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What’s Going On Out West?

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The Western Conference standings are tight, and that could make things difficult for Elton Brand & the Sixers.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been working on some bigger posts that just haven’t fully come together yet. Hopefully soon! But meanwhile, I was looking at the standings and it suddenly occurred to me that what seems like a puzzle out West is not actually a puzzle at all, and indeed sheds interesting light on how the modern NBA works. And although it was obvious once I thought of it, I don’t think I’ve seen it pointed out elsewhere, so I figured I’d share.

The remarkable thing about the NBA’s Western Conference standings is that, with the exception of the Phoenix Suns, all the teams’ records are quite closely bunched. This is not at all the case in the East, where things are much more the way we as fans have come to expect: an elite group at the top (TOR, MIL, PHI, IND & BOS), a battler group in the middle (DET, CHA, MIA, BKN, ORL & WSH), and the tankers (ATL, CHI, NYK & CLE) at the bottom. If all behaves as usual, a couple of the battlers will become tankers next month, after suffering an injury or cold streak that harms their chances. Of course there is always some suspense — when John Wall went down for the season, Washington was expected to Blow It UP, but instead they’ve played surprisingly well. Still, no one will be shocked if they rev up the tank in a few weeks.

So, why is the West different? Is it the golden sunlight? A desire to take down the smug Lakers? An unwillingness to see the obvious fact that beating the Warriors is unlikely?

Actually, it’s a lot simpler than any of those. It’s not a puzzle, or a mystery, or an enigma, or even a surprise. As I write — please don’t sue me if this changes before this piece posts! — the 8 West teams with the fewest wins are:

Clippers
Kings
Grizzlies

Mavericks

Lakers
Pelicans

Timberwolves

Suns

The Suns have only 11 wins; we don’t need to get into a metaphysical debate as to whether they are actively tanking or are just a young team that isn’t ready to win. We can agree that they are acting in the prescribed manner for a team in their situation — giving the young guys lots of run, trading veteran Trevor Ariza, and generally not focusing on wins this season. The Suns will pick very high in the draft.

The supposed puzzle is why no one else is following this strategy; after all there are already four East teams doing so. But look again at the list:

  • Three of the teams — Clips, Grizz, Kings — have first-round picks that are expected to be property of the Boston Celtics. I say “expected” because all three picks have protections on them. Especially noteworthy are, first, if the Clippers play poorly in the next little while things could change to where they have renewed tanking incentive. And, second, fingers crossed for that Kings pick to land at #1 and bring the Sixers to the Land of Zion! That said, so far this season none of those teams have had any reason to tank, and quite likely none will at any point this year.
  • Another team, Dallas, also gave up their first-rounder, in the Luka Doncic trade. To all the hindsighters who say the Markelle Fultz deal was obviously stupid because you never trade two high picks for one, I offer you the option of future Hall of Famer Luka Doncic or Trae Young and the 2019 Mavs selection. I choose Luka!
  • Then there are two teams who have, arguably, the two best players in basketball, the Lakers and the Pelicans. It’s almost impossible to tank if you have a player that good on your team unless you just sit him for the season, and since these are all-time greats who care about their legacy, they aren’t going to take a dive just to get their team draft position. Especially not the Pels, who need to persuade Davis that they have enough championship potential that it’s worth him staying around. But, um, also especially the Lakers, who have LeBron Freaking James!

And... that’s it, except for the Wolves. As we know the Wolves weren’t tanking because their coach/GM was trying to preserve his job. Now Thibs is gone, and there are three possibilities. One is that they will not pursue the tank opportunity. The second is that they will start to do so soon. And the third is that they already started! I mean, they could have hired a coach with experience, instead they went with the easy, inexpensive, unlikely-to-work option of hiring the son of one of their former coaches. Their best player, the great Robert Covington, is out for an indefinite time with a bone bruise on his ankle. Bone bruises can be serious, but they aren’t always, and it’s not inconceivable that this would be a one- or two-week injury if the team was desperate to win. And of course they just lost to us by like 100 points. I’m not saying the T-wolves are in the tank yet; I just don’t follow them closely enough to have an opinion. But what I will say is this: if Minnesota has started tanking, or does so soon, then there’s no puzzle at all out West. There’s no reason for any team in that conference to try to lose, other than PHX and MIN.

And that’s interesting, because it highlights just how much of what we now think of as normal NBA behavior is in fact teams having learned the Hinkie Lesson. The only thing that prevents us from having a quarter-plus of teams tanking almost from Opening Night, and a third-plus doing so starting sometime in January, is that some teams have traded their first-round pick. In the absence of trades, teams not trying to win would be a dominant feature of the NBA landscape, instead of merely a very important one. It happens that this year a significant number of not-great teams are without their own pick, and that those teams are concentrated in the West. Expect the West to go back to the now-normal spread-out state next season, when that fluky situation is no longer in play.

Finally, since we’re all Sixers fans here, we might ask what this has to do with us. After all, with the possible exception of the Los Angeles LeBrons, none of these teams is going to face us in the Finals should we get there. Basically, what this means for Philly is that there are fewer trade partners out there than we’d wish. Memphis just traded for popular-Sixer-fan-target Justin Holiday. Under ordinary conditions we’d expect the Grizz to be trading players like Holiday away, not competing with us for their services. But since they traded their first-round pick, it makes sense for them to win all they can. So if we look West for a team dumping talent to aid the tank, we shouldn’t expect to see much. The Wolves have this player named Robert Covington; I’ve mentioned him in many of my posts; really like the guy! But apparently there’s a rule preventing us from trading for him in a simple deal until a year after we traded him away. I guess that rule is meant to prevent “parking” deals in which a non-playoff-bound team effectively rents a player to a contender for a few months and then gets him back over the summer. There are some potential modest targets on the Wolves; I like Tyus Jones but he just got badly hurt in the Wolves-Sixers game; Anthony Tolliver might be a useful depth addition.

Moving on to Phoenix: Now that they have traded Ariza it’s not so obvious what short-term help they could offer us in return for draft capital. So my guess is that if the Sixers add an impact player via trade or buyout, it’ll be from the East. I don’t want to get into the details of pick protections but the short version is, Memphis is better off being decent and giving up the pick this year as that pick eventually becomes unprotected. Whereas the Clippers might benefit from missing the playoffs, this year and next and eventually delivering a mere second-rounder to Danny Ainge. So if you have your eye on Patrick Beverley or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute — as I do! — well, it’s a longshot but all hope is not lost. Failing that, let’s make sure to keep the Atlanta Hawks on speed dial.