It’s been more than a decade since Western Conference coaches and executives could peer to the other half of the NBA standings and feel fortunate to be where they are.
But, right now, it’s the position the New Orleans Pelicans and their Western brethren find themselves when tracking the early road to the NBA playoffs. While the Pelicans (4-11) are still staring up at nearly the entire league, their path back toward contention isn’t quite as daunting as it may have been in recent years.
One month into the season, not only is the West 33-39 against the East, it also doesn’t have the typically calcified clump of teams racing out to impressive winning percentages. Utah’s .500 record currently slots it No. 6 in the West and would be no better than No. 11 in the East.
New Orleans’ next opportunity to creep closer to contention, and add on to its three-game winning streak, comes Friday at 9:30 p.m. in Los Angeles when it faces the Clippers (7-8) at Staples Center.
“I think it just shows there’s a balance in the league now,” Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “If you look at the transactions that happened over the summer, there are a lot of teams that weren’t so good last year that got better with their acquisitions, and the good teams are doing enough to keep themselves good. So, it could be a different and interesting year.”
Thus far, it’s a far cry from where the league has been.
Over the past 11 seasons, the West’s No. 8 seed has averaged nearly seven more wins than the East’s No. 8 seed and at least one lottery team in the West finished with a better record than an Eastern Conference playoff participant. In fact, the ninth-place team in the West has outperformed 2.5 East playoff teams on average.
Since the turn of the century, the East has only finished with an above-.500 winning percentage one time (2007-08). As recently as last season, the chasm between conferences was on full display in the first two months of year when the West held a 135-81 advantage against East opponents on Jan. 1.
It’s why Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry feels competitive balance arrived right on time. After an injury-riddled roster led to a 1-11 start, New Orleans is just three games back of the No. 7 spot.
“We are just hanging around, and that basically puts us four games out of the playoff race right now,” Gentry said. “Eventually we are going to have to win and try to put together some sort of winning streak to get back into it. If we win seven out of 10 or six in a row, that’s probably what it’s going to have to take.”
Several Pelicans players point to last year’s Oklahoma City Thunder, who were without Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant for an extended period, sinking their record to 3-12 before battling back to miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
And that was in a loaded Western Conference.
This year, Golden State (off to an NBA record 15-0 start) and San Antonio have taken clear posts atop the standings, but the rest of the expectant contenders aren’t winning at more than 56 percent clip while the fringe playoff spots are worse than .500.
While there’s ample time for the sides to correct themselves to historic norms, the Pelicans admit they’ve been somewhat aided by the psychological boost of the competition struggling right alongside them.
But, with the pending return of Tyreke Evans to the lineup and the calendar set to turn to December, the urgency is starting to get turned up.
“Yeah, it’s a long season,” Anthony Davis said. “Nobody’s really taking off, but we can’t really worry about anybody else, what they’re doing. We got to worry about how we play and trying to get more wins. We’re just a month in. There’s like four more to go, five more to go. It’s a long season.
“OKC started off 3-12 last year and they almost made the playoffs if it wasn’t for us. That’s kind of how I look at it. It’s a long season and it’s a process.”