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Do Not Normalize The Eastern Conference

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 28: Obi Toppin #1 of the New York Knicks drives to the basket against Josh Jackson #20 of the Detroit Pistons during the first half at Little Caesars Arena on February 28, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

On the heels of our Knicks blog by Comrade Ley (who is actually more of an intermittently cruel overlord and despot, but we digress), there is one additional point to be made: The Eastern Conference stinks even more than usual, and all enthusiasm for any team should be thus tempered.

As of the end of February (or, as you earthbounds like to call it, this morning), there are four, and only four, teams over .500, and ridiculously, the Knicks are one of them, hence the excitement among the Stockholm-syndrome convention that is their fan base. For the entire month of February, the high-water mark on this arcane and perhaps useless statistic, in this arcane and perhaps useless conference, is five.

In other words, other than for reasons of taste and bothering the neighbors with yelps of unmerited satisfaction, Knicks fans should be aggressively tempering their enthusiasm just on math grounds. And not just Knicks fans, but anyone below Milwaukee. In a conference that often has to justify letting in one playoff team with a losing record, this year could have four.

Now this is unlikely, given that even in the NBA, things tend to regress to the mean, which means that teams like the 1995 Celtics, who earned a playoff berth with 35 wins, usually don’t. But this is now a full two-decade cycle in which the East is demonstrably crud, and this might be the worst one yet.

If that matters to you, of course. Your senses may have been dulled by years of 40-42 teams making the Eastern playoffs with room to spare, and you may have just accepted your sad lot as all you are due. Or maybe you only care about one team, and the rest of the conference doesn’t matter to you, and in the case of the East, that’s probably how it should be. Following a sub-mediocre team doesn’t require you to care about any of the others except to get used to the idea of being fourth one day and 12th the next.

But as a standard, this borders on the intolerable, and lacking relegation to teach the lazy sods of this woebegone gaggle of franchises a lesson about dry rot, we are forced to listen to Knicks fans act like they are Lakers fans only without the burden of all those championship memories, and nobody wants that. Unfortunately, there really is no valid reason to think it will abate. For one, Knicks fans are only a slightly more irritating version of the fans in your town, in that you would consider emigrating to avoid them. For two, the Eastern Conference has been borderline unacceptable for the entire century to date, so this isn’t that much worse than the 2004 season in which only four teams in the East had winning records and the Detroit Pistons won the title with no Hall of Famers and Darko Milicic. Most people not named Anantharaman would agree that this was the least individually talented championship team since … oh, let’s get her angry and say the ’55 Syracuse Nationals.

But those Pistons at least won 54 games, or two of every three, so what they may have lacked in star power, they made up for in efficiency and getting the thing done. These Knicks are on a pace to finish 42-40, and the last time a four-seed (Houston) had a worse record, we were four decades in the rear-view mirror, there were eight fewer teams, and nobody paid that much mind because Magic Johnson was a rookie. More to the point, no Rockets fans acted like they had discovered the future of basketball even though they had 24-year-old Moses Malone.

The point is, the East is still the East, only the level of grim mediocrity has actually risen from eighth place to fourth like structural dry rot. By mere math, and by the snapshot nature of our opinions, this isn’t better. It’s worse, only with better sneakers.

Thus, we say this not just to Knicks fans but fans of any team in the East with even the remotest of aspirations or even momentary excitement when the suck abates: You’re not moving forward, the conference is backing up to you. The day last week when Charlotte led the Southeast Division and still wouldn’t have qualified for the postseason in a non-diseased year wasn’t an anomaly; it was a harbinger. So, while we pick on Knicks fans because they are a collective “Kick Me” sign with feet, this can also be a warning for Bulls fans and Hornets fans and Wizards fans and Hawks fans who also think what they’re seeing is up. It might seem like up given the recent comparison points and contraventions of preseason expectations for your team, but do be chill about it. Have some standards above “Last year was worse.” You don’t want to end up swirling about the hellish perpetual vortex that long ago ensnared the Sacramento Kings now, do you?