No one should bat an eye at the NBA's Western Conference showing night in and night out that it's the superior side of the bracket. In fact, anyone paying attention is just sort of used to it based on the past few years, where the Eastern frontier has featured a few decent sides then several completely lifeless teams who stumble into the playoffs and don't put up much of a fight before departing.
But this year is on a different level. As we near the midway point in a sneaky-fast year, a cursory look at the conference standings reveals a region mired in mediocrity. Only the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are over .500. The No. 4 through 10 seeds are comprised of six teams (Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks) within two games of each other and the break-even mark. The Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards are all within 3.5 games of homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
It's a mess. Everyone is doing the bare minimum. And out of all those teams, only the Hornets, Bulls and Knicks could consider this campaign a surprising success. Everyone else involved is mired in varying degrees of disappointment. Perhaps most concerning is how many franchises one can look at and wonder what the long-term plan is supposed to be.
If this all seems too negative, let's pivot. With great averageness comes great opportunity. The door is wide-open for virtually every team not named the Detroit Pistons to get going and pass three or four competitors in the standings with two hot weeks. And at this point of the season, two hot weeks represents a significant part of the season, especially with the compressed second-half schedule.
Chicago and New York appear to be ahead of schedule and if they seize destiny, there doesn't appear too much resistance. Boston certainly wasn't supposed to look this broken but they're running out of time to fix it.
For the precious few teams who have shown competency, it's great to know that the eventual path to the NBA Finals won't be peppered with dangerous speed bumps. Barring a widespread epiphany and communal getting-stuff-together, Brooklyn has to feel great with the future. Milwaukee too. Not having to expend a ton of energy in each and every round is preferrable to what's destined to happen in the West — a vicious cockfight requiring one's head on a constant swivel.