West’s Best: A Myth?

Pistons have better record against Western heavyweights than vs. league as a whole

The Pistons have a better winning percentage against the West's heavyweights than they do against the overall Western Conference and the East's playoff contenders.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

In the case for overwhelming evidence of the West’s superiority over the NBA’s East, count the Pistons out. Where the Pistons are concerned, there’s not an ounce of difference. You want proof, go to the standings.

Here’s what they’ll tell you:

Pistons overall: 50-20 (.714)
Pistons vs. East: 30-12 (.714)
Pistons vs. West: 20-8 (.714)

Now, check back tomorrow and it’ll be different. If the Pistons win at Toronto tonight, they’ll have a slightly better record against the East. If they lose, they could make the case that the West is the weaker sister. But for today, it’s a harmonic convergence, a solar eclipse, everything perfectly aligned.

For today, the Pistons are the Babe Ruth of the NBA – .714 across the board.

Here’s the part that might raise your eyebrows a little: The Pistons actually have a better winning percentage against the West’s heavyweights – the nine teams, crammed within six games of each other, at the top of the conference, with one of them fated to be left out of the playoff field. Against those nine teams, the Pistons have a better winning percentage than they do against not only the West as a whole, but also a better winning percentage than they do against the East’s playoff contenders.

Pistons vs. East 1-9: 15-7 (.681)
Pistons vs. East 10-16: (.750)
Pistons vs. West 1-9: 13-5 (.722)
Pistons vs. West 10-15: 7-3 (.700)

The caveat there is that the East isn’t as neatly stratified as the West right now. The line of demarcation in the East comes between 11 (Chicago) and 12 (Charlotte). The Bulls are two games behind Atlanta in the loss column, the Hawks currently sitting as the No. 8 seed with 40 losses, one better than New Jersey in ninth and Indiana and Chicago, both with 42 losses.

So if we extended the analogy, you’d get this:

Pistons vs. East 1-11: 20-10 (.667)
Pistons vs. East 12-15: 10-2 (.833)

Of the nine Western heavyweights, the Pistons swept five of them, going 2-0 against Phoenix, San Antonio, Denver, New Orleans and Golden State. They split with three, Dallas, Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers. Only arch-nemesis Utah, which has beaten the Pistons six straight and eight of nine, swept them this season. In two of their five losses against the West’s best, the Pistons were missing key players: Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Rodney Stuckey all missed their loss at Los Angeles in November, when they led midway through the fourth quarter, and Rasheed Wallace sat out their November loss to Utah.

The Pistons are finished with every Western team except Minnesota, which they still need to play twice. The last of those games will be Detroit’s final home game, April 15 – but don’t expect the Pistons’ starters to be taxed much. It’s likely Flip Saunders will sit one or two starters out and use the others sparingly with the playoffs set to open that weekend. So it’s not a given the Pistons will sweep the Timberwolves, but it’s surely possible that Detroit will finish 22-8 against the West for a .733 winning percentage.

The Pistons still have six games to play against Eastern playoff teams, starting with tonight’s game at Toronto. Interestingly enough, they play each of their three likeliest opponents over that time – Toronto twice and Washington and Philadelphia once apiece. Cleveland accounts for the other two games. The Pistons are 1-1 against Washington, 2-1 against Philly and 2-0 against Toronto.

In case you’re wondering, Boston has the East’s best interconference record, going 23-5 to date against the West. Against the West’s top nine teams, Boston is 11-5. The Celtics have swept Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and the Lakers. Their next two home games – Phoenix tonight and New Orleans Friday – complete their Western schedule. Boston lost road games at both of those places earlier in the season, but otherwise has not been swept by anyone in the West. Three of the Celtics losses to Western teams came in succession after the All-Star break at Denver, Golden State and Phoenix when Kevin Garnett had just returned from an abdominal injury. Wins at San Antonio and Houston last week were accomplished without Ray Allen in the lineup.

Bottom line: The West’s superiority is really all about the weakness of the East in the middle of the playoff field. After you get past Cleveland – whose mediocre record is more about injury than capability – the Western middle class has it all over the likes of Washington, Philadelphia, Toronto and Atlanta.

But the first three of those teams all have the potential to be dangerous playoff opponents. Washington is on the verge of getting Gilbert Arenas back, turning the Wizards into an offensive dynamo. Philadelphia has been as formidable as any Eastern team since the All-Star break, posting recent wins at both Detroit and Boston and going 18-5 in its last 23. And Toronto was challenging Cleveland for home court until losing Chris Bosh for 10 games; he’s back now.

So the great gulf between West and East might be more myth than reality. The Pistons’ record would back that up.

Former Pistons center Chris Webber, currently a member of the Warriors, is set to announce his retirement today.
Rocky Widner (NBAE/Getty)
A word about Chris Webber, set to announce his retirement today.

I’ve never seen a more talented high school player come out of Michigan, Magic Johnson included, than Webber. The explosion off the floor and the huge, soft hands Webber had separated him from every other high school big man I’d ever seen, going back to the likes of Terry Mills and Derrick Coleman from this state.

Had someone like Kevin Garnett already broken the barrier, Webber never would have spent a second on campus at Michigan, meaning no Fab Five. He was a no-brainer No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 draft. He had Hall of Fame written all over him.

Will he get there? Tough call. The Hall of Fame works in mysterious ways, but four All-Star berths and no rings – no Finals appearances, even – put Webber on the fence. In a way, his talent might work against him. Because so much more seemed possible for Webber. He put up 21 and 10 over his NBA career – Hall of Fame numbers, to be sure – and the knee injury he suffered in 2003, when he was 30 and at the height of his career, surely robbed him of more years with gaudier statistics.

There were times when he signed on with the Pistons last year where he showed it in flashes, but it was nothing like the pre-injury Webber who served up wow moments on a nightly basis. Signing with Golden State, the NBA’s ultimate track team, seemed just goofy enough to work when it was announced, but it became painfully obvious soon enough that he had nothing left.

And if I had a dollar for every fan e-mail I got from last June until the Golden State signing asking why Joe Dumars didn’t go get Chris Webber …