NBA balance of power has flipped

Hassan Whiteside
Whiteside leads the NBA with 4 blocks per game.

We are nearing the halfway point in the NBA season and certain things are abundantly clear. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA. The 76ers are still terrible. Oh and don’t try shooting near Hassan Whiteside. Those were pretty much expected coming into the season, but we have seen an interesting flip between the Eastern and Western conferences.

In years past, the East has been top heavy while the West has been a gauntlet. You could say with almost certainty which teams from the East would be in the conference final while the West was a toss up. This year has been a bit backwards. The teams in the Eastern Conference are all clumped together while the West is very spread out. Every team in a playoff spot for the East has a winning record, but the seventh and eighth seeds in the West are below .500.

The Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic are currently tied for the final spot in the Eastern conference playoffs. They sit just 5.5 games behind the Cavaliers, who are on top of the conference. The Utah Jazz have a losing record but hold the last spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. They sit 16.5 games behind the first place Warriors.

To further the point, the Oklahoma City Thunder missed the playoffs last season with a record of 45-37. That record would have made them the sixth seed in the East. The seventh-seeded Mavericks in the West had the same record as the third-seeded Bulls in the East. The Spurs were the sixth seed in the West but would’ve been second in the East. It was clear that the West was the much stronger of the conferences.

Sure it isn’t realistic to compare finishing spots across conferences, but they didn’t have inflated records because the bottom of the West was just that bad. The bottom of the East was actually worse.

The question now is why was there a switch. There weren’t too many big name free agents who left the West. The biggest ones were probably Aaron Afflalo, Robin Lopez and Monta Ellis. None of them are future Hall of Famers or even All-Stars for that matter.

New York Knicks
Lopez (8) and Porzingis (6) have been a part of a largely improved Knicks team from a season ago.

The draft has seemed to produce a couple of talented players. Kristaps Porzingis for the Knicks, Jahlil Okafor for the 76ers and Karl-Anthony Towns for the Timberwolves. None of those teams are even in the playoff picture though, so that doesn’t seem to explain it either.

Could it be that some trade deadline movements are finally starting to make an impact? Gorgan Dragic moved from Phoenix to Miami. Reggie Jackson also joined the Pistons from the Thunder. Thaddeus Young left Minnesota for Brooklyn. Boston landed Isiah Thomas in a deal with Phoenix. Thomas, Dragic and Jackson have all become very valuable pieces on their new teams.

There is no definite answer right now. The East has suddenly just turned itself around and become the more competitive of the two conferences. My best guess is that some combination of trades, draft picks and free agent signings combined have had some impact on the change. I really don’t think that explains it all.

It is still early enough that we could see the tables turn and the West could have a strong second half. To this point though, the East seems to be reigning supreme.

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Why even bother?

I was looking through the list of NBA champions last week when writing my commemoration to Moses Malone. While I was looking over that list, I noticed an interesting trend among NBA champions, one that I thought was kind of troubling.

The_NBA_Finals_logoWhat I am going to tell you will significantly help you in determining who will be meeting in the NBA Finals after the playoff field is set.

The NBA seeds it’s playoff teams one through eight in each conference at the end of the season. Theoretically, everyone has a chance to win the championship but looking at NBA history, that doesn’t seem to be statistically true. The likelihood that an eighth-seeded team winning the championship based on NBA history is zero.

1995NBAFinalsThere has never been an eight seed to win the NBA Finals. In fact there has never been a seven, five or four seed to win the title either. Only one time in the last 65 years that a team not seeded one through three has taken home the trophy. That only time came 20 years ago when the Houston Rockets won the title as the sixth-seeded team in the West. That is even more impressive when you consider that back then, each conference only sent six teams from each conference.

Getting to the finals is almost impossible for teams outside of the top three as well. Granted the NBA has only sent eight teams from each conference starting in 1984 but over the last 31 years, only four times in that span has a team seeded outside of the top three even made it to the finals. Those same Rockets were the first and then four years later, the Knicks shocked everyone as the only eight seed to ever make it to the finals. The Mavericks in 2006 and the Celtics in 2010 remain the only teams not seeded in the top three to qualify for the playoffs in that time span.

