Warriors obviously had an incredible season, the best in league history for the regular season, but it's also shocking that they won 16 more games than the No. 1 seed in the East, the Cavaliers. Likewise, the Spurs, the No. 2 seed in the West, won 10 more than Cleveland, and even the No. 3 seed in the West won just two fewer than the Cavs.
That's outright domination at the top. By season's end, the complete list of contenders in the NBA was Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and if you were feeling feisty, you could say Oklahoma City (especially with the benefit of hindsight given the Thunder's playoff run). Three of those were in the West. It was as top-heavy as it gets.
However ... once you dip down below the top, it gets more interesting.
|No. 5||48||44||East (+4)|
|No. 6||48||42||East (+6)|
|No. 7||45||42||East (+3)|
|No. 8||44||41||East (+3)|
As you can see, the conferences as a whole look a lot different from this perspective. And as one more piece of reference, the ninth and 10th teams in the East (Chicago and Washington) won 10 more games than the ninth and 10th in the West (Utah and Sacramento).
There is, of course, a pretty significant footnote here. If the top Western teams are this strong, and the rest of the West plays those teams more often than the East does, the bottom Western teams are going to have worse records for the tougher schedule they're enduring. Cleveland.com found that the West still finished above .500 vs. the East teams, but that the gap had shrunk from 76 games down to just 14.
So there is at least a trend that suggests the East is catching up, and even if it isn't, it doesn't really matter if the teams in the West are "better" than the East for the purposes of our question. The more important question is what it's going to take in 2016-17 to make the playoffs.
SO, WHAT'S IT GOING TO TAKE TO GET IN?
Let's go back to those bottom four seeds in the West from last year.
- No. 5 Portland (44 wins)
- No. 6 Dallas (42 wins)
- No. 7 Memphis (42 wins)
- No. 8 Houston (41 wins)
Portland, we already discussed, had some holes. But thanks to the epic fall-off from the rest of the conference, the Blazers landed the No. 5 seed and after the Clippers' injuries hit them in Round 1, advanced to the second round where they were summarily dismissed by the Warriors, no shame there. Dallas was 13-14 after the All-Star break. The Mavericks got off to a good start, and then basically slowly slid away before the Thunder dispatched them; they also suffered Chandler Parson's injury on top of everything else to end the season.
The Grizzlies went through one of the worst bouts of injury luck we've ever seen. They had a record 28 players on roster at some point this season, and dealt with season-ending injuries to Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Mario Chalmers and Brandan Wright. Their two point guards in the playoffs, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Munford, are unsigned as free agents. That's unlikely to repeat, even with their many injury-plagued players.
The Rockets pretty much begged someone to put them out of their misery the entire season but always managed to win just enough to prolong the misery. They fired their coach in the first month of the season and did not look like a playoff team at any point, given their pitiful defensive effort.
On top of those four teams, every possible outside contender came up short. Utah's tough closing schedule did it in after a bad-luck stretch where both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors were injured midseason put the Jazz in catch-up mode. The Kings ... well, they're the Kings. The Nuggets had a brutal early-season schedule compounded by inexperience and injury and spent the rest of the season trying to dig out before a late-March swoon put them out for good. The Pelicans had as bad of injury luck as Memphis did, and on top of it didn't gel with new coach Alvin Gentry. The Timberwolves were too young to know how to win.
Now, in the summer, it's easy to chalk up nothing but optimism, but there are real reasons to believe the West will rebound. Portland is young, so its internal development gives reason to think they Blazers will at least hold steady, if not improve with the additions of Festus Ezeli and Evan Turner.
Dallas did what it has done the past three years, replaced its various barely playoff-capable parts with other barely playoff-capable parts. There's little reason to expect Dallas to take off and suddenly be a top-five team in the conference ... but there's also little reason to doubt Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki can drag this team to the playoffs.
Memphis could fall apart to injury again, but as long as it isn't the apocalypse that last season was, with the addition of Chandler Parsons and younger supporting players, there's a cast to make a run for a top-four seed in place.
Houston will have a top-five offense with Mike D'Antoni and the free-agent additions. If the Rockets' defense just isn't "abhorrent to the point of making you physically ill" then they are a playoff team.
Utah loaded up and looks like a lock for a spot. The Kings have Dave Joerger and a versatile, intriguing roster behind Boogie Cousins in his prime. The Nuggets should make strides with their young core and get Wilson Chandler back. The Wolves look primed to take the league by storm with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The Pelicans still have Anthony Davis and could make a jump back to where they were going into the season.
So the playoff teams got better, and the non-playoff teams got better. Just by virtue of competition, there's reason to believe that the West will take at least 43 wins to reach the playoffs. A more reasonable estimate puts the eighth team at 45 wins, and it likely could be a competitive 45.
On the other side, there's a good chance that the East at least remains in place. Boston improved with getting Al Horford, Toronto isn't going anywhere and the Cavs obviously remain in place. The Hawks fell off, as you can argue they're still a playoff team but losing Jeff Teague and Horford and getting back only Dwight Howard isn't a great swap. Miami, too, should tumble to a degree after losing Dwyane Wade with no real addition to make up the difference and questions about Chris Bosh's future.
