Western Conference looks like a gauntlet, East not so much

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Since 2000, 25 NBA teams have missed the playoffs despite holding a better record than a playoff team in the opposite conference.

Of those 25 slighted teams, 24 have been in the Western Conference.

Expect that list of shorted West teams to grow this season. There are 12 Western Conference teams in our power rankings before the eighth Eastern Conference team.

Conference imbalance is usually measured two ways – by teams at the top of each conference and by teams near the No. 8 seed.

The overwhelming 2019 title favorite is the Warriors, who play in the West. If they threepeat, they’d give the West 15 of 21 championships since Michael Jordan retired.

But zoom out just a little further, and the placement of contenders looks more balanced. In fact, three of the top five teams in our power rankings – Warriors, Celtics, Rockets, 76ers, Raptors – are in the East.

Yet, look near the playoff line, and the West dominates. If the season plays out according to our power rankings, the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Mavericks and Grizzlies would all miss the playoffs despite being better than the Pistons, the No. 8 team in the East. Of course, the season won’t match our preseason power rankings, but the difference in conferences at this point in the standings looks stark.

Last year, the West tied a record with 10 winning teams. That’s hard to pull off, but several losing Western Conference teams last year – Lakers, Grizzlies and Mavericks – should be far more competitive this year. None of the 10 winning teams are locks to fall off.

That will likely leave at least one Western Conference team joining the list of teams that missed the playoffs despite holding a better record than a team in the other conference. Those teams since 2000:

  • 2018 Nuggets (46-36)
  • 2016 Bulls (42-40)
  • 2015 Thunder (45-37)
  • 2015 Suns (39-43)
  • 2014 Suns (48-34)
  • 2014 Timberwolves (40-42)
  • 2013 Jazz (43-39)
  • 2013 Mavericks (41-41)
  • 2011 Rockets (43-39)
  • 2011 Suns (40-42)
  • 2011 Jazz (39-43)
  • 2010 Rockets (42-40)
  • 2009 Suns (46-36)
  • 2008 Warriors (48-34)
  • 2008 Trail Blazers (41-41)
  • 2008 Kings (38-44)
  • 2006 Jazz (41-41)
  • 2005 Timberwolves (44-38)
  • 2004 Jazz (42-40)
  • 2004 Trail Blazers (41-41)
  • 2004 Warriors (37-35)
  • 2004 SuperSonics (37-45)
  • 2003 Rockets (43-39)
  • 2001 Rockets (45-37)
  • 2001 SuperSonics (44-38)

In a more holistic view, the West appears poised to dominate the East once again.

Based on each team’s over-under,* East teams project to win just 44% of their games against their West counterparts. That’d be a greater conference disparity than the last few years but in line with this era.

*The over-unders give teams 10 extra wins across the league. So, I subtracted a third of a win from all 30 teams for this projection.

Here is the East’s annual winning percentage against the West, actual results in blue and this season’s projection in orange:


Of course, Eastern Conference teams will have an opportunity to show they can hang. I expect the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers to be quite competitive. The Bucks and Pacers could make noise. I wouldn’t even rule out a team like the Wizards, Heat, Pistons or Hornets rising.

But the safe bets are the Western Conference Warriors winning the title, the competition being much more fierce to make the playoffs in the West and the West holding a decided overall advantage.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points


Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.