LOS ANGELES—If the NBA playoffs started Sunday, they would include one team five games below .500, two other teams with losing records at home and a fourth team that has gone 0-5 in its division.
In what kind of an insane realm does this mishmash of mediocrity qualify as success, and where do the Lakers sign up?
It’s called the Eastern Conference, with membership confined to mostly poor, huddled masses yearning to wheeze free.
Eleven of the 15 teams have losing records. Toronto’s 16-15 record is good enough to lead the awful Atlantic Division, where the second-place team will probably be high in the draft lottery. The only quality teams, Miami and Indiana, can clear their schedules between the start of the playoffs and the conference finals.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” TNT analyst Steve Kerr said of the East, “which is just a huge advantage for Miami, particularly the way this is panning out. Teams historically have struggled trying to three-peat or get to the Finals four years in a row. It just rarely happens because teams are so wiped out, but for Miami it looks like they’re going to have a cakewalk to the East finals.
“The lack of stress that they’re going to deal with for a full month I think could be just a huge difference for them trying to repeat.”
So, how did we get to this sorry state in the East? Theories abound.
The talent discrepancy: Eight of the league’s top 10 rebounders and seven of its top 10 scorers reside in the Western Conference thanks to shrewd maneuvering, some lottery luck and the whims of Dwight Howard. This presents an obvious dilemma for the East.
“Teams aren’t as good,” said Charlotte Coach Steve Clifford. “It’s pretty simple. Write that down.”
Teams from the East were 53-111 against the West, a .323 winning percentage, going into Saturday’s games. Only Miami (9-2) and Indiana (7-2) had posted winning records against their conference counterparts. The Heat and Pacers were also the only teams from the East that would qualify for the playoffs if they were in the West.
Conversely, the Lakers, at 14-19, are in 13th place in the West; they would be tied with Detroit for sixth in the East.
The injury factor: Coaches in the East have spent more time examining medical reports than box scores. Chicago’s Derrick Rose is out for the season. So are Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez and Atlanta’s Al Horford.
Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton have all missed time for the New York Knicks.
It’s hard to sustain success with some of the Development League-caliber lineups these teams have been forced to roll out. Brooklyn played the Clippers with four of its five regular starters sidelined.
“We did think certain teams would be really good this year and they just haven’t turned out,” said Clippers Coach Doc Rivers. “We thought the Nets would be terrific; the Knicks too, for that matter. But both of them have had a lot of injuries.”
Among other issues that have kept smiles on the faces of New York’s tabloid headline writers:
Coaching carousel: Eight of the league’s 13 new coaches are in the East. Here’s hoping when they went house hunting they decided to lease instead of buy.
Brooklyn Coach Jason Kidd has looked the most out of sorts with his too-tight suits and his Sodagate silliness and his bickering with demoted assistant Lawrence Frank. Detroit Coach Maurice Cheeks has struggled to coexist with Josh Smith. Mike Brown’s second tenure in Cleveland could be dubbed Mistake by the Lake II.
“It’s just going to take those coaches time to get a foundation, build their program, build their system and hopefully have time to buy before their teams reach their maximum level,” said ESPN analyst Avery Johnson, who figured things out quickly by taking the Dallas Mavericks to the Finals in his first full season as coach in 2005-06.
Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer and Boston’s Brad Stevens have actually exceeded expectations. Not that it takes much in this conference.
The underachievers club: Cleveland was supposed to be a playoff team with a rejuvenated Andrew Bynum. Detroit was supposed to pound all comers into submission with its massive frontcourt.
Instead, both teams have been massive duds. Bynum was a hobbled version of his former self even before his sulking ways prompted the team to suspend him and put him on the trading block. The five-games-under-.500 Pistons are on track to make the playoffs, but how far will they go?
“I see two rosters that are unfinished,” Kerr said of the Cavaliers and Pistons. “I think both organizations have been kind of collecting talent and drafting high and trying to gain assets and pieces, but neither roster really fits. Cleveland doesn’t have enough shooting and neither does Detroit, and it’s tough to win in the NBA these days without shooting.”
The tank-tastic approach: Conventional wisdom said Boston, Philadelphia and Orlando could win big by losing as many games as possible given the transformational talent available in this year’s draft.
They haven’t disappointed.
The 76ers and Magic are safely on their way to the lottery. The Celtics are seven games under .500 ... and on the cusp of playoff contention.