By Zach Naidu
Well, Adam Silver, you have your wish: Tanking is dead. Six weeks into the regular season, the Western Conference standings are bunched up in a seemingly unprecedented fashion.
Six weeks into the 2015 season, seven teams had a record of three or more games below a .500 win percentage — three of which were six or more games below the mark. The following year, that number dipped to four teams. However, last season, seven teams were once again three games below an even record, with three of those teams boasting a record of seven games below or worse. This year, only one team out West, the Phoenix Suns (4-15), fits the bill.
Multiple factors contribute to the current Western Conference parity. For starters, recent Western Conference bottom feeders have excelled in free agency or seen past losing seasons award them franchise-altering talent. The Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers primarily fall into this category. Minnesota has seen highly drafted players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins continue to develop, while the 2015 arrival of head coach Alvin Gentry in New Orleans has finally started to channel Anthony Davis’ elite talent into wins.
Most notably, Sacramento and Los Angeles — who have combined to miss 17-consecutive playoff appearances — have risen in the ranks. Unsurprisingly, the Lakers have returned to relevance due to superstar free agent signing LeBron James. However, few outside Sacramento anticipated what the Kings have achieved thus far; young guards Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox have made tremendous strides in the first quarter of the season, improving their scoring averages by five points and allowing the Kings to click as a whole offensively. As a result, the Kings sit at 10-10 six weeks in, a 41-win pace representing a drastic improvement for a team that hasn’t won more than 32 games in the past decade.
In addition, many teams who don’t have elite young talent have head coaches who won’t sacrifice current success for potential future prosperity. The Los Angeles Clippers, devoid of elite talent after a two-year exodus of Lob City’s core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, were expected to be one of those teams in search of future talent at the expense of regular season wins. However, Doc Rivers has led an egalitarian roster to the best record in the Western Conference after 19 games. That’s right, in a conference housing the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden and Anthony Davis, the team with seventh-year swingman Tobias Harris as its leading scorer sits atop the standings. Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs, fresh off of trading disgruntled All-Star Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan, opted to compete for a bottom playoff seed rather than blow up the roster in search of young gems.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference still has many teams hugging the bottom of the NBA standings. This is in large part due to the void of talent in the conference outside of Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia. In the West, teams that don’t feature elite superstars like the Denver Nuggets and Clippers supplement this weakness with solid, deep lineups that implement and execute sound team basketball. That is quite difficult for teams like New York and Cleveland to do. Couple that with nightly matchups against elite talent at the top of the East in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid, and these teams stand little chance to succeed.
If decades of results provide any indication, once the 82-game season reaches its quarter mark, teams win percentages largely hold constant the rest of the way. This year, 3.5 games separate the number one seed from the 14th seed, meaning the West will be a dog fight come April. It is very likely juggernauts like Oklahoma City, Golden State and Houston utilize their talent to distance themselves from the pack.
Now how long this parity will last for beyond this season is another question. While the playoff race will be tight out West, once the playoffs begin the teams with elite talent will prevail over those with depth, as the condensed nature of a playoff series rewards those teams that can overpower an opponent in a relatively short timespan.
Moreover, the only reason Sacramento and New Orleans are in the position to succeed is because of past losing seasons that enabled them to draft coveted players.
These are all thoughts and questions for 2019.
For now though, whether it be due to an influx of talent or organizational philosophy, tanking out West is dead.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu