In lieu of the playoff preview and predictions story that every other sports site is or will be doing, we at LuckSwing—er—Ball in Cup—er—Luck-Ball-In-Swinging-Cup cover the things we love most about each conference, and of course offer our modest playoff previews and predictions.
Doodoo. Stank. A heaping pile. Defecatum. As lost as an English major at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
The symbolism is too much.That this was against Timmy D and the Spurs. The flailing gesture in the direction something positive. An apparent aspiration towards something transcendent, unglamorously deflating into a wet fart.
That is the image of the Eastern Conference that NBA heads know all so well, and it’s a hard one to not laugh at.
The East’s continued flirtation with mediocrity is practically prehistoric. It’s well documented that the NBA Draft lottery is kind of a sham. There are detractors and defenders alike, but everyone can agree it’s a pretty good metric for measuring long stretches of bad to deplorable. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that since 1998, every no. 1 draft pick has gone to an Eastern Conference team except for three—Yao Ming in 2002, Greg Oden in 2007 and Blake Griffin in 2009—yet it’s a surprising stat.
It is not so much that the West is better—with three teams boasting better win percentages than the East’s best. It’s that the East is that much worse—their non-playoff teams have lost 59 more games than their Western counterparts with 34 games left to go for the paltry seven.
A deeper dive reveals the unnerving breadth and depth of the nightmare that is the East. Defensively it’s bad. Offensively it’s worse.
Two East teams top the opponent field goal % list, while not one ranks in the top 10 in points per game. Only one team cracks the top 10 in field goal percentage (though Brooklyn is tied with New Orleans for 10th), with three teams assisting and rebounding enough to make it up there.
All this is to underscore the East’s biggest problem: they’re just not that fun to watch. The East is a 2003 no. 1 draft pick away from being completely and totally unwatchable (it’s the surprise of my life that my Seattle Supersonics or the lowly Los Angeles Clippers did not snag The Chosen One. I cringe at the butterfly effect of possibilities.).
At least that’s what the haters say.
The East is for the nerds. The ball wonks. The shot chart readers. The sortable stat users. The die-hards. Not the glamour-seeking star-driven silver spoon-fed basketball watching of the West with their many lobs and heady offensive schemes. The East is for the weekend warriors who go home to three hours of NBA 2K14 as a primer to a night of flipping through NBA All-Access Pass. Those of us that love basketball. Purely. Fully. Unabashedly. Unhealthily. And at the risk of important human relationships.
We live for the Atlanta Hawks v. Washington Wizards.
Lebron v. Melo? Please. Give me Elton Brand v. Drew Gooden. These games warp the basketball universe and offer an alternate reality where entire playoff series can and most likely will be shaped by the likes of Nazr Mohammed and Rashard Lewis showing up big, or not showing up at all.
This season, perhaps more than any other, has been just as much about being terrible as striving for success. Some teams have fervently been doing the tanko since last year’s playoffs (everyone sees you Herb Kohl). The East is only half about the playoffs, so for the sake of this discussion, I’ve bucketed the East into four groups.
It’s tough to talk specific matchups even this close to the playoffs. Miami and Indiana are in a dead-heat for letting go of the top spot. Chicago and Toronto are duking it out for the third seed. Washington and Charlotte are only one game apart at six and seven, respectively, and New York and Cleveland are still hallucinating about snagging the eighth seed.
At Vegas’ 9/4, we’re sticking with the Miami Heat as the odds-on favorite to win all. If their March—with eight losses in a 13 game stretch to Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, Brooklyn, Denver, BOSTON? and Indiana—bleeds into April (2OT HOME LOSS ALERT!) we’ll have to revisit, but for now let’s call this aberration the Calypsian character building part of the Lebron James’ Odyssey.
As it stands, the Fiery Balls will unceremoniously scorch the Atlanta Hawks, which have the 8-spot now. If the New York Knicks, just two game back, sneak in, or more improbably, the Cleveland Cavaliers, it will be dramatic. Big market, James’ future. Sordid history, James’ future. An easy series nonetheless.
