By KEVIN McELROY
With the league's standings now beginning to take shape, the NBA's inter-conference "balance of power" frequently becomes a topic of discussion around this time of year. For years, however, the phrase itself has been something of a contradiction; the West's primacy has been so utter and so consistent, that talk of realignment is among its most common accompaniment.
Accordingly, the question surrounding the East as winter deepens is often, "does this conference even have eight teams worthy of a postseason berth?" Talk of the Western Conference, though, quickly turns to playoff seeding, with fans salivating over potential postseason matchups, and gearing up to watch elite teams jockey for position and home-court advantage.
We probably aren't far away from that point this season, so let me interject my own opinion on the West's 2015 playoff seeds: They don't matter.
First, a bit of history. Here are your last 10 Western Conference champions, along with their records and win totals:
Recall, of course, that the 2012 Thunder won their conference title in a lockout year - 47–19 likely would have been around 58–24 when projected over a full 82-game schedule. If we give OKC the benefit of that projection (it will matter in a moment), a couple of things stand out.
First, there initially appears to be a benefit to gunning for a high seed. Nobody below a No. 4 is on the above list, and the distribution among those top-four seeds shakes out in an almost obnoxiously linear manner: four 1-seeds, three 2s, two 3s, and one 4. In other words:
That is as boring and temptingly simplistic graph if I've ever seen one. In reality, though, it's a textbook case of correlation posing as causation. In order to win the West, you need to be really, really good. No. 1 seeds tend to be really, really good, and thus, 1-seeds win the West's side of the playoff bracket with some frequency.
Proving that 1-seeds win the West because they were able to win the playoff seeding battle, though, requires further evidence.
That's where projecting the the Thunder's 2012 47–19 record (to 58–24) comes into play - as confirmation that that every team that has come out of the West since 2005 has won at least 57 games. Again, this shouldn't be surprising; it's a consistently excellent conference and it takes a great team to make its way through that kind of a gauntlet.
What may be a little bit surprising, though, is how little seeding has mattered once that 57-win bar is cleared. 22 teams have won 57 or more games in a season since 2005 (2012's lockout-shortened season notwithstanding) - summarized by the chart below:
Basically, if you are good enough to get your win total into the high 50s in the lethal Western Conference, you have almost a 50–50 chance of making the Finals. And over the past decade, that has been (almost exactly) equally true no matter where you found yourself seeded. It has been the 1-seeds, in fact, that have turned great regular seasons into Finals appearances with the lowest regularity, though this is almost certainly a meaningless fluke in the data.
I am, however, somewhat compelled by this information to think that as long as you're truly good enough to play with the big boys, it's much more important to make sure you get into the playoffs healthy and well-rested than it is to scratch and claw to get a rung or two higher on the playoff ladder. It just doesn't seem to matter enough to be worth potentially sacrificing anything real.
And if this has been true for most seasons in the Western Conference's recent past, it is especially true this season. Underscoring this point especially clearly? Yup, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
You know the story with OKC: they lost 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant to a broken foot before the season and then, after stumbling to an 0–2 start, saw their misfortune compounded when Russell Westbrook fractured his right hand. The two returned just after Thanksgiving and headlined two very impressive weeks - a seven-game winning streak bookended by tight losses on the road to good teams (New Orleans and Golden State). The story on OKC this year has been staggeringly simple: they've gone 6–13 with a -2 average margin when missing at least one of their two stars, and 7–2 with a +9 average margin when both have played.
The Thunder's 13–15 mark is currently a game and a half worse than the 8th-seeded Pelicans, and, presuming Durant can shake the ankle injury that has kept him out of the past two games, they should find themselves in playoff position before too long. From there, though, what should the approach be? Incredibly, the defending champion Spurs currently sit 7th in the West and currently have a 4.5-game head start on OKC. San Antonio hasn't really gotten hot yet - Coach Popovich has rested his players a good amount during a daunting December schedule - but are still on a 50-win pace.
Can the Thunder really count on catching them? Is it even really worth trying?
Once you get past the Spurs, the top six teams in the West are separated by only four games. As tough as the top-ranked Warriors look, are they really that much better than the Clippers, picked by many to win the West this year (currently in the sixth slot)? Recall that 57-win magic number discussed earlier, a mark that has served as a litmus test for Western Conference contenders in the past decade. It's early, but a whopping six Western teams are currently on pace to meet that standard, and that doesn't include the Spurs or an OKC team that will surely be way tougher than whatever its record is.
All of which is to say that there is precious little difference, in terms of postseason viability, between the teams currently at the top of the Western Conference pecking order and those at the fringes of the postseason race. If you're the Thunder or Spurs, do you have any interest in pressing your (respectively) recovering and aging stars in the interest of playing the Clippers instead of, say, the Mavericks? If you're the Warriors or Grizzlies or Rockets, do you want to spend the whole season duking it out for the No. 1 seed, only to be rewarded with a date with Kevin Durant or Tim Duncan?Does a home Game 7 matter enough to risk going into a postseason series against a roughly equal team that is potentially healthier and better-rested than you are because they didn't go all-out for top playoff positioning?
I'll concede this to the opposite side of the argument: home court advantage in Game 7 means a whole lot. Since 2000, when a series goes seven games, the home team takes it 74.4 percent of the time. It would thus be silly to call seeding completely meaningless. Of course, given the choice, any team would rather go into the playoffs seeded fourth instead of fifth.
But in a conference this deep - with so little separating its eight best teams - it's not crazy to believe that injuries and fatigue will loom larger than ever come playoff time.
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