Basketball: NBA is in balance with topsy-turvy start

Portland Trail Blazers' Seth Curry being defended by his brother and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry at the Oracle Arena on Thursday. Portland shocked the NBA champions with a 110-109 overtime win to hand the hosts their fifth home loss thi
Portland Trail Blazers' Seth Curry being defended by his brother and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry at the Oracle Arena on Thursday. Portland shocked the NBA champions with a 110-109 overtime win to hand the hosts their fifth home loss this season. Still, the Warriors are in a class of their own and are expected to improve when DeMarcus Cousins returns from injury.PHOTO: REUTERS

Big teams underperform with none on track for 60 wins, but Golden State still look best

WASHINGTON • Contrary to the popular complaint, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is not allergic to parity.

Look at how bunched up the league is this season. The standings resemble a traffic jam.

In the Western Conference, just 71/2 games separate the first-placed Denver Nuggets (yes, the Nuggets) and the 14th-placed New Orleans Pelicans.

The Eastern Conference is more tiered, but it is interestingly competitive as well. The current top five teams are within five games of each other.

Everyone else in the East except for the Detroit Pistons is .500 or worse - and the bottom is terrible, with four teams still having failed to reach 10 victories.

It is not like the season just began, either. Christmas has long been considered an unofficial launching of the season, but now that the games begin in mid-October, the holiday sample size is much greater.

The 2018-19 campaign is about 40 per cent done. All 30 teams have played at least 33 games, with the Feb 7 trade deadline approaching.

Yet somehow, 25 teams still have realistic play-off aspirations. In addition, there is not a team on pace to win 60 games, which is the benchmark for a dominant year.

And you thought the NBA stood for No Balance Association.

  • -7%

    Decline in winning percentage for Golden State from last season, when the Warriors did not even win 60 games, to the current 63.9 per cent.

Throughout its 73 seasons, this league of super-teams and transcendent stars never has needed unpredictability to thrive.

For the most part, the dominance established by the Los Angles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls dynasties has been accepted over the years because this is a character-driven league.

The NBA is built around the personalities of its stars, and the fascination with their ups and downs often upstages the lack of suspense over who will win the title.

Last June, the Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their second straight title and third in four seasons. But LeBron James and his impending free agency was the bigger story.

Still, for as imbalanced as the NBA often is, the current competitive issue is a significant concern.

The Warriors are so dominant and so star-studded. Even though they seem more vulnerable at 23-13, there is still great curiosity - and fear - about how overpowering they will be when DeMarcus Cousins returns from injury.

The NBA champions are a different kind of monster because they can break all competitive-balance systems, drafting three of their All-Stars - Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green.

But with James joining the Lakers this summer, the league is in the middle of a fairly dramatic shift.

There is parity because he is no longer in the East. So Toronto, who took a gamble and traded for free agent-to-be Kawhi Leonard without securing a long-term commitment, lead the East with a league-best 26-10 record.

The West is often the NBA's hope for parity, and James has made it crazier. With the Houston Rockets (19-15) regressing this term, it is a conference without an established challenger for Golden State with the play-offs in mind.

Right now, it feels like there are a lot of No. 4 seeds trying to figure out how to elevate. Every team must feel like they are one good acquisition away from being able to advance a little further.

Still, for all the parity so far, you must wonder if it will affect the championship hunt, for Golden State remain in their own class.

The Warriors' fiercest competition will continue to be their standard. It means that this season can be as competitive as they want, but by early June, we likely will be talking about the same thing - are the Warriors good for the league?

For the first two months, the NBA has enjoyed a balanced regular season. It has taken some underperforming to get there, as well as some uneven play from newly-formed teams like the Lakers.

But singular dominance is not carrying the league right now, and with rumours of a Kevin Durant departure from Golden State this summer, perhaps the league is about to exit this dynastic era completely.

If that happens, rejoice while you can. In the NBA, one thing is certain - parity is fleeting. A giant always emerges.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2018, with the headline 'NBA in balance with topsy-turvy start'. Print Edition | Subscribe