Albert Einstein once said, "The distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
The illusion in sports that things should stay the way they are just because they've always been that way is indeed stubborn. The Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference is a prime example of this. I know, I know - the Toronto Raptors have looked a lot better ever since Rudy Gay left for Sacramento, and they have taken the lead over the Brooklyn Nets. Even still, divisions should be gone from the NBA. I'm even OK with eliminating conferences as well for the playoffs. We can keep them for scheduling purposes during the regular season, but playoff seeds and matchups shouldn't be determined based on how a few guys arbitrarily aligned teams many years ago.
What would it look like if we eliminated conferences and divisions from the NBA? What if the 16 best teams actually played each other at the end of the year to determine the champion? This is what it would be like. If you want to see it in bracket form, I made one for you here.
1. Indiana Pacers (33-8) vs 16. Minnesota Timberwolves (20-21)
Season Series: 1-0 Pacers (98-84 on 11/25)
Pacers Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 102.9 (17), DefRtg: 93.6 (1), NetRtg: 9.4 (1)
Timberwolves Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 105.1 (10), DefRtg: 102.1 (10), NetRtg: 2.9 (11)
Thoughts: Oddly enough, George Hill was the Pacer starter to take over the game in their November meeting, scoring 26 points with 7 assists and 5 steals. Meanwhile, Timberwolves starting PG Ricky Rubio only had 7 points and 7 assists on 3-9 shooting. This continues to be the story for the Wolves. They are better than their record indicates, as they’re above average both offensively and defensively, but have faced a brutal first half schedule.
They have a stud in Kevin Love, but Rubio’s shooting woes will continue to plague them until they’re addressed. Shooting 35% is just not good enough, no matter how much of a savant you are as a passer. Not to mention they would (in these hypothetical playoffs) go up against the best defense in the NBA; you cannot really have a single weakness, especially one as glaring as Rubio’s shooting. The Pacers would back off him, dare him to shoot, and shut down the rest of the Wolves’ players. Speaking of the Pacers, they're so good defensively this year. I know Miami has deserved the benefit of the doubt, but these Pacers look like they can win it all.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (33-10) vs 15. Denver Nuggets (20-21)
Season Series: 2-1 Thunder (OKC: 115-113 on 11/18, 105-93 on 12/17; DEN: 101-88 on 1/9)
Thunder Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 107.1 (5), DefRtg: 99.0 (3), NetRtg: 8.1 (3)
Nuggets Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 104.9 (11), DefRtg: 103.6 (16), NetRtg: 1.2 (14)
Thoughts: If Kevin Durant keeps up his recent stretch of play, I’m not sure there is anyone living in this world that can stop him. Add in one of the best 10 players in the league when healthy in Russell Westbrook, who is supposed to return next month, and this Thunder team is downright scary. Paul George and LeBron James get all the defensive pub from the SF position, and rightfully so, but KD has been a beast recently on that end as well.
In the most recent matchup between the Nuggets and Thunder, Denver was able to steal one at home. To sum it up, Denver shot the lights out (14-31 from three) and the Thunder were awful. Further, KD only played 27 minutes and Serge Ibaka played limited minutes as well while battling the flu. Give me a healthy Thunder roster and I’m not sure if the Nuggets can even get one in a 7 game series.
3. San Antonio Spurs (32-10) vs 14. Memphis Grizzlies (20-20)
Season Series: 3-0 Spurs (101-94 on 10/30, 102-86 on 11/22, 110-108 on 1/7)
Spurs Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 108.3 (3), DefRtg: 99.6 (4), NetRtg: 8.7 (2)
Grizzlies Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 102.5 (18), DefRtg: 104.1 (17), NetRtg: -1.6 (17)
Thoughts: The Grizzlies and Spurs have struck a good rivalry in the past couple years, which really started back in the 2011 playoffs when the eighth-seeded Grizz knocked off the top-seeded Spurs in the first round. Despite the frequent movement of players in free agency and trades, these two rosters remain almost identical to how they were 3 years ago.
