New York — Your thesaurus is inadequate. Your guide to idioms, insufficient. No single word or phrase can properly capture the sudden, inexplicable hideousness of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, so please do not bother trying.
You will run out of cliches before you run out of bad teams.
Yes, things are that dire.
Only two teams in the East, Miami and Indiana, had winning records as of Dec. 1—the first time that has happened since 1972, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Atlanta held third place, at .500.
That left an astounding 12 teams flailing below .500—a revolting assortment of busted lineups, broken All-Stars and bewildered upstarts. They are the clueless, the overhyped, the underachievers and the tankers, collectively bobbing in the muck, a blazing inferno of ineptitude, a tire fire of futility, a miserable mosaic of, um, well…
“Listen, no one can explain just how bad it is,” said ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy. “I mean, there’s just no explanation.”
How bad is it? The Toronto Raptors lead the Atlantic Division with a 6-10 record, while the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks—the two most expensive teams in the league—are a combined 8-25.
It is early, of course, with about 80 percent of the season yet to be played. But a month of games is not insignificant, and if the trends hold, this Eastern Conference could set an all-time record for futility.
Barring a change in fortunes, the East could send five losing teams to the playoffs next spring. In 67 NBA seasons, neither conference has ever had more than three losing teams make the playoffs, according to Elias. (It has happened five times, the latest in 1997, in the West.)
At this rate, the Raptors would earn a berth with 30 to 31 wins and claim a top-four seed with their division title.
That would give fuel to pundits and team executives who consider this playoff system flawed: Giving berths to losing teams in the East while quality teams in the West miss the playoffs.
Based on the current standings, four Western Conference teams would miss the playoffs despite records of .500 or better, while the East bracket would be packed with losers.
“I’ve always been of the belief that no teams should make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record,” said Van Gundy, who has been vocal on the issue.
Van Gundy suggested that, in a year like this, winning teams from the West should replace the losing teams at the bottom of the East playoff bracket. Others have proposed abolishing the conferences entirely and simply seeding the best 16 teams.
That this discussion is necessary at all is a bit of a shock.
This was supposed to be a renaissance season for the Eastern Conference, at least at the top, with the resurgent Chicago Bulls and the revamped Nets joining the Pacers and Heat in a thrilling four-way battle for supremacy. The Knicks, coming off a 54-win season, gave the conference five quality teams for the first time in years.
The Hawks looked solid. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards, two young teams stocked with talent, appeared ready for a breakthrough. The Detroit Pistons, with new acquisitions Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, looked, well, interesting.
It took just a few weeks for the renaissance to turn to wreckage.
Derrick Rose, whose return from knee surgery fueled the Bulls’ hopes, was lost again, to another knee injury. He will not return this season.
The Bulls were 7-9 through Monday.
The Nets’ vision was predicated on a five-star lineup, with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett joining Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. That unit has hardly played together because of injuries to Williams, Lopez and now Pierce, who broke a bone in his hand over the weekend. Brooklyn has also been without key reserves Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry.
The Nets were 5-12.
The Knicks lost star center Tyson Chandler to a broken leg in early November, but they mostly seem plagued by bad chemistry. They are 3-13 and have lost nine straight games, their worst streak since 2006.
The Cavaliers (5-12) look young and confused, instead of young and talented. The Wizards, after a slow start, finally reached the .500 mark Monday night, at 9-9, with a 98-80 rout of the Orlando Magic.
The rest of the East was a lost cause before the season started. Orlando, Philadelphia and Boston are all rebuilding (or “tanking” for the draft, depending on one’s perspective). Charlotte, Milwaukee and Toronto are just simply flawed.
Is There Any Hope?
The optimists, especially those living in one of New York’s five boroughs, would say that a little good health and good luck could change the picture. Chandler could return to the Knicks lineup this month. Eventually, the Nets should get Williams, Pierce, Kirilenko and Terry back.
The Cavaliers and Wizards could keep evolving. The Pistons could find an extra ball for Jennings. Hey, the East could become respectable by April.
Don’t count on it.
“The indicators are bad right now, and the history tells us that it’s going to get worse,” said Arturo Galletti, a blogger at boxscoregeeks.com who specializes in advanced metrics and predictive statistical models.
Galletti ran a season simulation program on Monday, and the results were indeed bleak. According to his model, only Miami and Indiana will finish this season above .500. (Chicago is projected to finish third, at 41-41.)
If the model is right, it will mean another ignominious record: the fewest teams to finish with a winning record in one conference. The East set the (low) bar in 2003, with four.
The model is based on results to date and accounts for remaining strength of schedule, home and road games, the amount of rest between games and games played on consecutive nights, among other factors.
The program does not account for injuries or the effect of players returning from injury, but it does adjust once those players are performing again. It also cannot account for teams making trades.
An engineer by trade, Galletti said, “I won’t claim it’s perfect.” But, he said, “At this point, we know enough. Twenty percent of the season is in the books. You can make some determination about who is good and who is bad.”
Another factor to consider, Galletti said: Historically, losing teams become less competitive as the season wears on. So the truly bad teams will likely get worse.
On the other hand, Van Gundy noted, the simply mediocre teams should fatten up their records by playing the positively awful teams. He seemed sure, or at least hopeful, that the East would not have five losing teams in the playoffs.
“You might see two, maybe three, but God would that be a disgrace,” he said. “One is a disgrace. Two is, like, beyond ridiculous. If it’s three? Come on.”
Galletti’s latest simulation had the Hawks finishing with 40 wins, the Wizards and Magic with 39, the Pistons and Raptors with 38, the Celtics with 37, the Bobcats with 36, the Nets with 33, the Knicks with 31, the Sixers with 30, the Cavaliers with 29 and the Bucks with 23.
“The good news for any fan of any Eastern Conference team,” Galletti said, “is any of the teams in the East could make the playoffs right now.”
As silver linings go, this one is pretty gray.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.