Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 15, 2013

Eastern Conference Bad Enough To Make Celtics Look Good

The first snow storm of the winter blew through New England in the middle of the weekend, which was particularly depressing considering the fact that it’s not actually winter yet. I retired Saturday night with the heart of the storm just moving in, clinging to the hope that the handful of tracking models that predicted warmer air coming off the ocean and a changeover to rain would prove to be correct. That hope was quickly extinguished when I was awakened by the sound of a plow pushing down my Portsmouth street Sunday morning. The storm left eight inches or more of fluffy powder, with reports of greater amounts further inland.

No matter how experienced one is at driving in the snow, each year’s first storm mandates a bit of extra caution as old driving skills are brought back to the front of mind from the recesses of our memory banks. So it was that I was carefully making my way along the icy streets Sunday afternoon when without warning I nearly drove off the road and into a snow bank. Yet the first unwelcome blast of winter weather had nothing to do with the near calamity. It was not an unexpected patch of black ice that caused me to nearly lose control; rather it was the declaration emanating from the car’s radio.

His words soaring all across New England and beyond thanks to the 50,000 watt power of Boston’s WBZ, a breathless sports reporter was informing us that the Boston Celtics were in fourth place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference! With an air of excitement usually reserved for the historic teams of Russell or Bird, he went on to announce that this obviously elite squad was busy preparing for the next home game, Monday night at TD Garden against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Objectivity is generally not a requirement for a local radio sports reporter; indeed the job virtually presupposes that any incumbent will be openly supportive of the home teams. But I can say from recent personal experience that when boosterism crosses over into utterly irrational behavior, listeners can be in danger of losing control of their vehicles.

The report was factually correct. Through Saturday’s games the Celtics were in fact in fourth place, a spot that would earn them home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. They hold that spot by virtue of their perch atop the Atlantic Division; for the league’s seeding rules mandate that the top four spots in each Conference go, in order of won-loss record, to the three Division leaders and the team with the next best overall record. But even if the standing were based solely on each team’s record Boston would slip just one place, trading spots with a Detroit team that while second in the Central Division is actually one-half game ahead of the Celtics overall.

But what the radio reporter neglected to mention is that the Celtics are sitting in their lofty position with a losing record of 11-14. Since play began this season Boston has never sported a winning record, and has been a .500 club for all of 48 hours. That grand achievement came on Veterans Day, when a 120-105 romp over the Orlando Magic evened their record at 4-4. Two nights later the Green lost by four to the Charlotte Bobcats to start a six game losing streak. To be sure, 11 wins through 25 games qualifies as success for a team in rebuilding mode. When the Celtics opened the season with four straight losses and consistently poor second half play, they had the look of a team that might be historically bad. As was noted here at the time, Sports Illustrated’s NBA power rankings placed Boston dead last in the league.

A team that started out looking dreadful now instead looks merely bad, as first-year coach Brad Stevens has put together lineups that have somehow over performed, at least on some nights. Whatever the remainder of the season may hold, last weekend will remain a highlight of a year in which little was expected. The Celtics traveled south to Gotham and dismantled the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, winning 114-73. The 41-point blowout was the biggest winning margin of the season in the entire NBA.

Of course there is no pleasing some fans, and the fact that at least on some nights the Celtics aren’t awful has some of their faithful unhappy. When those first four regular season contests all went badly some immediately began dreaming of next June’s draft lottery. But fans who were hoping that the Celtics would tank on the season in order to maximize their lottery chances clearly never saw the intensely competitive Danny Ainge play basketball. As long as Ainge is President of Basketball Operations the roster he puts together will consist only of players who will keep trying.

While 11-14 isn’t awful, it’s still only 11-14, and getting back to that .500 level the Celtics achieved ever so briefly could be difficult. Three of their next eight games are against Eastern Conference foes with better records. Then in early January the Celtics start an extended road trip out west, and that’s where to going could get really rough.

For the real story of Boston’s current standing atop the Atlantic Division and in the first tier of the Eastern Conference, which so excited the radio reporter today, is what it says about the NBA’s Eastern Conference. For years now, irrespective of which conference produced the eventual league champion, the Western Conference has been a bit deeper than the East. Only once in the past decade have Eastern Conference teams on a majority of games against teams from the West. But this season the gap has widened into a yawning chasm.

The Eastern Conference may well produce the NBA’s champion next spring. At 20-3, the Indiana Pacers have the best record in the league. The Miami Heat trail the Pacers by three games, but as the two-time defending champions they must be accorded their due until some team defeats them. But through the first quarter of the season the rest of the East is shockingly bad. Through Saturday, the Pacers and Heat were the only two Eastern Conference teams with records above .500. The entire Conference was 46 games under .500. Since games within each conference necessarily net to .500, that number is the massive disparity in inter-conference play.

The Atlanta Hawks at 12-12 and the Celtics would indeed have home court advantage as the 3rd and 4th seeds, if the playoffs started today. Thanks goodness that they don’t. If either team were playing in the Western Conference with their current record, home court wouldn’t be an issue for the playoffs because they wouldn’t be playing at all.

More than two-thirds of the regular season remains, and hopefully by the time the standings really do matter in terms of the playoffs the Eastern Conference will be represented by more than two squads with winning records. For now, it’s nice to know that the Celtics may not be as wretched as they first appeared. But that doesn’t mean that they’re anything to get excited about.


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