MINNEAPOLIS — Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman has been around long enough to watch trends come and go, arise and evaporate. But this whole East-West thing seems to be sticking around longer than most phenomena.
Not that there’s much to be done, the 23rd-year head man says.
"I just think it’s the way it is," Adelman said.
The way it is has Minnesota competing in a Western Conference that, on paper at least, is drastically more competitive top-to-bottom than the East. Currently the 10th-place team in the West, the Timberwolves (32-31) would be in the Eastern Conference’s sixth or seventh playoff spot with their current record.
But thanks to their inception the same year as Orlando in 1989, Minnesota was placed in the West. And barring league realignment, that’s where they’ll stay.
"It’s crazy," All-Star power forward Kevin Love said. "We have, obviously, a very good 10, 11, 12 teams in the West. I think at this point, you’ll probably see two teams, maybe two or three teams with losing records going into the playoffs in the East. So there’s always a discrepancy, but it just so happens we’re in the West."
It’s been a league-wide storyline since the beginning of the season; a month in, Miami and Indiana were the only Eastern franchises with winning records. Thanks to Toronto’s emergence and Brooklyn’s resurgence, the disparity has evened up a little.
But Love is right. The Eastern Conference’s bottom-two playoff teams — currently, Charlotte, whom the Timberwolves face Friday, and Atlanta — are both under .500.
And the gap is nothing new. Just more pronounced.
Not since the Michael Jordan era (1997-98) has the East’s lowest-seeded playoff team had a better record than that of the West. Since then, Western Conference teams have a .566 winning percentage against the Eastern Conference, while conversely, East teams are .431 against their opposite-conference counterparts.
This season, 10 Western Conference teams — including Minnesota — have winning marks against the East. Only four Eastern Conference teams have won more games against West competition than they’e lost.
"It’s just unfortunate this year looking at the East," said Bucks coach Larry Drew, whose team is an NBA-worst 13-51 this season. "We just have some teams that have struggled, us being one of them. I still think there are a lot of good basketball teams in both conferences. I think this year is just one of those things."
Indeed, the East also contains juggernaut Miami (44-18), NBA Finals hopeful Indiana (47-17) and a rising Raptors team (36-27). Chicago (35-29) is a tough out even without Derek Rose again, and payroll-happy Brooklyn has won eight of its last 10 games and 13 of its past 18 to reinsert itself into the playoff-run conversation.
"Believe me, I don’t think you could go to a Western Conference team that would say ‘Oh, yay, let’s go play Brooklyn’ or ‘yay, hey, let’s go play New York or Toronto’ on a given night," said current Raptors and former Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey. "We’re not the most talented team, but I don’t think the Western Conference teams would say that."
The Timberwolves sure wouldn’t, not after falling at home to New York and Toronto in the past eight days to fall further from postseason contention.
As he’s made irrevocably clear throughout the season, Adelman’s biggest qualm with the NBA’s current setup isn’t the perceived talent gap between conferences. It’s the logistical complications that come with being a Midwestern team in a conference that requires long flights and time-zone changes amid an already-demanding slate.
A couple suggestions from new NBA commissioner Adam Silver could help alleviate such issues. David Stern’s replacement has brought up the idea of a more forgiving schedule with fewer back-to-backs and even, perhaps, a play-in postseason tournament for the conferences’ lower seeds.
Depending how many teams are included, such a format would certainly behoove Minnesota this year.
But until the hand they’ve been dealt changes, Adelman said, they’ll keep playing it the best they can.
"I don’t know if it’s one year, you can make it right, because then something else is gonna come up," Adelman said. "I think it’s harder on the teams, especially where we are, but that’s just where we are.
"They put us in the West, and we’re in the West. That’s not gonna change, I don’t think."