You don't need to take a close look at the standings to know that winning's not exactly on the mind of every NBA team. This is especially true in the Eastern Conference, where the bottom four teams have lost a combined 27 games in a row.
Maybe it's the siren song of this year's can't-miss draft class, with the pressure that execs are putting on their teams to secure one of its blue-chip talents. Maybe it's the effects of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Or maybe Charlie Sheen simply made the concept of winning less desirable.
In many ways, this year has provided some worthy surprises. The Suns (moreso pre-Bledsoe injury), Trail Blazers and Raptors, as of late, have been revelations; the Nets' and Knicks' combined $190 million payroll has amounted to a 30-45 record; while major injuries have torpedoed the chances of some preseason contenders.
In other ways the 2013-14 season has been what we imagined it would be: a thirty-team race around the track, where more and more cars are fading to the back lines. The Spurs, of course, are one of the top vehicles jostling for position, but how will this losing climate - especially one so lop-sided conference-wise - affect San Antonio's chances of emerging victorious?
The Story so far
Really, this all started with a tweet by PtR editor J.R. Wilco, who soon heard back from SLC Dunk editor Amar:
The NBA is SO top-heavy this year: only 13 teams with winning records means there are 17 sub-500 teams. Is this good or bad?— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) January 7, 2014
From there, Chris Itz pulled up some interesting numbers:
The league's top-heavy power structure so far this year, combined with the lopsidedness between conferences, was enough to dive a bit deeper and make a few more comparisons. I made a quick chart to try and flesh out some numbers, though I'm not sure if it's as helpful as Chris' figures above.
Dating back to 2004, as Chris did, the chart shows a few thresholds that teams have reached over that span. (The lockout-shortened season, as well as this season, has been adjusted to reflect the same winning percentages of a full 82-game season)
The immediate takeaway is the number of winning teams in the league. We're currently at 13 clubs on pace to be .500 or better, and a look at the current standings doesn't suggest much will change. The now-healthy Grizzlies may switch places with the down-trending Suns in the West, while the Hawks, dealing with the loss of Horford, could sink and be replaced by another winner in the East. I'd expect at most one more team to emerge with a .500 record, still leaving us with the biggest number of losers in recent memory.
It's no surprise that with so many teams below .500 there won't be many that attain that most elite level of stink, the sub-20 mark. That notoriety is currently reserved for the Milwaukee Bucks, last in the league at 7-30. But with no clear-cut number-one pick in the upcoming draft (and the chances of the bottom team winning the lottery at only 25%), many teams are simply looking to finish in that bottom five or so.
All this losing is inevitably leaving the league with more big winners than usual. The Spurs number as one of four clubs currently headed for a 60-plus-win season, which has only happened once since Big Fun entered the league. And that's excluding the defending champion Miami Heat, who are currently headed towards 58 or 59 wins.
What's the deal?
The non-cynical answer is health, or lack thereof.
Though they're a perennial issue in the NBA, this year's injuries have particularly stymied the potential of championship hopefuls. The losses of Derrick Rose on the Bulls and Brook Lopez on the Nets were two of the knockout blows to contenders, but injuries to Al Horford, Kobe Bryant, Ryan Anderson and, recently, Eric Bledsoe have brought the level of competition down even more. Those players' teams may not have had hopes of winning a championship, but their injuries have greatly hindered their odds.
Then there's the question of the upcoming draft and its implications.
We've all heard how this is one of the deepest and most talented pools of incoming players the league has seen. Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Joel Embiid, and Jabari Parker headline a draft class that has been touted as league-altering. The mouth-watering potential of these and other players has only perpetuated the Oklahomacityitis that is going around most NBA front offices, boosting the hopes that a team can turn things around with a few good picks.
In some ways, the mentality of NBA GMs this season seems to be the exact opposite of back during the Summer of LeBron, an offseason that saw huge, franchise-crippling contracts awarded to guys like Rudy Gay, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer, and Amar'e Stoudemire. Instead, today's GMs are eschewing the home-run play in the short run for the sacrifice bunt. In other words, they've convinced their employers that being less productive could, in fact, be more productive in the end -- if only we were all so lucky.
The Case of the (L)East
This season of suck is most clearly visible in the Eastern Conference, where only the Pacers and Heat have the tiger blood it takes to contend for a title. Below them is a collection of clubs that are either blissfully sinking to the bottom or struggling to make a push to the postseason.
Of the 13 teams above .500, nine are in the West, a pretty common number for the conference that has, at least from a depth point of view, been the better of the two. That gives the East four winning teams out of 15, and it's debatable whether the two that aren't Indiana or Miami (Toronto and Atlanta) would hold up as well in the West.
As you saw in Chris' numbers above, the West has always been the winningest of the two (.521 winning record over the last nine years vs .479). This season has seen an even bigger tilt in our direction (.558 vs .441). Much of that has to do with the mess in New York and the unfortunate injury to Derrick Rose in Chicago, but the fact that few teams have been able to (or want to) compete attests to the overall lack of quality in the conference.
This is exactly the type of season that critics of the current playoff structure point to when they ask for change.
Various articles have looked at the pointlessness of division titles, and perhaps even more have discussed how unjust it is for a 50-win team in the West to miss the playoffs while a much weaker team in the East sneaks in (only to be pulverized by the one seed).
Will this year do anything to push change in this area? Adam Silver is due to take over as league commish soon - is that timing enough to lead to the consideration of restructuring the NBA postseason?
How does a weak Eastern Conference affect the Spurs' title chances?
It's one thing for the Heat and Pacers to have an easy path through the Playoffs -- that much has been pretty standard for Eastern Conference top seeds in the past 10 years. However, a historically weak East could give the two teams a new advantage from now until April, to boot.
For the Heat, that means more rest for Dwyane Wade, as well as not really caring about losing two straight games to NYC teams. For the Pacers, that could mean easing Danny Granger and carefully seeing what kind of productivity he can bring.
In the Finals, this edge could likely mean the Spurs (or whoever emerges out of the West) not having home-court advantage. The Pacers are 30-7 and still stand to improve offensively, while the Heat are yet to take things to the next gear.
Ultimately, winning any title is going to be a challenge, and almost any basketball is good basketball in my book. These are just some thoughts I wanted to pass on and see what you guys think. Does this division of competition stack the cards even more against the Spurs and other Western Conference teams? Will this season be the last straw before the league restructures its postseason? Does winning in professional sports pale in comparison to winning as Charlie Sheen?