Nearly a month into the 2015-16 NBA season, only five Western Conference teams have a winning record. By contrast, there are 9 - NINE - East teams with winning records.
Bizarro world indeed!
Over the past 10+ years, the West has been the winningest conference by a wide margin over the East. The debate over whether 9th seeded West team should make the playoffs ahead of the 8th seeded East team was a legitimate debate every year.
Last year, the 9th-seeded OKC Thunder were 45-37 and sported two of the NBA's top 10 most watchable players but missed the playoffs, while the wholly disappointing 38-44 Brooklyn Nets made it there in the East. You had to go all they way up to the 5th seed in the East to find a better record than the Thunder's.
The year before, the 48-34 Phoenix Suns would have tied for the 3rd seed in the East with the same record, but finished 9th in the West and went home without a playoff appearance.
The East has put a losing team in the playoffs for three straight seasons, but this year so far looks to be a total switcharoo.
Basketball-reference.com's playoff probabilities model is now out, and based on early-season results it predicts the 7-8 Phoenix Suns to finish as high as 5th in the West with a (rounded up) 42-40 record, while the Memphis Grizzlies squeak into the West playoffs with a measly 41-41 record.
By contrast, the East prediction model has the Boston Celtics grabbing a playoff spot as the 8th seed with a robust 44-38 record.
It's early, and most of these predictions can be thrown out the window. I find it hard to believe that the Clippers and Rockets would miss the playoffs in the West despite their lackluster start, or that Minnesota will make the 7th seed.
So take all this with a dose of tryptophan.
Yet, you can't discount the model entirely. Nearly 20% of the schedule has already been played. That's enough time to watch trends and smooth out at least a few anomalies. The b-ref prediction model plays out the rest of the season 7,500 times against each team's current schedule, and has been fairly accurate in past years. For example, that model had the Suns finishing 9th and 10th the past two years for much of each season.
How can the Suns possibly finish 5th in the West, given what we've seen? Frankly, it's all about the other teams.
I don't think many Suns fans would discount the possibility of a 42-40 season from this group. They've got, according to b-ref, a top-10 offense AND middling defense so far this season and one of the league's better point differentials, despite being 7-8 overall.
If a 42-40 record gets you into the West playoffs this season, I'll take it. I am so ready for this team to play meaningful basketball in April. So, so ready.