The NBA hasn’t been this entertaining in decades, as a full 14 years have passed since the last time the league added even one expansion team, and the dilution of talent that triggered the Dark Ages was so long ago that when the Raptors played their first NBA game in October of 1995 (a 94-79 win over the Nets!), it was just three months after Dave Grohl released the first album from Foo Fighters.
Which, in turn, means that for the first time in ages, the level of talent in the league is stacked when compared to the number of teams, something that hasn’t been true since the 1987-88 season, before the Hornets, Timberwolves, Magic, and Heat joined the league over a two-year stretch, followed by the Raptors and Grizzlies eight years later.
The league average is 110.2 points per team per game, the highest it’s been since 1985-86.
League pace is 99.6, fastest since that ’87-88 season just mentioned.
And league offensive rating is 109.9, the greatest of all time, and if you take away the last three seasons (’19, ’17, and ’18, in that order), the last time you find the league enjoying this much offense was 1986-87.
So you can take your pick of the greatest of the seasons from the primes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Isiah Thomas featuring a young Michael Jordan. I’d go with ’87-88 myself, just because that year included the greatest slam dunk contest in basketball history (with apologies to Vince Carter, Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, and Stuff the Magic Dragon’s hoverboard.)
It doesn’t matter. 2018-19 is surpassing even 1987-88.
Consider it’s January 2 as I write this and 14 teams are very much mathematically and plausibly alive in the Western Conference, a winning streak away from cracking the top 8.
And if you doubt me on that, ask the Rockets and Spurs, both of whom have been 14th at points this season when they were just as bad relative to the .500 mark as is New Orleans today but who went on winning streaks to seize their playoff destiny.
The gap between first and eighth (4.5 games, between the Nuggets and Spurs) is greater than the gap between eighth and 14th (4 games, between the Spurs and Pelicans) and the gap between 1st and 14th (8.5 games) is only half a game higher than the gap between 14th and 15th (you poor, poor Suns.)
Point is, we don’t know who’s going to make the playoffs. Every single team from Denver on down (except Phoenix) has as its ceiling a home playoff series and its floor picking as high as sixth or seventh even if they don’t win the draft lottery.
And that’s if the East also-rans get it together; right now Brooklyn, at 17-21, is just half a game out of eighth in the conference, so the 14th-place team in the West might end up picking ninth in the draft, with all seven East teams plus the Suns picking ahead of them.
But don’t read that and assume that the East is a garbage fire.
After all, three of the four best records in the entire league belong to Milwaukee, Toronto, and Indiana, and Philadelphia ranks sixth.
The West may have parity, but what the East has is a top-heavy conference that, once the first round is over with what we can only guess will be a lot of teams getting their butts kicked followed by knock-down, drag-out fights in the second round and the conference finals.
And out West? Go ahead and tell me you’d feel safe having your money on the Nuggets as the 1 seed playing the eighth-seeded Spurs in the first round. Or that you’d bet against the 7 seed Lakers, provided they got LeBron James back, against the Warriors team they massacred on Christmas Day.
The 3-6 series is Oklahoma City and the star power of Russell Westbrook and Paul George against the Clippers and their nightly team-oriented, balanced attacks, and the 4-5 is a juicy Rockets-Blazers series with two teams that play a free-flowing, hot-and-cold shooting style of utterly unpredictable basketball.
The 4-5 series in the East right now? Philadelphia against Boston, two teams whose cities have renewed their proud sporting rivalry that dates back not just to last year’s second round and the football fracas that was the Super Bowl, but further than that to Larry Bird and Julius Erving.
If that sounds like a recipe for the greatest playoffs since 1993 if not of all time, that’s only because it is. The West first round could surpass 2014 as the GOAT first round, when the four combined Western series went 27 games, only the Rockets and Blazers avoiding a Game 7 when Portland won in six.
The league is full of old guard stars—not just the still very-much-active LeBron but also the farewell tour of Dwyane Wade, the ageless Vince Carter, and guys like Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant who you kind of forget have been in the league a decade or longer.
But it’s also full of great young talent like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, De’Aaron Fox, the still-only-25 Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic…the league somehow manages to get better and better even as the years go by. When the last of the old guard finally hangs up the sneakers, we’ll hardly notice their loss with all the new highlights coming across at breakfast time every morning.
Scoring is up. Pace is up. Talent level is up. Competitive balance is up. And it’s all coming together as 2019 begins to bring us the greatest NBA season of all time and the very real potential to have that mark last all of a year before it gets broken again in 2020.
At least until the league tries to expand again, we’re in good hands.