When the New York Knicks are 4-1 against the NBA's mighty Western Conference, perhaps the Western Conference isn't quite as mighty as we thought when the 2015-16 season began. Knicks jokes aside (and, sadly, the Knicks appear to be anything but a joke this season ... unfortunate for Denver Nuggets fans as the Nuggets have the right to swap draft picks with the Knicks at season's end), by just about any measure the Western Conference's overall degree of difficulty appears to be down from just a season ago.
Other than the defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors (who easily bested the Nuggets Sunday night en route to a history-tying 15th straight victory to open their season) and the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs (who the Nuggets face Friday night ... what a week!), both 2016 playoff locks, we could see 10 to 11 teams compete for six remaining playoff spots in the Western Conference and an Eastern Conference where teams below .500 actually miss the post-season for once.
This is a good thing for the NBA and for our Nuggets.
In hindsight, we should have seen Western Conference parity coming. During the off-season, the Oklahoma City Thunder did essentially nothing with their roster other than hire Billy Donovan from the University of Florida and pray for a healthy Kevin Durant. Durant's health isn't something the Thunder can control, but in hiring Donovan the Thunder clearly didn't learn the lessons of previous NBA teams that attempted to turn a big-time college coach into a bona fide NBA coach. Just ask the likes of Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Mike Montgomery, Jerry Tarkanian, Lon Kruger and Leonard Hamilton how that turned out.
Meanwhile, other putative Western Conference playoff contenders like the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz essentially stood pat with their rosters during the off-season - as a result, the Grizzlies and Jazz have seen little growth in the standings and the Pelicans exposed themselves to the injury bug, which has left them with just three wins thus far.
Looking beyond the Grizzlies, Pelicans and Jazz, wannabe up-and-comers like the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns didn't do enough with their rosters to really scare any opponents in the conference. And the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, two supposed conference finals contenders during the off-season, took huge roster risks by adding talented-but-cancerous players to their rosters and already find themselves eight and nine-and-a-half games back of the Warriors, respectively.
The other team in the Western Conference playoff mix is the Dallas Mavericks, who are off to an impressive 9-5 start through 13 games but are unlikely to finish as high as third in the Western Conference by season's end with a roster full of wisdom but little depth.
But oddly, as of Sunday night the Western Conference has just seven .500 or better teams compared to the Eastern Conference's 11. And before you think: "Yeah, but the East has the 0-14 Philadelphia 76ers and the 2-11 Brooklyn Nets" remember that the Western Conference has the lowly 2-11 Los Angeles Lakers and surprisingly lowly aforementioned 3-11 Pelicans.
This sudden shift in conference records prompted Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to recently say that the Eastern Conference is now better than the Western Conference, which I don't agree with but I see where Cuban is coming from. The East from top to bottom has undoubtedly improved while the West has regressed.
Should this trend of parity continue throughout the 2015-16 season, we can finally put the silly playoff realignment conversation that has been going on for the last five or so years to bed. While I agree that it just doesn't seem right for a sub-.500 team to make the playoffs in the East while a near 50-win team misses the playoffs in the West, I've always felt that the conference disparity was just an aberration and not something permanent, even though the Western Conference has been the superior conference ever since Michael Jordan first retired in 1993. But I'm old enough to remember when the Eastern Conference was the thoroughly dominant conference throughout the 1980s (hence why the Los Angeles Lakers made nine NBA Finals appearances in 12 years while the Eastern Conference was represented by four franchises during the same time period).
Simply put, playoff realignment would mess with decades of traditional geographic rivalries, cause havoc for travel coordination (despite the pampered chartered flight / hotel suite experience modern day NBA teams get) and devalue in-division regular season games. It's bad enough that NBA teams only play their division foes four times per season apiece, but the playoffs give teams the opportunity to go head-to-head with their geographic rivals. I can't fathom an NBA universe without Warriors versus Clippers or Spurs versus Mavericks or Cavaliers versus Bulls or Knicks versus Heat (or Nuggets versus Jazz, for that matter).
This new-found parity is good for our Nuggets, too. Because even though the Nuggets are playing sub-.500 basketball themselves through 14 games, they're just two games back of the (currently) fourth-seeded Thunder. This doesn't mean that the Nuggets will compete for the playoffs in Year One of the Emmanuel Mudiay Era, but it does mean that there's a damn good chance that Mudiay, his new head coach Michael Malone and his very young teammates like Jusuf Nurkic, Joffrey Lauvergne, Nikola Jokic and Will Barton have a decent chance to be playing meaningful, playoff-aspiring basketball late in the season. And while another lottery pick is probably what's best for the Nuggets future in the big picture, some on-court seasoning could do wonders for the confidence of these young players down the road.
If you look at Sunday's box score versus the Warriors, you'd think that the Nuggets never had a chance against the defending champs. But for those of us fortunate enough to watch the game in person, a very different story was told: the young, injury-depleted Nuggets competed against the Warriors throughout the game, regardless of the score. Just as the young, injury-depleted Nuggets competed at San Antonio a week earlier.
And as detailed above, other than the Warriors and Spurs, there's no one left in the Western Conference for our Nuggets to be scared to play against.
(Hat tip to my friend Chris for suggesting this column!)