Could We See a 50-Loss Playoff Team in the Eastern Conference?

Joe Flynn@@ChinaJoeFlynnContributor IDecember 7, 2013

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The NBA's Eastern Conference is a joke; that much is certain. But just how much of a joke?

How about this: The Conference is such a laughingstock that certain mad dreamers—like Eric Koreen of the National Post—have started to imagine the impossible:

It's a good joke...or is it? Is the concept of a 50-loss playoff team even possible?  


The East Is Least

How historically bad is this season's Eastern Conference?

Only two Eastern Conference teams (Miami and Indiana) would qualify for the playoffs out West, while an astonishing 13 Western Conference teams would qualify for the playoffs if swapped out for an Eastern team.

Is it any wonder, then, that Western teams like the Portland Trail Blazers are poking a bit of fun at their Eastern compatriots?

It's not uncommon for an Eastern Conference playoff team to finish below .500, particularly since the 1999 lockout. The West has usually been the better conference in that time; no sub-.500 Western Conference team has made the playoffs since the turn of the century.

The worst season for conference imbalance was 2003-04, when the Boston Celtics grabbed the final playoff spot despite finishing 10 games under .500 at 36-46.

Most Losses For Playoff Teams, Since 2000
2003-04New York39-43

So this conference imbalance is nothing new, but for a 50-loss team to sneak into the playoffs, the entire conference would have to continue to lose at a historic pace.  


The Perfect Storm

So what would it take for the East to produce a 50-loss playoff team? It's such a difficult feat, statistically speaking, that any number of factors have to fall precisely into place. 

Since the laws of basketball physics dictate their must be a winner for every loser, those wins must go elsewhere. 

But we might be seeing the kind of perfect storm needed to make a 50-loss playoff team happen.

  1. Total East-West imbalance. For this to happen, Western Conference teams would have to take huge numbers of wins away from nearly every Eastern Conference team. And that is pretty much what has happened so far. In his December 5 article, Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney pointed out that Eastern teams had won only 29.2 percent of their games against their Western counterparts.
  2. Dominance at the top of the East. Even after factoring in the East-West imbalance, it still takes a few dominant Eastern Conference teams to take as many wins as possible from the rest of the group. And the East certainly seems to have that in the 17-2 Indiana Pacers and 14-5 Miami Heat. If anything, the East could use one more team—maybe Atlanta or Chicago—to step up their games and take wins from the competition.
  3. Parity of mediocrity. Just as there must be dominant teams at the top, there can not be many truly pathetic doormats at the bottom for mediocre teams to feast on. Of the three worst teams in the East—Milwaukee, Brooklyn and New York—the latter two probably have enough talent to rise a bit. Most of the teams that were supposed to be bad—Boston, Philadelphia and Orlando—have been better than expected, taking wins away from their Eastern brothers.
  4. The Atlantic Division. If a 50-loss eighth seed still seems unlikely, then how about a 50-loss fourth seed? Somebody in the Atlantic will get a playoff spot. If none of the five teams rise above the Atlantic pack, and all the teams continue to lose out of division, then this might be the best bet.

If all (or even most) of those factors continue throughout the season, then a 50-loss playoff team might just be possible. It's not terribly likely, even considering all that we've seen thus far this season. The eighth-seeded Charlotte Bobcats are on pace for a 45-loss season—bad, to be sure, but not close to what is needed.

Entire conferences rarely stay this bad for long. There is talent, there is hope, even in the pit of despair that has become the Eastern Conference.