After last year’s gut-wrenching loss to the Heat in the Finals, the Spurs will be itching to get back and redeem themselves. With underrated star Kawhi Leonard to miss the next month with a hand fracture, the Spurs will definitely struggle to keep up their defensive identity.
The Grizzlies are in an odd situation as well - for the first time in a couple years, they're just average on defense. That will likely get better, as Marc Gasol is finally back healthy and in the 30-plus minute range. He’s also their most important offensive player and they run almost everything they do through him in the high post. Even still, this would be a tough matchup for the Grizz in the playoffs and the Spurs would likely take the series quickly.
4. Portland Trail Blazers (32-11) vs 13. Chicago Bulls (21-20)
Season Series: 1-0 Trail Blazers (98-95 on 11/22)
Trail Blazers Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 110.5 (1) , DefRtg: 105.7 (25), NetRtg: 4.8 (7)
Bulls Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 97.8 (28), DefRtg: 97.4 (2), NetRtg: 0.3 (15)
Thoughts: The fact that the Bulls are even in this discussion is nothing short of amazing after losing Derrick Rose for the 994,848th time and trading away All-Star wingman Luol Deng. Joakim Noah has been in beast-mode and Taj Gibson has looked very good in spelling Carlos Boozer, who was out their last game with a calf injury. The Bulls have the league’s second-best defense, and I’m pretty sure that head coach Tom Thibodeau could have a top-10 defense with 12 random dudes from the local YMCA.
However, is their defense good enough to keep up with the NBA’s best offense in the Trail Blazers? Probably not. That’s another interesting story for this spring - history is not very kind to teams with defenses that rank as badly as the Blazers does. Last year, the final four teams in the playoffs all had top-10 defenses and that is pretty much the case every year. The Blazers are definitely prolific on offense, but the 25th ranked defense will definitely hurt them as they go deeper in the playoffs.
5. Miami Heat (31-12) vs 12. Toronto Raptors (21-20)
Season Series: 3-0 Heat (104-95 on 11/5, 90-83 on 11/29, 102-97 on 1/5)
Heat Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 109.0 (2), DefRtg: 102.1 (9), NetRtg: 6.9 (4)
Raptors Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 103.2 (15), DefRtg: 100.0 (6), NetRtg: 3.2 (10)
Thoughts: Grantland writer Zach Lowe talked the other day about how Miami's coasting and how this season may be different from the last couple. He's got some good points - their defense, while good when it wants to be, is very close to slipping out of the top 10. As mentioned above with the Blazers, that's almost a requirement these days to win a championship. They've had injury issues and Dwyane Wade will seemingly be a "game time decision" for the rest of his career. Battier and Haslem have been out of the regular rotation, and they were key guys in the Heats' defensive schemes the last several years. Battier has been especially important as he can match up against the opposing PF and allow LeBron to guard a smaller guy and not get as banged up.
The Raptors have been very impressive since Rudy Gay left for Sacramento and PG Kyle Lowry might be the most underrated guy in the entire league. DeMar DeRozan has shown, without Gay, that he can be good defensively and also somewhat efficient offensively. They're good defensively as a whole, ranking sixth in the league currently, and will continue to get better as they solidify their frontcourt rotation. The Raps aren't good enough to take down the Heat or Pacers, but in a non-fantasy land playoff system (what we unfortunately have), they're definitely good enough to win a playoff series.
6. Los Angeles Clippers (29-15) vs 11. Atlanta Hawks (22-19)
Season Series: 1-0 Hawks (107-97 on 12/4)
Clippers Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 106.8 (6), DefRtg: 101.1 (8), NetRtg: 5.7 (5)
Hawks Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 104.2 (12), DefRtg: 102.8 (14), NetRtg: 1.3 (13)
Thoughts: The Clippers are biding time until Chris Paul returns to the lineup. The good news for the Clips is their defense: they started the year terribly, placing in the bottom five for the first month of the year. But they've gotten much better and currently boast the league's eighth-best defense. Interestingly enough, they've actually been very good offensively since CP3 went out earlier this month (ORtg of 110), but that's likely unsustainable in the playoffs when teams have time to watch tape and game plan for them.
