Survivor wrote a popular 80’s hit for the soundtrack of the “Cold War” classic Rocky IV. The song, titled Burning Heart, comes on at the end of the movie when Rocky Balboa (USA) battles against Ivan Drago (USSR) in the boxing ring to prove that capitalism trumps communism.
Well, and he also proved that in 1985, sports movie special effects still had a long ways to go. (Rocky IV still gives me goose bumps, even if all those intercontinental ballistic missiles are now all safely stowed away).
Anyhow, a line from the song got me thinking about the present situation in the NBA. It goes: “Seems our freedom’s up against the ropes. Does the crowd understand? Is it East vs. West, or man against man? Can any nation stand alone?”
OK, so I’ll admit that the correlation to basketball is pretty loose here, but like I said, the song simply started this train of thought.
I began wondering: Which is the dominant conference right now in the NBA, the East or the West?
Did you know that if the season ended today, a staggering FOUR teams in the Eastern Conference would make it into the playoffs with a losing record? That’s crazy.
And before Toronto embarked on their current three game win streak, they would have won the Atlantic division with more losses than wins. As it is, a record of (19-17) hardly screams “Champion!”
To cap it off, 7th seed Detroit (16-22) and 8th seed New York (15-22) are well below .500.
Seriously, the Eastern Conference as a whole is embarrassing.
But in the Western Conference, even the 8th seed Phoenix is a very respectable (21-16), and the poor Denver Nuggets, at (19-18) they’d be on the outside looking in.
Now, you might point out that there’s still a lot of basketball left to be played, but we have nearly reached the mid-way point of the season. What evidence is there that we won’t see more of the same disparity after the All-Star break?
As of today, 11 teams in the Western Conference have winning records against the East. Only 2 Eastern Conference teams have winning records against the West: Indiana (8-2) and Miami (10-2).
Which leads us to the next question: Is the dominance of the two-time defending champion Heat and the top-contender Indiana Pacers enough to say that the Eastern Conference is still the better conference?
NBA fans are now (mostly) over the controversy that surrounded the 2010 joining of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Pat Riley, of course, could have cared less about the criticism as he was simply enjoying his own personal version of fantasy basketball.
Nowadays, we all just kind of accept the Heat as a dynasty and don’t bother to complain much about how three of the league’s top players all landed simultaneously on the same team.
After all, it’s easy to dislike King James for giving Cleveland the middle finger, but when you watch the man play all aversion flies out the window. He truly is one of the greatest to players to ever set foot on the hardwood.
But, if you hate the Heat, then you love the Pacers. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and Indiana represents the best opportunity to prevent Miami from reaching the Finals for the fourth consecutive year.
The Pacers as a whole have been more than impressive. They showcase the league’s best defense, all five starters are scoring at least 10 points per game, and they’ve got key depth players to sub in off of the bench (something that Larry Bird’s squad has been lacking up to now).
While getting more production off the bench has been a major key towards leading the Pacers to the best record in the NBA (29-7), it could be that the development of Lance Stephenson is the straw that ends up breaking Miami’s back.
Stephenson has upped his PPG average from 8.8 last season to 13.3 in 2013-2014. He’s also adding 6.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 0.7 steals each outing.
Previously, Stephenson was mostly used as a role player, to bring in his aggressive play to disrupt the opposing team’s game plan. But this NBA campaign we’re seeing him blossom into a star. He’s managed to fetch a huge improvement in efficiently while still maintaining his gritty playing style.
So back to the original question at hand here: Does the dominant play of Indiana and Miami negate the rest of the Conference’s abysmal performance against the West?
San Antonio, Portland, and Oklahoma City all say “no”, as each of these teams can certainly stake their claim to being just as big a threat to Miami as are the Pacers.
But there’s certainly an argument to be made that the overall conference record is not very indicative of what’s going to happen in the Finals, and that the signs point towards yet another title for an Eastern Conference squad.
After all, just as in Rocky IV, it’s not really East vs. West, but instead simply man against man, or in this case, team against team.