Since 1996-97, when the Los Angeles Clippers made the playoffs with a 36-46 record (and promptly got swept in the first round by the eventual Finals team in Utah), the Western Conference has sent zero teams to the playoffs with a losing record.
In that same stretch of 22 full seasons, the East has sent 12 teams to the playoffs with a losing record, the worst of which was a plug-awful Boston Celtics team that went 36-46 with Mark Blount as their second-best player by VORP (1.7) and Raef LaFrentz as the team leader in WS/48 (.137; Paul Pierce put up .109 WS/48.)
This year, the East looks set to make that 14 sub-.500 playoff teams in the last 23 years, while the West is as of February 23 safe from suffering such a blow to its playoff prestige (the Memphis Grizzlies are 28-28 as this goes to press.)
The 8 seed Orlando Magic are 24-32, which puts them on pace for a 35-47 season, which would be the worst record by a playoff team since the 1995 Boston Celtics, who under coach M.L. Carr gave Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and the rest of that Finals-bound Magic team in the second year of the Michael Jordan interregnum such a fight before bowing into a long dark of franchise suckage for most of the next decade and a half.
But unlike that season, where the Milwaukee Bucks finished ninth by going 34-48, the Magic’s 35 wins could not only make the playoffs, but do so with ample room to spare.
The Washington Wizards are on pace to go 30-52, and that 30 is actually a case of rounding up; to one decimal place, they’re on pace for 29.8 wins.
Which is good for ninth. Five games out of projected playoff position and a mark so putrid that the 6 seed Indiana Pacers, at 33-24, could lose their last 25 games of the season, go 33-49, and be on a better pace than the team that would have to pull ahead of them in the standings to make the postseason.
33-24, by the way, is good for a 47-35 pace, close enough to yet another 48-win first-round playoff exit that I want to claw out my own eyeballs as a Pacers fan, but that’s a story for another day.
We already see that the 8 seed is on pace for the worst record by an NBA playoff team in 25 years, and that was in a league where the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies didn’t even exist yet.
How bad is a 30-win 9 seed?
Well, the last time a conference was so top-heavy that its 9 seed couldn’t even crack 30 games, Karl Malone, John Stockton, and (gulp) Bryon Russell had a date with Jordan and “The Last Shot” in 1998.
Houston was the 8 seed at 41-41, starting the West’s streak of .500-plus playoff teams…
…but the Sacramento Kings went 27-55 and actually managed to finish ninth, 14 games out of the final playoff spot.
Oddly enough, that same Kings team would come a Shaq, Kobe Bryant, and a bunch of awful referees away from the NBA Finals just four years later.
None of this stuff has happened in an era where the NBA had 30 teams. The last 36-win playoff team happened the year before the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) joined the league, and the last 35-win playoff team played in a 27-team NBA where only 11 teams missed the playoffs.
With that in mind, even though the East has six teams that could (if the Pacers ever get their act together) win 50 games this year.
But below that, prorated to 82 games, you’ve got a 39-win 7 seed (Brooklyn), a 35-win 8 seed (Orlando), and a 9 seed on pace for 30 wins. It only gets worse from there.
Speaking of that 39-win 7-seed?
Well, the last time the East had a 7 seed with a losing record was when the Boston Celtics under Brad Stevens made the playoffs at 40-42 and promptly got swept out of the first round by LeBron James and the eventual Finalist (see a theme here?) Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015.
Last time a 7 seed went 39-43? The Knicks, in 2003-04, the last year before their franchise went completely into the Dumpster.
If the Nets fall a game short of that and end up 38-44?
Well, the last time a 7 seed won 38 games or less in a non-lockout season was when the Washington Bullets (now Wizards), Knicks, and Pacers finished in a 3-way tie for the 7 seed at 38-44…way back in 1987-88.
The East had 11 teams and the league itself had just 23 that year.
And yes, that was an era when the 8 seed could be truly awful; the San Antonio Spurs went 31-51 that year and still made the playoffs, and two years prior, Jordan dropped 63 on the Celtics in a playoff game…because Chicago went 30-52 and only had to beat out three other teams to make the playoffs.
There are 30 teams in the league now. 15 in each conference as opposed to just 11 in that 1988 East.
And yet Brooklyn might put up the worst record by a 7 seed in the 32 years since.
There are six good teams in the Eastern Conference…and nine total Dumpster fires.
Every year it seems we get a fresh case for playoff realignment, and if this year isn’t yet another such case, I don’t know what is.