But again, the competition question comes into play. After Cleveland, Toronto and Boston, you have to think Indiana with an upgraded starting unit and Detroit with a full year of Tobias Harris and an upgraded bench will make a run. So that's five teams. For those final three spots, however, these are the teams with a reasonable case for one of those spots: Atlanta, Miami, Charlotte, Chicago, Washington, Milwaukee and New York.
That's seven teams, with the Magic at least having an "also considered" case. Going into last season, we thought Washington and Milwaukee were locks, and New York had a case. So clearly, for some teams, things don't go as planned. But the bigger point is that the tiers in the East are broader than they have been historically. In some years, the East has been more a matter of "Well, someone has to make it." Now, there are legitimately good teams with legitimately good coaches and rosters in play for those last spots.
It's realistic to think that while the East may not require Detroit's 44 wins for the eighth seed next season, that 42 wins or better, a mark over .500, will be necessary and that the East will be within range, or surpass, the West eighth seed's win total mark again.
So an easy answer to "What will the balance of power be like next year?" is that the West will be better, and the East will remain the same. But those wins and losses have to go somewhere. And either a bottom tier that is dreadful, like in 2014, will bubble up for teams to beat up on, or the top teams will come back to Earth a bit. Some of that is likely in the West as the Spurs don't seem as strong as they were last season on paper, the Thunder will tumble without Kevin Durant and questions about the Clippers' future linger. In the East, Cleveland should remain air-tight, but also won't value the regular season as much after proving it can win the title, and both the Celtics and Raptors had good seasons but are by no means invincible.
THE SILENT MAJORITY
What this means in the grand picture is a strengthening of the NBA's middle class. These teams are not contenders; there are realistically only two contenders, Cleveland and Golden State, from the vantage point of July 31. But the range of "really good" to "good enough" should be wider this season. Even if the Warriors somehow surpass their historic mark from last season, the Spurs are unlikely to be as dominant, even if they are still "The Spurs." Toronto is unlikely to rattle off franchise-best marks for wins in consecutive years, even if the Raptors keep hold of their spot as the second-best team in the East.
And it means that if your favorite team is in the mix for a playoff spot next season, it will likely take a better performance than 2015-16.
There are three top teams in the West (Golden State, San Antonio, the Clippers) and three top teams in the East (Cleveland, Toronto and Boston --- though Toronto or Boston could finish lower). And there are 10 teams in the West realistically vying for the other five spots, and realistically seven teams in the East vying for three spots (if we consider Indiana and Detroit near-locks).
The NBA has been vexed over the issue of competitive balance for years. Going into 2016-2017 it is maybe more out of whack than ever when it comes to serious title contenders as only the Warriors and Cavs can make a real case. But as far as balance for being what is considered a "good team," a playoff team? This season could be as wide open as any we've seen. Hopefully, even with the inevitable spate of teams that will fall victim to uninspired play, injury and dysfunction, fans get to reap the rewards of a competitive and well-balanced fight for the healthy middle next year.
Suddenly the NBA All-Star Game is going to be more like the pickup game at the schoolyard.
And it just made an often tedious game far more interesting… if the players go harder.
The NBA has announced significant changes to the All-Star Game, starting for the 2018 edition in Los Angeles next February. Team captains will choose the teams from the pool of selected players, and those teams will be playing for charities on the Sunday night showcase. The days of East vs. West are gone.
“I’m thrilled with what the players and the league have done to improve the All-Star Game, which has been a priority for all of us,” said NBPA President Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets. “We’re looking forward to putting on an entertaining show in L.A.”
Here’s how it will work:
• The pool of All-Star Game starters will be selected the same way, by a vote of the fans (50%), current players (25%), and select media members (25%). Voters will select the five starters — two guards, three frontcourt players — for each conference.
• The rest of the All-Star teams will again be selected by the coaches, again seven more players from each conference.
• The players who are the top vote-getter in each conference will be selected as the captains (last season that would have been LeBron James and Kevin Durant).
• The remaining eight starters will go into a “starters pool” and the captains will take turns choosing players. They are not bound by conference or anything else — this is like schoolyard pickup.
• The captains will then choose the rest of their teams from the “reserves pool” selected by the coaches, to round out the rosters of 12.
• Once chosen, each team will select a Los Angeles-area charity (this year, because that’s where the game is hosted) or national organization where donations will be used to support local efforts.
• The teams will still be coached by the coach of the team with the best record in each conference 14 days before the game (unless that coach did it the year before, then it goes to the coach of the team with the second-best record).
After the All-Star Game last February — which felt flat in a lot of ways because the players were just going through the motions and the defense was nonexistent — Chris Paul and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver started talking and brainstorming ways to make the annual game more interesting and entertaining. This is what they came up with.
And it works, to the extent that this is more interesting for fans.
I’m interested. There will be a lot of discussion of who should pick whom due to playing style and fit, plus you know we’re all going to read free agent moves into who players pick as teammates (even though we all know we shouldn’t).
Personally, I would have liked the league to go one step further — take the 24 best players, regardless of conference. Think about the imbalances in the conferences this season and who is going to be left off in the West or make it in the East, why not just choose the best players regardless of conference? It’s the next step for this effort.
Will players go harder in the game now? I don’t know. The charity aspect may provide a little motivation, but if you really want players to go hard, there needs to be a real incentive for them on the line — like lots of cash. Maybe there could be something else, but cash talks.
Still, this is better than a repeat of years past. It’s an attempt add some energy to the game.