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Friday, December 13, 2013

Examining the Collapse of the "Leastern" Conference

The Eastern Conference has a proud tradition of producing great teams led by great players; in the 1980s and 1990s alone, Julius Erving/Moses Malone (Philadelphia), Larry Bird/Kevin McHale/Robert Parish (Boston), Isiah Thomas/Joe Dumars (Detroit) and Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen (Chicago) played the game at the highest possible level--but now the Eastern Conference resembles the remains of some long lost civilization that has been devastated by a massive disaster: the eighth place team (Chicago) is barely on pace to win 32 games.

David Aldridge recently offered his take on the Eastern Conference's implosion (Why is the East so bad now? Ten factors stand out the most). Here are his top 10 reasons for the East's collapse, along with my comments/observations (Aldridge's analysis is summarized in italics):

1)"Howard's End": Aldridge notes that if Dwight Howard had stayed in Orlando then the Magic would be a perennial championship contender instead of being headed for yet another appearance in the Draft Lottery. Championship teams are almost always led by at least one superstar (a term which should not be used generically but instead should refer to someone who consistently plays at an All-NBA First Team level) and Howard is one of several superstars who have shifted the balance of power due to trades, injuries or free agency.

2) "The Devil in Mr. Rose": Speaking of departing superstars, Derrick Rose missed all of last season due to a knee injury and he figures to miss all of this season due to another knee injury. Aldridge points out that with Rose the Chicago Bulls could have contended for the title but without him they may elect to rebuild and assemble a different nucleus. A fully healthy Chicago team could have posed a major challenge to the Miami Heat's current championship run; the Bulls are tough, defensive-minded, physical and they are not afraid of the Heat--even when Rose is out of the lineup. However, without Rose the Bulls simply do not have enough star power and scoring punch to take out the Heat in a seven game series.

3) "A Series of Unfortunate Events": Aldridge mentions that for several years the Detroit Pistons were the "gold standard" but that the team "had to be rebuilt" and that the Pistons "came up snake eyes after rolling sevens year after year." While Aldridge correctly traces the Pistons' decline back to the firing of Coach Larry Brown, he neglects to mention Joe Dumars' Peculiar Fascination with Rodney Stuckey. I will never understand why Dumars put so much faith in a journeyman player and why he discarded two perennial All-Stars (first Chauncey Billups, then Allen Iverson) in order to install Stuckey as one of Detroit's starting guards.

4) "The Man With Two Brains": Aldridge traces the Wizards' recent somnolence to the fall of Gilbert Arenas. With all due respect to Aldridge and Arenas, Arenas was never an elite player and the Wizards were never a great team even when Arenas was at the peak of his powers; in fact, the Wizards did better without Arenas in the 2007-08 season than they did with him in the 2006-07 season (they posted a .536 winning percentage sans Arenas in 2007-08, compared to a .534 winning percentage in the 2006-07 season prior to Arenas and Caron Butler suffering season-ending injuries). The Wizards never won more than 45 regular season games during Arenas' tenure with the team, nor did they ever advance past the second round of the playoffs, so it does not make sense to suggest that Arenas' decline has much to do with the decline of the Eastern Conference as a whole.

5) "A River(s) Runs Through It": The departure of Coach Doc Rivers plus the entire Big Three spelled doom for the Boston Celtics. This is obvious and true, though the Celtics would not have been a legitimate championship contender this season even if Rivers, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were still Celtics. Pierce and Garnett are running on fumes, while Allen has settled comfortably into being a heady, reliable role player.

6)  "Swimming With Sharks": If Chris Paul had not ended up with the Clippers then Rivers might have chosen to coach the Nets instead of heading out to L.A. This is pure speculation by Aldridge; he might be right, he might be wrong but either way this could have been included in his analysis of reason five.

7) "Speaking of the Devil...": Nobody expected the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets to be this bad. That is a reasonable assertion; I predicted that the Nets would finish fourth in the East and that the Knicks would finish fifth in the East (they are currently 10th and 14th respectively) but I also wrote of the Nets "it is questionable how good this aging team will be defensively" (the Nets currently rank 22nd out of 30 teams in points allowed and 17th in defensive field goal percentage). I have consistently criticized New York's rebuilding plan and while I did not expect them to be this bad I also never viewed the Knicks as a team that would get past the second round of the playoffs.

8) "South Beach": The Decision set back the Cleveland Cavaliers for several years and they still have not fully recovered. True and true. However, I disagree with Aldridge's assertion, "...they couldn't put a team around him (James) that was good enough to win it all." James led the Cavs to the 2007 NBA Finals and he also led them to the best regular season record in the league two years in a row (2009, 2010). James' refusal to commit to Cleveland and/or recruit players to come to Cleveland made it difficult for team management to surround him with the best talent but James had enough help around him to win a title if only he had not quit against Boston during the 2010 playoffs. If James had stayed in Cleveland, if he had recruited players to join him there the way that he recruited players after signing with Miami and if he matured as a person/player the way that he did in Miami then he very likely would have led the Cavs to at least one championship.

