Yes, at 22-0 the Warriors have obliterated the best start in NBA history and have looked downright unbeatable while the clock was ticking during a vast majority of those 22 games. In that sense, they present a very strong argument against the notion of parity and make the discussion seem somewhat silly.
But it’s not.
If you look below the Warriors in the standings – yes, it is like trying to peer down a water well – you will see very few teams that still have the league’s best team in their sights. In fact, there really is just one: the San Antonio Spurs, who like Golden State are unbeaten at home, and are 17-4 overall. Every other team has at least six losses.
We are at the quarter pole of the 2015-16 season. All but seven teams have played at least 20 games, and as colleague Mike Scotto pointed out last week, that is usually a good point to take some inventory of what the league has shown us so far.
And from an overall standpoint, what this season has shown us is that the number of both very good teams and very bad teams has dwindled, muddling the middle and creating more parity. Or mediocrity, depending on your viewpoint.
Keep in mind that this is the overall effect that the collective bargaining agreement is supposed to have. Commissioner Adam Silver and most of the 30 owners he works for should be happy about that. For decades, the NBA has been trying to resolve the small market-big market conundrum, and installed mechanisms such as maximum salaries, the luxury tax and revenue sharing are closing the gap.
But before Silver and his billionaire buddies hurt their hands slapping each other on the back, those balancing mechanisms don’t work nearly as well as good fortune or bad management. Sure, the Spurs (27th among NBA teams in TV market size) and Oklahoma City Thunder (28th) have had extended stretches of solid management. However, those stretches began after landing a transformational talent in the draft lottery. And the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets (first) and Los Angeles Lakers (third) have struggled primarily because they squandered their financial advantage by spending poorly and forsaking the future.
If you look at the league standings over this decade – which could be called “The Decision Era” in honor of LeBron James, but also nearly aligns with the NBA arrival of Stephen Curry – there has been a slight reduction in the number of teams losing 50-plus games each season. At the same time, there also has been a more significant drop in the number of teams winning 50-plus games each season.
Right now, there are eight teams on pace to lose at least 50 games, which would be the same number as each of the last two seasons. But the number of teams on pace for 50-plus wins is just six, which would be the lowest amount this decade. Only Golden State, San Antonio, Miami, Cleveland, Chicago and Indiana would clear 50 wins at their current pace. (Oklahoma City is on pace for 49.)
Compare that to last season, when 10 teams won 50 or more games and another won 49. Or the 2013-14 campaign, when nine teams won 50-plus with another at 49. Here’s an overall look at “The Decision Era,” including a projection to account for the lockout-shortened 66-game 2011-12 season:
2010-11 season: 9 teams at 50-plus wins, 8 teams at 50-plus losses
2011-12 season (projected): 7 teams at 50-plus wins (2 at 49), 9 teams at 50-plus losses
2012-13 season: 7 teams at 50-plus wins (2 at 49), 9 teams at 50-plus losses
2013-14 season: 9 teams at 50-plus wins (1 at 49), 8 teams at 50-plus losses
2014-15 season: 10 teams at 50-plus wins (1 at 49), 8 teams at 50-plus losses
2015-16 season (projected): 6 teams at 50-plus wins (1 at 49), 8 teams at 50-plus losses
For the entire decade, the number of so-called “bad” teams has hovered around eight or nine each season, which is why we called this season a slight reduction. But the number of good teams has fallen from 10 to six, a precipitous drop and the low for the decade, which is somewhat alarming for a number of reasons.
One of the biggest complaints about the NBA is the length of the regular season, along with the widely-held belief that there are only a half-dozen teams with legitimate championship aspirations. That is somewhat bothersome to the folks at the Olympic Tower in midtown Manhattan, not to mention more than a handful of owners. But at the very least, those six teams provide compelling sports theatre in May and June. As the NBA likes to say, this is why we watch.
This season, however, there appears to be less than a half-dozen teams who are legitimately chasing a championship. Golden State, for sure. San Antonio and Cleveland, too. Who else? The other teams currently on pace for 50-plus wins – Miami, Chicago and Indiana – all have questions marks and recent track records that belie their status as legitimate contenders.
And those teams who some believe are legit contenders – Oklahoma City, the LA Clippers, Atlanta or even struggling Houston – are not on pace to win 50 games. You have to go back to the 2002-03 New Jersey Nets to find a team that reached the NBA Finals with less than 50 wins, and they won 49.
Fewer legitimate contenders translates to fewer compelling regular-season matchups, especially when the number of bad teams has remained relatively the same. At current projections, this season would have 16 teams falling between 50 wins and 50 losses, a high for “The Decision Era.” Is that parity? Or mediocrity?
While the quarter pole represents a fair point for examination, it is a small sample size. Atlanta started 7-6 last season and finished 60-22; Washington started 22-8 and finished 46-36. Teams still have 60 games or so to do something about their direction. We are about a week away from the true beginning of trade season on Dec. 15, when free agents signed this summer become eligible to be moved. And unfortunately, guys get hurt playing this game.
But unless a handful of teams pick up the pace, we appear to be in for a pretty drab regular season. At current projections, even the early rounds of the postseason don’t seem all that compelling right now, especially in the West, where the conference finals look like a Warriors-Spurs fait accompli. And does anyone really think it will be some team other than Cleveland waiting for the West winner?
That sounds more like mediocrity than parity.
TRIVIA: Kristaps Porzingis was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month. Who was the last member of the Knicks to earn that honor? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: A week ago was Cyber Monday, but maybe it should have been Intentional Foul Monday. In the Houston-Detroit game, the Rockets intentionally fouled Pistons center Andre Drummond six times in 2 1/2 minutes. He was 3-of-12. In the Dallas-Sacramento game, the Mavericks fouled Kings guard Rajon Rondo seven times. He was 7-of-14. And in the Portland-LA Clippers game, the Blazers intentionally fouled Clippers center DeAndre Jordan nine times in two minutes. He was 8-of-18.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone, after his team suffered a seventh straight loss:
“Some guys hate to lose. I think other guys like to win. And there’s a big difference.”
