With the first third of the NBA season gone, I feel more than comfortable saying that the competitive balance of the NBA is off the charts. The NBA’s definition of ‘competitive balance’ will never be the same as the NFL’s and that’s fine. The NBA, along with MLB and the NHL, have too many regular season games to have an NFL type model. And, you know what, that’s fine. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone thinks the NFL system is the greatest. I, for one, can tell you I have no interest in seeing a bunch of 41-41 NBA teams. There’s a reason why NBA dynasties have always been good for business.
The Post-LeBron Eastern Conference has started off with a bang. No longer is the Eastern Conference the baby brother of the West.
After all the Boston Celtics talk, last season’s Eastern Conference number one seed, is this season’s number one seed. The Raptors trade for Kawhi Leonard has worked out even better than what people have anticipated. Instead of worrying about what Leonard was going to do in the offseason, they concentrated on this season and they’ll let Leonard’s decision-making take shape six months from now. It’s the same strategy the Thunder used with Paul George. The Raptors also took the chance at firing popular coach, Dwane Casey, with assistant Nick Nurse.
Perhaps a coaching change is what has gotten the Bucks in gear. Budenholzer has Milwaukee second in the conference. The Bucks are first in the conference is Differential at +8.9. Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists but give the Bucks credit, they have five players who average in double-digits. The trade for George Hill might be the difference between Milwaukee finishing first or second or fourth of fifth.
Speaking of fifth, that’s where the Eastern Conference favorite, Boston Celtics, reside. Before there’s panic in Beantown, the difference between second and fifth is one game. Coach Brad Stevens is still working out the roles now that they have their roster available on most nights. It’s an easy task to ask players, especially young ones, to go from major roles to secondary roles. What makes it even more difficult is that the younger guys (Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, etc) were within a game of the NBA Finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Even the bottom of the East is pretty interesting. Kemba Walker has had games where he’s completely gone ham as he has the Hornets in the sixth spot. In the seventh and eighth spots are the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic. It’s somewhat surprising that the Miami Heat and Washington Wizards are both out of the top eight but there’s still plenty of time.
Golden State is ahead in the West by 15 games, right? Wrong. The Denver Nuggets are your leaders in the West but it might as well be a tie between them and the Warriors. Back in June, I wrote that the Nuggets were a team on the rise and they haven’t disappointed (so far).
The West could be a three team race between the Nuggets, Warriors, and Thunder. If you had to bet your mortgage on it, you would be on the Warriors. Eventually they’ll get back Andre Iguodala and be truly full strength. The dust up between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant was completely overblown and won’t have any lasting effects. But they will be challenged in the playoffs.
The middle of the west isn’t anything imposing. The Lakers still don’t have enough shooting. The Clippers are fading fast and Memphis won’t have enough offense in the playoffs.
The bottom of the West is fun. Who doesn’t like to watch Dallas and Sacramento? That wasn’t a joke. They are two of the most fun teams to watch in the league. Both teams have plenty of young talent that they have under contractual control at a good price.
Lurking outside of the eighth spot are three teams that have been used to the playoffs: Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans. Even if Dallas and Sacramento falter, only two of the three teams will make the playoffs. At this point of the season, I would think the Spurs would be the odd team out.
Both conferences are balanced with quality teams and, yes, there are some clear leaders, you can easily argue that there are a greater number of teams that can be put in that category. So far, this has been a banner year for the league whose unofficial launch date is Christmas but fans should be watching now.
Expect a lot of compelling playoff races from seeding to qualifying and the first two rounds of the playoffs could be the best it’s been in a while.
It’s all part of the growth of young talent in the NBA as players like LeBron start to see the sunset of their career. The talent is distributed throughout the league and it shapes up for the NBA to be great this season and beyond.