Two teams in the Western Conference have a losing record. Only the Sacramento Kings and the Utah Jazz sit more than a single game out of the playoffs right now in the west, even as the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers reign from above. The Houston Rockets sit right in the middle of the playoff rankings, holding onto a tie for the fifth seed with the Dallas Mavericks. The Southwest Division at large is a portrait of competition, with no team sporting a losing record and only one team, the New Orleans Pelicans, sitting outside the playoff picture at the moment. This might be the most exciting, competitive Western Conference since the 2007-2008 season, when the 8th seed Denver Nuggets sported a 50 win record.
Three teams in the Eastern Conference have a winning record. Only the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks sit more than a game and a half above the 9th seed, even as the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets somehow join the Milwaukee Bucks at the bottom of the standings. The Toronto Raptors sit right in the middle of the playoff rankings, holding onto the fourth seed despite having a losing record, and a worse record than the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats immediately below them. The Atlantic Division at large is a portrait of failure, with no team sporting a winning record and no team more than one game above the lottery at the moment. This might be the most tedious, stultifying Eastern Conference since the 2007-2008 season, when the Atlanta Hawks sported a 37 win record.
The season isn’t even a month old, and none of these trends will continue exactly as they have, but something is amiss in the NBA. This was, like many years before, supposed to be the season when the Eastern Conference was going to catch back up to the surging Western Conference. It’s been over a decade since the 8th seed in the East held a better record than the 8th seed in the West, and the disparity only seems to be growing. This year, the West is obliterating the East in cross-conference matches, winning over 72% of the games so far. The wild West is stealing wins from the mild East at an incredible pace.
What would the playoff standings look like if every team wins games at the same pace as current? Obviously, there’s no way that happens, but it’s worth a look:
Western Conference Team
San Antonio Spurs
Portland Trail Blazers
Oklahoma City Thunder
Los ANgeles Clippers
Golden State Warriors
Eastern Conference Team
Given that no team is likely to win 70 or more wins this season or any season, this isn’t how the final numbers will look. The Pacers, Spurs and Blazers will all cool off somewhat, even if they maintain their seeds. Beyond that, however, the numbers are very ugly because they’re actually not too unrealistic. The biggest X-factor in the West will likely lie on the playoff bubble, which is currently occupied by about half the conference. It’s very unlikely that all the teams will remain even, which actually should pull up the last couple seeds in the West by the end of the year.
In the East, the question marks are the cities of New York and Chicago, which are both underperforming. The Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks aren’t as bad as their combined 6-19 record would imply, as injuries to multiple key players can’t be overlooked. But even if they get on track, both will still struggle to make the playoffs, which would only drain wins from the other teams out east. Chicago might go in any direction, depending on Derrick Rose’s timetable for return from his knee and how the team responds to hardship. If last season is any indication, the Bulls may well find themselves well above .500 by season’s end.
So what does any of this mean for the Rockets? Inflated win totals out West mean that the Rockets may well notch 54 wins and miss home court advantage in any round of the playoffs. Every season, it seems like the West gains more ground on the East, and this just pushes western teams to build even higher. The Rockets will have to continue matching suit, adding complementary players and digging out wins anywhere they can, especially against Eastern Conference teams.
The East isn’t really this bad – probably – and the West isn’t quite this good – maybe. But for this first month, something smells out East. After everyone ignored the warning signs in the Los Angeles Lakers last season, slow starts in the Atlantic Division in particular are leading to predictions that the sky might be falling on the East in general. Only time will tell us if that’s true.