Wild, wild Western Con­fer­ence

Depth should make NBA play­off race ex­cit­ing

USA TODAY US Edition - - USA TODAY SPORTS - Mar­tin Rogers

The Utah Jazz came into the sea­son tipped for good things and a pos­si­ble deep run in the play­offs. Last week they picked up one of the NBA’s best sharp­shoot­ers of the modern era in Kyle Korver. They have the se­cond-most road wins in the league.

All good, right?

Kind of, ex­cept that the Jazz also en­tered Thurs­day night’s game against Hous­ton in 12th place in the Western Con­fer­ence.

Wel­come to life in the wild, wild West, a con­fer­ence where you don’t even have to be bad in or­der to look re­ally, re­ally bad.

“It is a tough house to live in, man,” Los An­ge­les Clip­pers head coach Doc Rivers said.

As of Thurs­day, in matchups be­tween teams from ri­val con­fer­ences, the West bested the East by a mar­gin of 82-52.

That’s not a blip, it’s fac­tual proof of what we al­ready knew, that the West is stronger, deeper and just bet­ter than its coun­ter­part.

“I can’t re­mem­ber a time when it was as one-sided as this,” Shaquille O’Neal told USA TO­DAY re­cently. “It’s not even close.”

All of which has turned the West into a place where chaos reigns, even lit­tle more than a quar­ter of the way through the sea­son.

How­ever, don’t feel too sorry for teams like the Jazz, 12-13 over­all and 9-7 on the road, be­cause even the briefest surge would not only lift them from near the foot of the lad­der but put them firmly in play­off po­si­tion. They’re just one game be­hind the eighth-place Dal­las Mav­er­icks, for ex­am­ple.

Mean­while, a record of 11-13 is enough to put the Char­lotte Hor­nets in a pre­sump­tive play­off berth in the Eastern Con­fer­ence, while an 11-12 mark leaves last sea­son’s Western Con­fer­ence near-cham­pion Hous­ton lan­guish­ing in 13th. That’s how tough, and how tight, it is in the West.

No one re­ally knows who to blame for it, although hav­ing bas­ket­ball’s best player switch coasts and im­me­di­ately re­vi­tal­ize the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers didn’t do any­thing to al­le­vi­ate the is­sue.

“It’s made the West con­sid­er­ably harder,” Mav­er­icks coach Rick Carlisle said of LeBron James’ move from Cleve­land. “Be­cause the Lak­ers are now in the thick of the play­off pic­ture.”

He was right about the Lak­ers, but things can go ei­ther way. L.A. might rue hav­ing thrown away op­por­tu­ni­ties, as two more wins would have seen it stand proudly atop the West this week. On the flip side, the Lak­ers are only 31⁄ games up on the team eight spots 2 be­low them, the Rock­ets.

Per­haps things will even out over time, but don’t count on it, at least not if last sea­son is any­thing to go by. Back then, just three wins out of 82 games sep­a­rated third-seeded Port­land and the Den­ver Nuggets, who missed out on the play­offs al­to­gether.

And that was be­fore LeBron showed up, be­fore Golden State’s strug­gles seemed to bring them back to the field and be­fore Hous­ton got sloppy and San An­to­nio got weaker.

The West, it seems, just keeps get­ting wilder, with the only cer­tainty be­ing that mar­gins are slim and uncer­tainty rules.

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