9) "The Other Guys": Orlando and Cleveland lost their superstars and the Knicks, Nets and Pistons engaged in rebuilding plans that have yet to build much of significance--but Western teams like Oklahoma City, Golden State, Memphis and Houston methodically improved their rosters. Aldridge is right for the most part, though Memphis has made a series of moves (including trading Rudy Gay and getting rid of Coach Lionel Hollins) that significantly set the franchise back and Houston floundered a la the Knicks for several years before becoming a marginal playoff team last year. It remains to be seen if Houston's highly touted free agent signings of Dwight Howard and James Harden will result in much postseason success.

10) "Tank": Some teams may be more interested in jockeying for draft position than in winning right now. This is sad but true. It would be interesting to research the fates of franchises that genuinely tanked and/or could reasonably be accused of genuinely tanking. Has tanking ever led to a championship? The great Boston, Philadelphia and L.A. teams never tanked, nor did the more recent three-peat dynasties in Chicago and L.A. If there are any teams that are tanking now I hope that they keep losing for many years to come.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:17 PM



At Friday, December 13, 2013 5:33:00 PM, Anonymous CR said...

I agree that tanking is bad for the game, but when criticizing today's tanking compared to the behavior of teams from the past, you have to take into account the changes in the CBA, which has become far more restrictive.

It is virtually impossible to build a team with multiple star players without building through the draft and getting players on their rookie contracts for a number of years (a la Oklahoma City, Chicago, Indiana). Miami is the rare exception (even though they did get Wade through the draft).

I don't know what the solution is but if the NBA is going to put so much importance on the draft and restrict players' salaries, then they need to change the way the draft operates so that teams are not incentivized to finish with a bad record.

At Sunday, December 15, 2013 10:48:00 AM, Anonymous Abacus Reveals said...

Typically thought-provoking piece, Mr. F -- and interesting take CR!

Minimizing the incentive for losing has long been a league concern, as evidenced by all the tinkering with the lottery over time.

How often do coaches "live with" the mistakes of less-experienced players when a better option (albeit one with less long-term upside) DNP's? Sacrificing immediate competitive advantage for future prospects. Nothing necessarily dishonorable about this, right?
But at what point does such strategic use of personnel cross the line and become "tanking"? (Probably a "you know it when you see it" kind of thing, I'd imagine.)

Rather than minimizing the incentive to lose, wouldn't it be better to give teams an incentive to keep playing well all the way through the season?
How 'bout making a team win the No. 1 draft pick in a single-elimination tournament for all the so-called lottery teams!
Just a thought -- here's a bit more thorough explanation of the idea: http://www.jonessportsworld.com/6/post/2013/02/-nba-2012-13-comin-round-the-final-turn-scrap-the-lottery-settle-it-on-the-court.html

My apologies for being a tad wordy, Mr. F.

At Wednesday, December 18, 2013 12:11:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

Well, the solution to cut tanking is simple and elegant. Just give draft picks in order teams finished season outside of playoffs. It almost seems like an elephant no one wants to see, because of very common delusion that league has to help weak teams. But why? If (is it even if?) owners/management don't want to have a weak team, they have to fight for it, not just sit back and enjoy losses just to get better odds, which in itself doesn't guarantee anything.

At Friday, December 20, 2013 12:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most things on this list happened over the last few years. But the East has been weak for well over a decade a now.

I would guess that more systemic factors are behind this yet I can't quite figure out what exactly.

At Sunday, December 22, 2013 5:03:00 AM, Anonymous Kenny said...

Hi David!
I do remember a great team that lost its star player at the beginning of the season and it was decided that the best would be to lose in order to grab the number one college player in the following draft. San Antonio Spurs… Gregg Popovich… Tim Duncan. I'm pretty sure you remember the extremely strange lineups that were used during that 96-97 season, that prompted the Spurs to finish 20-62.
It's very tough to win when the best players you have on your roster are not on the court and instead you have Cory Alexander, Monty Williams, Will Perdue, Carl Herrera and Cadillac Anderson. They tried their best to win, but everybody knew they were just losing to wait for the arrival of Duncan.
No coach tells his players to miss, but a coach can use rare combinations of players that do not mesh together and are at disadvantage on match-ups.

At Monday, December 23, 2013 5:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


David Robinson missed 76 games due to injury that season and Sean Elliott--the second leading scorer on San Antonio's 59-23 1996 team--missed 43 games. The absence of those two players goes a long way toward explaining San Antonio's record in 1996-97. Keep in mind that adding Robinson in 1989-90 was worth 35 wins, which was the biggest single season increase in NBA history at that time. It is reasonable to suggest that losing Robinson (not to mention Elliott) was worth 30 or so losses.


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