The NBA’s Eastern Conference in 2013-14 has been uninspired, weak and, well, downright bad. Heck, the horrible play in the East even prompted Grantland’s Bill Simmons to write a two-page column in December titled “The NBA’s E-League.”
But the conference’s futility has also created an extreme parity—in this case, numerous subpar teams. For a few reasons, though, that parity can actually be good for the NBA.
Could Change Playoff Format
We’ll start by getting the macro view out of the way.
Obviously, the Eastern Conference has been the butt of jokes throughout the 2013-14 NBA season. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “It’s funny how the Phoenix Suns would be third in the East.” “It’s funny how the Golden State Warriors would be third in the East.” “It’s funny how the Dallas Mavericks would be third in the East.”
OK, you get the idea.
The Eastern Conference sports so many sub-.500 records that numerous teams in the Western Conference (playoff-bound or otherwise) would have more favorable playoff position in the opposite conference.
While it won’t happen this season, incoming NBA commissioner Adam Silver is mulling the idea of disbanding divisions.
As David (Stern) said, the league is in such great shape. I mean, Steve (Kerr) and I were talking basketball the other night out in Brooklyn and [he] raised the same question with me about whether divisions have outlived their usefulness. One thing I have learned from David over all those years…one thing he taught me and all of my colleagues at the NBA is every day we should wake up and take a fresh look at everything we do. And I think divisions fall into that category.
While eliminating divisions wouldn’t ensure the top 16 teams overall getting in, it would reject the possibility of a division leader getting a top-four seed (and home-court advantage) if they didn’t have the fourth-best record in said conference.
So while the poor play out of the Eastern Conference has arguably been a net negative, it did ramp up the narrative that could purge the league of divisions—which have become essentially useless.
GMs Could Swing Playoffs
Moving from a broader scope down to the micro scale, there are a handful of reasons why parity in the Eastern Conference is good for the NBA right now.
Talent and team chemistry will dictate who the best teams are by season’s end. With so many teams vying for position, however, the chess game played by league general managers may be enough to swing the playoff picture.
Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri made the biggest splash of the season with the addition-by-subtraction trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings.
Since the trade, the Raptors have played like gangbusters en route to an 11-5 record. They now hold the fourth seed in the conference with an 18-17 record overall.
Moves like this will certainly keep fans intrigued leading up to the NBA trade deadline. If a general manager swings a deal that improves the on-court product, that team could easily make a playoff push before the end of the season.
The possibility for league-changing trades is something to keep your eyes on.
Close Games and Competition
Aside from the Indiana Pacers (29-7) and Miami Heat (27-10), the majority of Eastern Conference teams are extremely similar from a talent standpoint.
As a result, not only are games between these teams closer—the Washington Wizards have played five overtime games against conference foes this season—but they also mean a great deal more.
A one-game swing in the East could change positioning from the No. 3 seed on down. Due to that, these teams can’t afford to lose close games.
So while the vast majority of teams in the East have mediocre records, that mediocrity leads to an ever-changing playoff landscape.
Here’s what Phoenix Suns starting small forward P.J. Tucker had to say about the concept of tanking at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, per Greg Esposito of Suns.com:
It is kind of funny. I think it is more comical than anything. I’ve been fans of different teams growing up and as an adult and I’ve never rooted against a team I like. I don’t think there is a draft pick or anything in the world that could ever make me root against my team to make them better. I think it’s insane.
Fast-forward to January and the Suns have a 21-15 record, which is good for seventh in a loaded Western Conference. Tucker’s attitude both on and off the court has been a major reason for the turnaround from 2012-13.
The point is NBA players are competitors. They battle and strive to be the best they can possibly be on a nightly basis (well, except for J.R. Smith).
The most important aspect moving forward is pride.
Even the most well-intentioned players grow weary by the end of a long season when management has created a team that slips far from the playoff race. By that point, many players do slip. But in this East, most teams won't be too far out, so really, players and teams will continue to compete at the highest level if they're still in the hunt.
These Eastern Conference squads will just have to buckle down and prove they’re worthy of a playoff seed at season’s end. That alone should provide plenty of entertainment.