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 clichÃ©, 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 â€“ because everyone there wanted to start a mutiny to kill the coach â€“ to now just plain boring because there’s no reason to watch them anymore outside of Will Bynum.
The division’s red-headed stepchild, the team no one gave a shot too, even the team I think I watched less than any other over the past few years, is now dominating. For some reason, watching Philly, especially at home, always had me reaching for the clicker. But now that they’re playing lineups like this one (Lou Williams, Evan Turner, Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Elton Brand), I am finding myself mildly interested.
The Knicks may be struggling right now with just a plus-1.1 point differential and a 5-4 record, but they have the talent to beat anyone, win a division and send perhaps a few players to the Olympics. At least, that’s what Knick fans tell me, in-between calling Iman Shumpert the future, Landry Fields the best defender and Josh Harrellson the strongest player in the league. As for the rest of the division, Toronto and New Jersey look like appetizers for the group’s three playoff-bound teams: They’ll be devoured rather quickly. The Raptors gave their fans some hope to start the season, but they’re only 1-4 against teams at or above .500, and they were just blown out by Washington last night.
You know what you’re getting from Miami (a chip), from Atlanta (a disappointing playoff exit) and even Orlando (Dwight Howard going crazy at some point when he realizes Ryan Anderson is his second-best player). You also know Charlotte will struggle to win even 20 games and that Washington might be the worst team in the whole league.
But if we put together a starting five from this division, is anyone touching them? Let’s see:
I’d roll out a group from here with LeBron and D-Wade in the backcourt, with Josh Smith and Al Horford manning the forward spots. The middle would belong to Dwight Howard. Who’s stopping that lineup? If you want to get technical, move James down to the three and put John Wall in at point with instructions to do nothing but run. Could any other division beat them?
Atlantic: Rondo, Pierce, Anthony, Stoudemire and Garnett
Central: Rose, Jackson, Deng, West and Bogut
Northwest: Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Aldridge and Love
Pacific: Paul, Nash, Bryant, Griffin and Bynum
Southwest: Lowry, Ginobili, Gay, Nowitzki and Gasol
I’m taking the Southeast every time.
They have probably the two best teams in the West in Portland and Oklahoma City, who are a combined 16-4. Denver has the perfect recipe for success this year: a water bug point guard who never stops, a rotation that can go 11 or 12 deep playing in an environment that brings nearly every visitor to their knees, and a schedule that can be as murderous at times as that crazy dude from No Country For Old Men.
With Utah playing surprisingly well â€“ they’ve won five straight, are sitting at 6-3 and no one even cares that the Monstars stole Devin Harris‘ talent because their frontcourt is so deadly â€“ there’s a chance four of the teams from this division make the playoffs. Minnesota won’t, but they’re probably the most exciting 3-7 team I’ve ever seen. Already this year, they’ve lost to OKC by only four, Miami by two, beaten Dallas and San Antonio on back-to-back nights and played Chicago tough. Once Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love get a season together, look out.
What do you think? Did I get it right?
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