One of the most overlooked aspects of this season so far is how balanced the league has become. It used to be the West had three or four teams who missed the playoffs that could compete in the East. The East went about four or five deep before everyone fell off to 40, 35, 25 wins. Now, miraculously, both conferences have exactly eight teams who are either at .500 or above it.
In the East, you have: Chicago, Miami, Philly, Atlanta, Indiana, Orlando, New York and Boston.
In the West, you have: Oklahoma City, Portland, Utah, the Lakers, Clippers, Denver, San Antonio and Dallas.
The owners talked all summer about “competitive balance” and while the chances of Miami not winning a title are like the chances of Lindsay Lohan getting sober, in a season of back-to-back-to-backs, forgive the cliché, but anyone can win. Ask Golden State.
So after a phenomenal night of basketball, I figured I’d try to rate the divisions from best to worst…
I never thought it’d come to this. What was once the strongest division in the league is now undoubtedly the worst. San Antonio’s best players are older than Yoda, and they’ll be missing their very best player and his Force powers for the next two months. Dallas, just a few months after winning the whole thing, are now chugging along at 5-5, already complaining about the scheduling and the league’s desire to make money off them. Even Hayden Christensen didn’t whine this much.
The rest of the division is a cluster of unwanted garbage. New Orleans could pass for a D-League team. The Rockets play hard every night, but look at where that got Qui-Gon: With no friends, a bad Jedi reputation and a lightsaber sticking out through his stomach. Memphis may be able to turn it around, but their striking resemblance to the 2006-07 Los Angeles Clippers is scary. They have injuries to two frontcourt players, guards who either took a step back (Mike Conley) or seem to go through the motions (O.J. Mayo) and now there’s a target there. One of my favorite teams in the league is shaping up to be a Phantom Menace-sized disappointment.
Phoenix is one of the worst 4-5 teams I’ve ever seen, and if I didn’t love my man Steve Nash so much, I’d call them one of the worst teams in the league. Get past Nashty and the Polish Hammer, and you’re left with a decaying-before-our-eyes Grant Hill, Jared Dudley (who’s probably a better analyst than he is a player right now) and a couple of Twizzlers in Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye. Sacramento is a mess with players running off coaches. At least Golden State is competitive at home; As we said in Smack, they’ve now beaten Miami, Chicago and New York out in the Bay.
That leaves the two L.A. teams, and in the long run for this season, I’m not all that impressed with either one. Relying on Kobe to average damn near 30 won’t get the Lakers past the second round again (especially if Derek Fisher, and then MWP and the rest of the Peace Corps continue to shoot ugly bombs from the perimeter). The Clippers could be good. They SHOULD be good. But defensively, they’re worse than every playoff team in the league outside of San Antonio. And y’all know we love Chris Paul, but his numbers (14.6 & 8.7) are down even more from last year.
Take away who I think is the best defensive team in the league and this division leaves you with virtually nothing. Even the largest Pacer fans have to admit: Your team can’t beat anyone decent. Indiana was taken apart in Miami, and then lost easily the other night in Philly. They’ve feasted on the talent-challenged teams this year, somehow playing Detroit twice, Toronto, Cleveland, New Jersey AND Charlotte. They can thank David Stern and the scheduling gods on that one.
As for the rest of the division, Cleveland will be happy as long as they aren’t one of the two or three worst teams in the league. The Bucks are perennial underachievers. And Detroit went from being interesting – because everyone there wanted to start a mutiny to kill the coach – to now just plain boring because there’s no reason to watch them anymore outside of Will Bynum.