The NBA’s Eastern Conference is in very real danger of finishing the season with only four teams having won at least half their games. This would be embarrassing, and stupid, and also very good and cool.
The top four teams in the conference—Boston, Cleveland, Washington, and Toronto—have already secured winning records this season, and all four have already clinched playoff spots. After that, there are seven teams for whom a .500 record is still mathematically possible: the Hawks, Bucks, Pacers, Heat, Bulls, Pistons, and Hornets. These are all pretty crummy teams, but the Hawks and Bucks are two games over .500, and the Pacers are an even 37-37.
Before beating the tanking Suns last night, the Hawks had lost seven straight games, including dispiriting 15-point losses at Charlotte and at home against the shit-ass Nets. They’ll be playing without Paul Millsap for at least two more, while six of their remaining eight games—at Chicago and Indiana, a home-and-home against the Cavs, and home tilts versus Boston and Charlotte—are against teams with at least some glimmer of postseason hope still burning. The Hawks need to win three of their remaining eight games—of which five are on the road—to reach 41 wins. They have the 20th ranked net rating in the NBA this season, and have a -6.4 net rating when Paul Millsap is off the floor. I would not bet money on them reaching 41 wins.
Milwaukee’s remaining schedule is also road heavy—five of their last eight are on the road—and three of those games are against the Celtics and Thunder. Milwaukee has been playing much, much better in March: they’re 12-4 this month, with three of those losses coming against Western Conference playoff teams. Still, even over that stretch their net rating is only 11th best in the league—luck in clutch situations has granted them a better record than their performance would predict. The Bucks would also need to win three of their remaining eight games to hit 41 wins, but their 17-19 record in road games and road-heavy remaining schedule don’t inspire a ton of confidence.
The Pacers sit at 37 wins, but like Atlanta and Milwaukee, their remaining schedule features more road games than home games, and this is a real problem for the Pacers, who, at 11-25, have far and away the worst road record of any playoff team in either conference. The Pacers haven’t won consecutive games since early February, and six of their remaining games are against teams who are fighting for playoff position. Plus, the Pacers stink. They’re bad. They have a negative net rating on the season, they’re one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA, and their disastrous bench will be without Al Jefferson for a time. Stick a fork in these guys.
The chances for a .500 season get much lower from here. The Heat would need to win five of eight to get to 41, which means even if they beat the Knicks twice (they will), they’ll need to win three of the following games to get the rest of the way there: at Charlotte, Washington, and Toronto, and home against Denver, Cleveland, and Washington.
The Bulls would need to win six of eight, something they haven’t done since November, and they’d need to do it as a team that just got dumped at home by the goddamn Sixers. Detroit would need to win seven of seven. They have lost eight of their last nine games. The Hornets would need to win eight of eight, and all eight games are against teams fighting for playoff spots.
Last season, 10 Eastern Conference teams won at least 41 games, and for the first time since the 2004-05 season, an Eastern Conference team with a winning record did not finish in the conference’s top eight. It’s pretty damn rare for a conference to finish with as many as three losing teams in the playoffs: It happened in 1986, when both conferences only saw five teams finish better than .500; it happened in the shitty East in 1992, when the Nets, Pacers, and Heat filled in the bottom of the bracket with losing records; it happened in the West in 1997, with Minnesota, Phoenix, and the Clippers. The Eastern Conference came damn close to seeding only three winning teams in 2004, when the fourth-place Miami Heat won just 42 games. 2017 would be the first time in NBA history when only four teams in a conference finish with records of .500 or better. It’s not certain to happen—maybe it’s not even likely to happen, with the Bucks streaking—but we’ve got as good a chance as we are likely to ever see.
I mean, if the East is gonna be this shitty, top to bottom, the very least it can do is break a stupid record or two, and this would be a very stupid record. It is the job of every good NBA fan to root for the Hawks, Bucks, Pacers, Heat, Bulls, Pistons, and Hornets to lose, and keep losing. History is at stake.