It’s time we stop trying to solve the complex conundrum that is the Indiana Pacers and their problems. Roy Hibbert’s sub-par everything, Frank Vogel’s questionable coaching and Paul George’s less-than-stellar play have produced the biggest headlines in this year’s playoffs. However the club still limped out as winners of a first-round duel that went seven games against the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. What’s even more significant is that while the Pacers compiled an Eastern Conference-best 56 wins, Atlanta only tallied 38.
It’s typical to see such disproportion in wins between a top and bottom seed. Indiana’s struggles in this year’s playoffs shed light on a greater issue. Creating a league in which talent is a free-for-all and all 30 teams are equally matched is impossible. Someone will always be the top dog and another a cellar dweller. And for the first year in the NBA, it’s been widely accepted that the Eastern Conference is currently inferior in competition. We’re seeing first-hand the ramifications of that belief in this year’s playoffs.
Coach Frank Vogel and his Pacers team had lofty playoffs expectations at the beginning of the year. As the competition grew stiff, the faith in living up to those expectations soon became filled with rigor mortis as well. Their case begs the question: Are the top teams in the East true contenders or merely paper champion pretenders?
Examining the regular-season schedule of the average Eastern Conference team, each club plays a total of 52 of 82 games in-conference. With only two teams in the East collecting more than 50 wins and eight out of 15 teams finishing with less than 40 wins, that’s more than half of the inter-conference schedule played against below .500 teams.
In accordance with the results of the 2014 regular season; with eight teams in the East finishing below .500, that means 32 out of 52 inter-conference contests are against teams jockeying for lottery position. That’s not counting the two visits a year an Eastern Conference team will pay to the bottom squads in the West. Potentially half of an East team’s schedule is against the destitute teams in the NBA. In a league where practicing good habits manufacture great results, consistently facing sub-par competition only creates inconsistency.
For these reasons, the Indiana Pacers decline isn’t very surprising. It also gives reason to be skeptical of Joakim Noah’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Noah’s a great center, and he carried the Chicago Bulls when most counted them out. However, while most will argue that the statistics speak for themselves, it’s fair to say that positive stats come easier with substandard competition.
It’s placed a black eye on this year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, and it won’t get better any time soon.
With four of the top five draft picks possibly going to the Eastern Conference, the East will continue to get younger and less experienced. It will survive on talent and excitement, possibly at the expense of wins. In the interim we’ll continue to see teams like the Pacers sprint out of the gates, and eventually run on fumes down the final stretch of the regular season. We’ll surround them with hype and praise by late March and critique them with contempt and condescension by April. In the future, we can expect more teams to burn out in the playoffs where every game is more competitive.
There’s no cure for the East-West disparity, and on the brighter side it’s a good thing for the NBA. This league loves rivalry and as the “which conference is better” murmurs begin, for now the league will spin the inequality in its favor. Unless your team is gunning for the lottery year after year, there’s room to entertain and enjoy some East versus West beef.