TANKS A LOT!: The Philadelphia 76ers finally ended their losing streaks of 18 games to start the season and 28 games dating to last season – both NBA records – with a win Tuesday. From their standpoint, however, they beat the wrong team – the Lakers. LA’s first-round pick goes to Philly unless it falls within the top three. By beating the Lakers, the Sixers kept them firmly entrenched as the league’s second-worst team. “We’re a circus,” Lakers guard Nick Young said. “We’re playing terrible. We lost to Philly. Philly! What does that make us?” It makes you a team in the Ben Simmons Sweepstakes, Nick.
LINE OF THE WEEK: Stephen Curry, Golden State at Charlotte, Dec. 2: 31 minutes, 14-18 FGs, 8-11 3-pointers, 4-4 FTs, three rebounds, five assists, five turnovers, 40 points in a 116-99 win. There was no shortage of candidates this week. Marc Gasol had a career-high 38 with 13 boards; Reggie Jackson was the first Piston to go 30-15 since Isiah Thomas in 1988; Paul George dropped a career-high 48 on the road in a loss; Wesley Matthews with 10 threes and a season-high 36; and even Curry went for 44 in another game. But the reigning MVP was 10-of-11 for 28 points in the third quarter against the Hornets, allowing him to sit the entire final period.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Kemba Walker, Charlotte vs. Golden State, Dec. 2: 31 minutes, 2-16 FGs, 0-5 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, three rebounds, two assists, zero steals, zero blocks, four points in a 116-99 loss. Yep, same game. Walker also had a team-worst minus-19 as he created a virtual X-ray image of Curry’s performance.
TRILLION WATCH: There were no monstrous trillions this week but plenty of fun size versions. Rookies Pat Connaughton of Portland and Mario Hezonja of Orlando had 2 trillions. Golden State’s James Michael McAdoo, Dallas’ Justin Anderson and Utah’s Joe Ingles had 3 trillions. But the best of the week came from Milwaukee teammates Chris Copeland and Miles Plumlee, each of whom had 4 trillions Monday vs. Denver. Atlanta rookie Lamar Patterson remains the season leader in the clubhouse with his 8 trillion at Miami on Nov. 3.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Golden State at Indiana, Dec. 8. There’s a lot on the table here. The unbeaten Warriors will be trying to tie the 2012-13 Miami Heat with their 27th straight victory, the second-longest streak in NBA history. Stephen Curry will be going against Paul George in a matchup of MVP frontrunners Nos. 1 and 2. The Pacers’ commitment to small ball will truly be put to a test. Unfortunately, idiots masquerading as NBA fans chose Portland-Cleveland instead of this one for Fan Night on NBA-TV.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Philadelphia at Brooklyn, Dec. 10. In a major upset, TNT passed on this one as part of its weekly doubleheader.
TWO MINUTES: Heat center Hassan Whiteside has 82 blocks in 18 games. His average of 4.56 per contest is more than 11 teams are averaging. … The Bulls are tied for the fewest losses in the Eastern Conference, even though point guard Derrick Rose has been in a season-long slump that can no longer be overlooked. Rose is averaging 13.7 points on .352 shooting – both career lows – and had been just 6-of-32 from the arc before making 3-of-6 in Saturday’s home loss to Charlotte. He also has not been in double digits in assists once. His PER is 10.16, which is ninth among Bulls rotation players. “I know my game is going to come,” he said after shooting 3-of-17 vs. Denver. “The shots I was missing were a lot of short shots and bank shots. But I’m not worried about it; my shot will come.” When? Rose would have to make 67 of his next 100 shots just to get his season shooting percentage to his career mark of 45 percent. … On Wednesday, forward Cleanthony Early played in a matinee for the Westchester Knicks, then was recalled and played for the parent club that night against the Sixers. He joined Jordan Farmar, Coby Karl, Luke Harangody and Hornets guard Troy Daniels as those who have done the D-League/NBA daily double. … After Washington won at Cleveland on Tuesday night, Wizards center Marcin Gortat said, “We are an unpredictable team. Last year, we proved we could beat good teams by 20, but we can lose at Philly. We are a crazy team.” As if to prove his point, the Wizards lost at home to the lowly Lakers 24 hours later. … Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns is clearly among the league’s best rookies this season but had a recent stretch where he sat out the entire fourth quarter of three straight games. When coach Sam Mitchell was asked about the top overall pick’s late-game benching, he snapped, “Man, don’t come ask me that question. Ask me a question about the game. Don’t ask me a question about playing time.” So of course, Towns played the final 8 1/2 minutes in Saturday’s home loss to Portland. … On Friday, retiring Lakers star Kobe Bryant made his final stop in Atlanta, which really doesn’t have a laundry list of lasting NBA memories. However, Bryant recalled one from the 2003 All-Star Game. “My youngest daughter was with me, and I said, ‘That’s Dikembe Mutombo.’ And she looks at him and I’m not sure if she understands who he is. ‘He’s one of the best defensive players of all-time. Let’s go say hello to him. So we go over to him and he says ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ And he put his hand out to shake her hand, and she looks at him and she goes, ‘No, no no’ (wagging her finger). And we both just fell out laughing. She knows him from the commercials. She doesn’t know him from basketball.”
Trivia Answer: Landry Fields in December 2010. … Happy 59th Birthday, Larry Bird. … Only the deputy publisher of the Players Tribune would say that the media has treated Kobe Bryant like s**t.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.