The potential Indiana Pacers-Chicago Bulls second round match up keeps the NBA marketing department up at night. It’s delightful. The offense is so bad. But the effort and defense are so good. It’s still unclear if Coaches Frank Vogel and Tom Thibodeau have ever practiced offense. Ever. The Pacers’ recent drop-off and Paul George’s disappearing act hasn’t helped matters. When Joakim Noah is the most effective offensive catalyst on the floor for the whole 48 minutes, it’s both frightening and magical.
Frightening and magical:
Other than the Heat, both the Bulls and the Pacers are the only teams to have proven success in the playoffs. Without Derrick Rose, and given Paul George et al.’s apparent digression, however, they have almost no chance to win it all. Both will most likely beat their first round match-ups, but perhaps more than other teams that make the playoffs, their success will rely almost entirely on their match up.
The Upcomers’ Comeuppance
There are four other teams in the East that have or are flirting with above-.500 records: Toronto, Brooklyn, Washington, and Charlotte. They’ll be fun to watch, and will win a series or two.
Their knock is that they’re young and unproven—with the exception of Brooklyn.
With a resurgent Paul Pierce (fantasy alert!), Brooklyn poses the greatest potential for surprise in the playoffs. The Brook Lopez-less Nets have played inspired ball in 2014, finally living up to the hype, discovering their “geometry.” They might fold under relentless pressure of the Bulls, but the ever-unpredictable Shadow of Kevin Garnett may spend the next six games tuning up for a head-banging, wide-eyed, awe-inspiring, rollicking, put-the-team-on-my-back run at history. He’s crazy enough to do it. Keeping my fingers crossed.
If the sands don’t shift, Toronto plays Washington, which would make for the most exciting first round match-up of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. You read that right. Young defense v. young offense. Both athletic, team-first and each led by a pair of first-time all-stars in Demar Derozan (fantasy alert!) and John Wall. Only one will make it, and whichever one does has a surprise shot at the Eastern conference finals!
The Charlotte Bobcats will plod along in a war of attrition with an imploding Indiana—which is favorable for them—but like the rest of this field, won’t make it past the second round even if they do pull the worn-out rug out from under the anxious Pacers.
The Rest of Them
These four teams, I swear, just ask their GMs, are just one piece or a cultural (or geographical) shift away from contending. I swear.
Atlanta will almost certainly be pretty good next year. And if the Hawks draft or sign a decent swingman in the off season, they could be great. Hopefully modern medicine will invent a pectoral implant for Al Horford, and the really nice and talented 4-5 tandem of Paul Milsap and the Other Al will get to make a run at a title.
The jury is still out on James Dolan’s Zen Project (incidentally, that’s the title of his band’s upcoming EP). That we live in a world where the Dolan-Phil Jackson relationship might work is, I guess, heartening for all the world-peace hopefuls.
The Cleveland Curseliers, I’m sorry. Come to Seattle.
I hold out hope for Josh Smith figuring it out next year. He’s bigger than every small forward and faster than every power forward. He can pass. He can rebound. He can shoot. From inside 15 feet. If he finds his confidence and gets his groove on in Motown, the Detroit Pistons become the city’s coolest experimentation band since The Isley Brothers. PUT THE CITY ON YOUR BACK J. SMOOV!!!!
The Toon Squads
Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee are the Toon Squads of the NBA. While they may not all be purposefully “tanking,” some are certainly, um, “experimenting,” and all have worse records than the worst record in the West.
A woefully. Woefully. So full of woe. Set of teams that are relying on a magnet-to-golf-ball type miracle that, defying three-dimensional physics, lassoes a Hall of Fame player by the wrist, dragging him through the interdimensional vortex that is the current NCAA-one-and-done-to-the-NBA transition.
I present to you the 2014 Philly Toon Squad and 2014 Milwauky Toon Squad. A helluva experiment.
Of course the joke will be on the team that ends up with Andrew Wiggins and the zero fucks he gives about winning a basketball game. I hope to God I’m wrong about him.