Posted by: mdegeorge | February 24, 2011

On the balance of power and the NBA’s middle class

The flurry of activity at the trade deadline, and the rare quality of those changing addresses being greater than just expiring contracts (though we didn’t forget you, Eddy Curry and Morris Peterson), has given all corners of the basketball world the impetus to wax poetic on what this great migration means for NBA dynamics.

The amateur courtside sociologists are charting two phenomena in how players are moving.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

The first is a mass exodus from the small markets to larger ones. Cleveland (Lebron James), Toronto (Chris Bosh), Phoenix (Amare Stoudemire), Utah (Deron Williams), and Denver (Carmelo Anthony) have all bid adieus to their stars in the last eight months, the bulk doing so without any remuneration on the court, ticket office, or public relations department.

Instead of blazing their trails independently, the stars have clustered (some would say colluded) in big money constellations in New York and Miami in an urbanization worthy of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

But the other prominent paradigm shift that seems to mesmerizing people is the moving of the balance of power from east to west. It’s easy to view Kevin Garnett (another small market émigré, though he paid his dues with a decade of mediocrity) as the trailblazer eastward. He’s since been followed by the superstar likes of Stoudemire, Williams, Anthony, and other to eastern ports of call.

For the last decade or so, few would question that the NBA’s axis of power rested squarely in the West. It hasn’t always bared out in championships, since Western teams expounded so much energy beating each other while most Eastern teams only had to buckle down against a decent team once the conference finals hit.

But consider these trends over the last five years:

In 2004-05, seven teams out West finished with more than 48 wins. Only two did so in the East.

In 2005-06, 42-40 was good for fifth in the East (Washington). That record would’ve been 9th in the West

In 2006-07, 50 wins was good for second seed in East and would’ve won two of the three divisions. It would’ve been sixth in the West and no better than second in a division.

In 2007-08, which may have been the low point for the decade, 37-45 was good for eighth in the East. It would have been 13 games out of the playoffs in the West

All four of these seasons come with an obvious caveat: the East teams were that bad even though they got to play other terrible East teams. The Western teams succeeded despite a much more challenging schedule, making the disparities even more glaring.

But the gap has been coming down in recent seasons.

Look at the win totals from the fourth seed on down in the 2008-09 season. In the East, they fell gradually almost all they way to the basement (47, 43, 41, 41, 39, 36, 35, 34, 34, 33, 32, 19). In the West, each total is several wins higher, but the win totals dropped off a cliff after the top nine seeds (54, 53, 50, 49, 48, 46, 29).

Last season, both conferences saw similar drop-offs at the end of the playoff spots. Chicago beat Toronto to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East by one game with a record of 41-41. Beyond Toronto, the 10th seed was Indiana at 32-50. In the West, win totals fell precipitously from eight-seeded Oklahoma City (50-32) to ninth-seeded Houston (42-40).

The power balance between the leagues may not be shifting in full over to the East. But what we are seeing is the development of a productive middle class in the East.

The East has actually evolved much like an urban society. Just under a decade ago, they league was fairly balanced, with no one being terribly good (think 55 wins for a division, 40 for the playoffs). Several years ago, they were a league dominated by a powerful elite (the good Nets teams, the heyday of the Pistons, etc.) with a wide gulf between them a bunch of bottom-dwellers who beat up one each other enough to scrape into the lower rungs of the playoff picture (the last two or three years of Cavs, Magic, Celtics, and everybody else).

Now though, there are tiers in place. The upper echelon consists of the legitimate title contenders like the Heat and Celtics. The notch below has the lukewarm title hopefuls like the Chicago and Orlando. Then there’s an established middle class: legitimate playoff teams like the revamped Knicks, Hawks, and Sixers who are more than just the best of the worst and could be poised to make a playoff splash.

The West, meanwhile, appears to be turning into a top-heavy league. Arguably the three best teams in all of basketball, Dallas, the Lakers, and San Antonio, populate its summit. The Spurs have exceeded expectations, and the Mavs and Lakers have been hampered by injuries for stretches and, I believe, are better teams than their record indicates. That creates a clear divide between teams three and four, the title contenders and a pack of seven teams all within seven games of each other battling it out for the final five playoff spots. It’s a situation that’s distinctly Eastern.

Both teams have their fair share of bottom-dwellers and dreadful teams that would pile up the losses even if you put them in the Mid-American Conference.

So before we go spouting off about wild shifts in power balance (or spouting off again, in the case of the Maloof Brothers) let’s just call it a natural ebb and flow. Or, red states be damned, the logical evolution of the conferences.

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