Before that, the trend wasn’t much better despite having fewer teams. The Seattle Supersonics in 1978 made the Finals as a four seed. The Rockets preceded their eventual underdog win with a trip to the Finals in 1981. They round out the list of just six teams outside of the top three to make the finals.

NBA logoIt has gotten to a point where you have to wonder if teams should even bother trying. Obviously, everyone will because you never know what might happen but overall, the odds are so stacked against teams that haven’t locked up a top three seed. There have been 248 teams to enter the playoffs as the bottom four seeds over the past 31 years. Just one of those teams has made it to the Finals (the 1999 Knicks).

The best teams in the league are supposed to move on to the Finals but it is staggering how much the seeding plays a roll in who make it to the championship round. You have to wonder if the NBA could find a way to make the playoffs more level. There probably isn’t much and we still see teams that are the lower seeds upsetting higher seeds. They just never seem capable of doing anything past that.

Part of the problem is the tendency for NBA superstars to team up and create super teams. That means that these lower seeded teams are either very young or completely lack the talent to compete. It is a product of the NBA’s roster structure. It is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just how the league tends to run.

It is also a product of having seven game series. Just because a team has a bad night does not mean they are out of the postseason. They have a number of opportunities to regain their ground and aren’t like to have four bad games against a lower level team. That limits an underdogs chance to advance because they need to outplay what is considered a superior team four times, rather than just one.

There always has to be a time where the underdog wins. It just makes sense. However, until it finally happens, you have to wonder why even bother. The chance that these teams make it to the Finals is low. The chance that they win the NBA Title, close to impossible. Yet it is sports so the manta “any given Sunday” will continue to drive underdogs. That is the beauty of sports.

Just an interesting trend I noticed that definitely tell you a lot about the NBA.

King James turns back the clocks

LeBron JamesIt is always fun to turn back the clocks and reminisce about the days of old. LeBron James is doing that and then some right now in the NBA Playoffs. James has been on fire in the Eastern Conference Finals and is showing shades of his 2007 self. Even beyond that, this current Cavs team is starting to resemble the 2007 versions more and more as the playoffs roll on. It is slowly morphing into the LeBron show with a couple of random sidekicks jumping in every night to make an impact. The comparison is kind of scary.

The 2007 Cavaliers finished the season number two in the conference and entered the playoffs as a true title contender. James led the way and carried a team full of relatively unknown commodities. The starting lineup around LeBron consisted of Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlović, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskus. None of those guys were superstars by any means, and none of them scored more than 15 points a game in the regular season.

Obviously, this year’s Cavs have some more fire power but the pieces are continuing to fall as more of the burden falls on James. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both are nursing injuries that could cost them the rest of the playoffs. The Cavaliers starting lineup now features Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov alongside James. None of these guys have average more than 14 points a game since the playoffs began.LeBron_James_Wiz

Once again, the King is forced to prove why he sits on the throne. LeBron has done a very good job of answering the call so far. In three games without Irving or Love on the floor this postseason, James has tallied 27.3 points, 11.7 assists and 12 rebounds per night. Everyone points to that 2007 squad as the team that LeBron single-handedly brought to the finals, but he only average 25 points along with 8 helpers and 8 boards. Despite being 8 years older, James is playing even better now.

LeBron_James_Defensively, James is playing like his younger self as well. After registering 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks per contest during the regular season, James has turned it up a notch. The King is now posting 1.8 thefts and 1.3 rejections on a nightly basis since he’s entered the playoffs. Those numbers are identical as well to his 2007 playoff numbers.

The amazing thing is the transformation LeBron has undergone in that time. His game is very different now than it was 8 years ago but James is still proving to be productive. James is relying on his three-point shot less than ever and playing a lot more around the hoop. In fact 50.3 of James shots have come within ten feet this postseason. He continues to bang with guys in the paint and slash his way to the basket. What a difference this is now from what we saw when James relied on his jump shot and post fadeaway more often than not.