The Hawks have a lot of talent on their roster with Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, and Paul Millsap playing well lately. However, Al Horford was by far their best player on both ends of the court, and their ceiling is very limited with him out for the season. Though they sit third in the current Eastern playoff standings (and 11th in this fantasy land), they're only 4.5 games away from the eighth spot, and there's a good chance they'll either fall out of the playoffs completely, or be a low seed at the very least.
7. Houston Rockets (29-15) vs 10. Dallas Mavericks (25-19)
Season Series: 2-1 Mavs (HOU: 113-105 on 11/1; DAL: 123-120 on 11/20, 111-104 on 12/23)
Rockets Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 107.8 (4), DefRtg: 102.2 (11), NetRtg: 5.6 (6)
Mavericks Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 106.7 (7), DefRtg: 105.2 (20), NetRtg: 1.5 (12)
Thoughts: It remains to be seen what will happen with Omer Asik, as the NBA trade deadline is less than a month away. The Rockets have been firm in what they want back - significant value - and we'll see if teams are willing to pay for him. The Celtics have emerged as potential trade partners, though the rumors that it will involve Rajon Rondo are highly improbable. Jeff Green would likely be involved in reality, as the Rockets are potentially a good perimeter 3-and-D guy away from being serious contenders. I'm not sure if Green fits that mold, but they likely need to do something with Asik to get to the next level.
This season has been odd in that many young guys (Westbrook and Bledsoe for example) have battled injuries all the while the old veterans like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are having amazing seasons.
The Mavs' issue, although they've won two out of three against the Rockets this year, is their defense. They currently rank below average at 20th in the league with a 105 DRtg. Their perimeter defense is not very good with Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, but unlike the Rockets, they don't have a defensive presence like Dwight Howard to erase those mistakes. They admittedly went very hard after Howard in the offseason and it would be interesting to have them match up in the playoffs after he chose to go to Houston instead.
8. Golden State Warriors (26-17) vs 9. Phoenix Suns (24-17)
Season Series: 1-1 (GSW: 115-86 on 12/27; PHO: 106-102 on 12/15)
Warriors Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 103.8 (14), DefRtg: 99.7 (5), NetRtg: 4.1 (8)
Suns Stats (Rank) - OffRtg: 106.1 (8), DefRtg: 102.6 (12), NetRtg: 3.5 (9)
Thoughts: Perhaps the most confusing statistic in the NBA is the Warriors offensive efficiency. According to their ORtg (points scored per 100 possessions), they currently are just league average. How could this be with perhaps the best shooting backcourt in the NBA with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the ultimate glue guy in Andre Iguodala, and two skilled big men in David Lee and Andrew Bogut?
Data shows that they rely a little too much on their stars, using isolations and less efficient plays since they have better matchups on the perimeter almost every time down the court. They will need to have a little more cohesion entering the playoffs if they want to advance farther than the first round.
The feel good story of the year- the Phoenix Suns- continue to amaze no matter what cast of characters are out there. They upset the Indiana Pacers (dominated them, really) the other night and at this point, I wouldn't be surprised at any outcome of any series they're in. Jeff Hornacek is in the top lists for Coach of the Year and this Suns team is always prepared and executes with efficiency. They're hovering right around the top-10 both offensively and defensively and getting Bledsoe back would definitely help on both ends. Man, a Suns and Warriors series would be really fun to watch.
As great as some of these 1st round matchups would be, where the real fun would begin in this hypothetical world is the 2nd round. Just for kicks, check out these possible matchups:
1. Indiana Pacers vs 8. Golden State Warriors
4. Portland Trail Blazers vs 5. Miami Heat
2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs 7. Houston Rockets
3. San Antonio Spurs vs 6. Los Angeles Clippers
Come on, who wouldn’t kill to see a Pacers/Warriors and Blazers/Heat matchup in the second round? That would be absolutely epic. OK, I’ve officially talked myself into this. Adam Silver, make it happen.