The Thing Is…The Eastern Conference Totally Sucks

The Miami Heat are pretty great.

Just look at the standings. Look at the 27-game winning streak that was finally snapped against the Chicago Bulls. Look at what LeBron James is doing in what may be his best season yet. If you look at the Eastern Conference, you’ll see the Heat sitting comfortably at the top. And you’ll see everybody else so far below them that they need a telescope to catch a glimpse of Erik Spoelstra’s finely tuned juggernaut. Taking all of this into consideration, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Heat will be waiting for the winner of the Western Conference champion when the NBA Finals roll around.

The Heat should roll through the Eastern Conference playoffs, brushing aside the elderly Knicks, the offensively challenged Pacers, or whatever other pretenders may cross their path. But does that say more about the greatness of the Heat or the pathetic state of the Eastern Conference? As I said before, there’s no questioning that Miami is among the elite teams in the NBA this year. If they cruise to the Finals with just one or two losses along the way, people might be tempted to throw Miami in the conversation of all-time great teams. But let’s put into perspective just how easy their road to the Finals should be.

The Heat currently have the 2nd best net rating (point differential per 100 possessions for those of you who aren’t stat-heads) in the NBA at +9.9. Although Miami just lost their first game in nearly two months, they somehow still trail the Oklahoma City Thunder in this category (OKC has a net rating of +11.1). The 3rd and 4th ranked teams in net rating are in the Western Conference with the Thunder, so Miami doesn’t really need to worry about them. The Indiana Pacers round out the top 5 with a net rating of +5.9. If you’ve been paying attention, that’s a difference of four whole points per 100 possessions between the East’s number one seed and number two seed. That’s a damn big drop-off. That’s not something we see very often. Typically, the top teams in either conference are pretty close in net rating. There are usually a few teams that could reasonably reach the Finals from either conference and it adds a good deal of drama to the playoffs.

Going back to 2000-01, there has only been one other year when the top team in a conference had that large of a gap between themselves and the 2nd best team. The 2000-01 San Antonio Spurs posted a net rating of +9.8 while the 2nd ranked Sacramento Kings were right at +5.8.  Of course, the Lakers eventually took down the Kings and the Spurs on their way to an NBA championship that year. To find a similarly large gap, you have to go back to the 2004-05 Miami Heat. That team, led by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, only to lose in 7 games to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons ended the regular season with a net rating of just +4.8 while the Heat posted a lofty +8.4, a difference of +3.6. Both the 2000-01 Spurs and the 2004-05 Heat appeared to have exceedingly easy paths to the Finals and yet neither team managed to make it there.

If you want to find the team with the easiest path to the Finals in the past 12 years that actually took advantage of this path, take a look at the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. That Celtics team had a +3.5 advantage over their biggest obstacle in the Eastern Conference and, as you know, was able to beat the Lakers in the Finals to win the NBA championship. But even those eventual NBA champs didn’t coast through the first 12 wins of the playoffs. The Hawks and Cavaliers pushed Kevin Garnett and friends to seven games in the first two rounds before Boston beat the 2nd ranked Pistons in six games to earn a trip to the Finals.

Let’s take a look at LeBron’s best team when he was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Obviously, he never won an NBA championship with the Cavs, but that doesn’t mean that those teams were crap. On the contrary, they were quite good. The 2008-09 Cavaliers won 66 games and posted a net rating of +10.3. That’s actually a better regular season than LeBron’s record setting squad this year. But the competition in the East was much better than it is this year. The Celtics and Magic were both close behind with net ratings of +8.7 and +8.3, respectively. It’s not hard to see how much better either of those teams were than this year’s Pacers (a net rating of +5.9, if you recall).

So what does this mean? Nothing, really. I just find it interesting. It may be jumping the gun to anticipate any of this, but it certainly looks like the Heat are destined to meet the best of the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. And the rest of the Eastern Conference are just placeholders so we can kill some time and watch LeBron and D-Wade toss insane alley-oops to each other. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, and Chris Paul will be duking it out on the other side of the NBA bracket. Do you think we’d view Miami’s berth in the Finals so inevitable if they had to go through the Clippers and Spurs first? Probably not.

None of this is intended to tear down the Heat or diminish their accomplishments. I swear, it’s not – I just want to provide some context and perspective. And as we’ve seen, having an easy road to the Finals is hardly a guarantee. The Heat still need to take care of business and we’ve certainly witnessed some big playoff upsets in the past. Nobody will deny that this Heat team is incredibly good – not even me. But it’s possible for the team to be fantastic and for their competition to be pretty damn terrible at the same time.

Seth Carstens