He does better with opponents around him too. LeBron has attempted 60 percent of his shots with an opponent less than four feet away from him. He has connected on 49 percent of them. Oddly enough, on the other 40 percent of his shots where an opponent is more than four feet away, James has only hit about 33 percent of those shots. This doesn’t take into account where he was on the floor but it is certainly interesting to see that he seems to relish some contact.LeBron_James_vs_Andre_Roberson

This was supposed to be a competitive Cleveland team because of the new Big 3 that was planning to take the league by storm. With only LeBron left standing of those three, they are still as viable a title threat now as they were before. Part of that is because of the three-point shooting from Dellavedova, Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Mozgov and Thompson’s rebounding certainly go a long way as well but without James this team would not have a prayer of beating Atlanta, much less winning a title.

Irving should return soon though and if he does at full strength this Cleveland team could challenge Golden State in the Finals. They would be deep enough at guard to contend with the Warriors backcourt rotation and they can answer with some three-pointers of their own. I am pulling for a Warriors-Cavaliers matchup now just because of the intensity that series could bring. James would likely faced Draymond Green on a night-to-night basis, which would be a great matchup. LeBron is hitting his stride at the right time so even Green might have trouble King James.

2007 might be long behind him but if James continues to play like he’s 23, he might just land himself another title and really turn up the heat on the conversation for greatest player of all time.

Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions

The playoffs are finally here in the NBA. Time to wonder who might stop the Cavaliers in the East and who might survive in the West. This is going to be one of the most difficult NBA playoffs to predict in recent memory. There will be some great first round matchups (Clippers vs. Spurs) and some rather lopsided ones (Cavaliers vs. Celtics). It’s time to breakdown the first wave of postseason matchups, this time in the East. These will be a fun batch of games to watch.

Atlanta vs. Brooklyn
Prediction: Hawks in four games
The Nets are a talented team that has yet to figure out how to get that talent to play well together. The Hawks have the best record in the Eastern Conference. The regular season series between these two teams finished four games to none and Atlanta blew Brooklyn out in three of them. The Hawks have an incredible starting five. Their Al Horford and Paul Millsap will give the Nets hell and I do not think they will find an answer for Kyle Korver. Joe Johnson will make some plays but not enough to even get Brooklyn a win against his former team.

Cleveland vs. Boston
Prediction: Cavaliers in five games
Boston comes into the playoffs on a six-game winning streak. That momentum should be enough to earn the Celtics a win somewhere in the early goings of this series. Unfortunately, that’s about all it gets them. Boston has some talented guards that will keep them in games for a little while. Isiah Thomas will find a way to ignite the offense. But defensively, the Celtics have no answer for LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. Cleveland’s two-man wrecking crew will provide enough offense to overpower a Celtics team that tied with New York for 21st in the league for scoring defense. That is not convincing in any way, so the Cavs will roll in just five. (Bonus prediction: Kevin Love will win his first playoff series as an overall non-factor).

Chicago vs. Milwaukee
Prediction: Chicago in six games
I really like Milwaukee, I really do. Just not more than I like Chicago unfortunately. I think the Bucks might have a shot at knocking either the Raptors or the Wizards out of the playoffs but the Bulls are simply too strong. This matchup will feature several low scoring games as both teams rank in the top nine in defensive scoring. The Bucks lack the consistent scoring threat needed to knock off the Bulls. Having rookie Jabari Parker in this series would have been a huge boost. If Derrick Rose comes back playing a consistently above average level, Milwaukee doesn’t really have a shot of pulling off the upset.

Toronto vs. Washington
Prediction: Washington in seven games
This is probably the toughest Eastern Conference series to call. The Raptors looked less than convincing as they geared up for the postseason. Since April began, Toronto lost to Brooklyn once and Boston twice and narrowly defeated Orlando and Miami. None of those teams had records above .500 either. Washington is hard to figure out as well. The Wizards in their last four games got crushed by the Nets before beating Atlanta. They then went on to lose in overtime to the Pacers and Cavs. It is difficult to get a sense for how good either of these teams are. With all of that inconsistency, I think the series will go to seven games with a lot of momentum shifting back and forth. In the end, I think John Wall will be the x-factor giving the Wizards the edge.