Hollinger's PER Diem: Dec. 2, 2008
The battle for the best conference is up for grabs, John Hollinger writes.
The battle for the title of best conference is up for grabs again, and how we decide is all in the eye of the beholder.
John Hollinger takes a look at Tuesday's matchups and gives us five observations to look out for. Insider
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First, some background: After the East raced out to a huge early-season advantage, the West has come roaring back. It's particularly noticeable at the top, where teams like Portland, Dallas and Houston have barged toward the top of the Power Rankings. In fact, five of the top nine teams now hail from the West, including the top-ranked Lakers, while four of the top six projected win-loss records belong to Western clubs.
And in terms of getting a playoff spot, you'd unquestionably rather be in the East. Today's Playoff Odds project that it will take only 42 wins to make the postseason in that conference, against 43 in the West.
Additionally, that latter number is almost certainly lower than it will be in real life. The final two playoff teams in the current projection are San Antonio and Utah -- both of whom have played much of the season without their best players. With both now close to full strength, they should begin making a charge up the board; if so, it seems it will take 45 or more just to qualify for the playoffs, much as it required 49 wins a year ago.
While the West is stronger 1 through 9, however, there's a very different story at the bottom. The East only has one truly horrible team, the Wizards, and even that club could play much better if and when Gilbert Arenas returns. Every other Eastern squad projects to win at least 34 games.
Meanwhile, the West is the Big Nine and the Little Six. Minnesota, Memphis, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Sacramento and the Clippers all project to win 31 games or fewer as of today; four of them project to win fewer than anybody in the East. Similarly, Western teams comprise six of the bottom eight in today's Power Rankings.
Ultimately, that's why the East is going to win the head-to-head battle this season. Charlotte's win over Minnesota and Miami's win over Golden State put the East at plus-19 for the season, and it's hard to find a compelling reason why the West would catch up from here.
The irony is that while the West is weaker, in strict head-to-head terms, it's still stronger in the sense we traditionally evaluate things -- being able to make the playoffs, win a round or make the Finals.
So it all depends on how you look at things. Top to bottom, the East is definitely stronger. But in terms of winning in May and June, the West is still the more difficult destination.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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