The West has some of the greatest collection of talent in NBA history. Behind Curry, Durant, Kawhi, and Harden, some of the top talent on some of the best teams ever will battle for the West. Out East is a different story. The Cavaliers need all of Bron's heroics to stave off a 0.500 team. The Celtics are in a 0-2 hole. The Raptors just got destroyed by the Bucks. The East looks pretty weak, and bad news, the numbers back up that it's the weakest it's ever been.
When examining the Celtics this season, something stood out. The Celtics had a mediocre record for a top seed, a weak Simple Rating System (SRS) -- the stength of schedule adjusted point margin for a team -- and a weak top player in Isaiah Thomas. I looked at the times in NBA history a team has won their conference with an SRS below 5.0 in the three-point era of the NBA. I only came up with ten teams. And Boston is by far the worst team to have ever won the Eastern Conference.
|2015||Atlanta Hawks||60-22||4.75||Lost ECF|
|2014||Indiana Pacers||56-26||3.63||Lost ECF|
|2010||Los Angeles Lakers||57-25||4.78||Won Title|
|2007||Detroit Pistons||53-29||3.69||Lost ECF|
|2004||Indiana Pacers||61-21||4.9||Lost ECF|
|2003||Detroit Pistons||50-32||2.97||Lost ECF|
|2002||New Jersey Nets||52-30||3.67||Lost Finals|
|2001||Philadelphia 76ers||56-26||3.64||Lost Finals|
|2000||Indiana Pacers||56-26||4.15||Lost Finals|
|1994||Atlanta Hawks||57-25||4.94||Lost ECSF|
The only other team below 3.0 in SRS to have won the conference was Detroit in 2003. And looking over this list an important factor stands out. Only the Lakers in 2010 took down a title, and most teams that win the conference with a weak SRS don't even make the Finals. From 2000 to 2002, three teams with a weak SRS did indeed make the NBA Finals. Sadly, all three lead the East in SRS for the year. The other teams had stronger SRS opponents (e.g. the Hawks in 94 tied the Knicks for the top record. By tie-breaker the Hawks won the conference. The Knicks had a stronger SRS at 6.5 and went to the Finals)
Of course, Boston doesn't have the strongest SRS in the East. Both Cleveland (2.87) and Toronto (3.65) are better. Of course, both of those would still qualify as among the worst in Eastern Conference history. The East is the weakest it's been in quite some time, and the West looks scary. That said, anything can happen!
One last note, Boston has another thing going against it. Unlike other teams in the past, they don't have a legitimate star. Here's the top Wins Producer on each of the low SRS conference winners.
|2017||Boston Celtics||Isaiah Thomas||0.195||10.5|
|2015||Atlanta Hawks||Kyle Korver||0.230||11.56|
|2014||Indiana Pacers||Lance Stephenson||0.204||11.7|
|2010||Los Angeles Lakers||Pau Gasol||0.282||14.1|
|2007||Detroit Pistons||Chauncey Billups||0.240||12.1|
|2004||Indiana Pacers||Jeff Foster||0.294||12|
|2003||Detroit Pistons||Ben Wallace||0.374||22.4|
|2002||New Jersey Nets||Jason Kidd||0.243||15.5|
|2001||Philadelphia 76ers||Dikembe Mutombo*||0.343||6.3|
|2000||Indiana Pacers||Mark Jackson||0.257||11.7|
|1994||Atlanta Hawks||Mookie Blaylock||0.256||15.6|
While Isaiah Thomas hits my threshold for a star player (10 wins in a season) he's a below 0.200 player (twice as good as an average NBA player at his position) Isaiah is, in fact, the weakest star on the weakest team to lead a conference. As a note, I place Dikembe as the top player on the 76ers. However, he was traded midseason, hence the lower total. That said, things aren't looking good for Boston, and all the signs show why. They're a weak team with a weak star. As a plus, they're still a historical team, although not for the reason they may want.