The Pistons were a 5-23 team wallowing in the abyss of the Eastern Conference when they released Josh Smith. They stood barely ahead of the Knicks and 76ers and appeared lost at sea. On that same day, the Thunder sat just outside the top-eight in the West, with a 15-17 record that had been heavily influenced by injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
As of Tuesday, Oklahoma City still remains under .500 at 18-19, 2½ games out of the playoff picture. Detroit has managed to improve to 14-24, just two games out of a playoff spot in the East. With both now operating at full strength -- or in the Pistons’ case, with a balanced starting five -- they’ve set the stage for two unlikely, albeit unique, playoff comebacks.
The Pistons looked to be out of the playoff hunt completely. On Christmas Day, the team was 18 games under .500 and held just one more win than the lowly 76ers. But with Smith no longer clanking ill-advised shots off the rim, the Pistons found new life, posting a 9-1 record in the last 10 games, which include wins over the Spurs, Mavericks and Raptors.
Aided by a weak conference, Detroit’s chances of making the postseason are at 75 percent, according to ESPN’s Hollinger's NBA Playoff Odds. The Pistons currently have better odds than some of the East’s perennial contenders like the Heat and Cavaliers. If the Pistons do make the playoffs, they would become the first 5-23 team to pull off the feat in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Who would Detroit have to jump to make the postseason? It’s not exactly a Murderers’ Row of opponents. The Pistons currently sit behind Charlotte, Indiana and Brooklyn. The Nets have lost five games in a row. The Pacers are well-coached, but depleted offensively. And the Hornets have actually won five in a row, but trail Detroit in net rating.
On the other side of the spectrum is Oklahoma City. The team with the reigning MVP and scoring champ, along with two other perennial All-Stars, has been ravaged by injuries, finding themselves in a serious struggle to gain ground. Even with Durant and Westbrook back, the team’s play has been up and down. The Thunder went 3-3 with Westbrook in and Durant out with a sprained ankle, and are 3-2 since Durant returned on New Year’s Eve.
To give you an idea of how tough the road to the playoffs is in the West compared to the East, Oklahoma City’s playoff odds are currently 27.2 percent, far behind No. 9 seed New Orleans at 47.0. Six of the West’s top eight teams have an 89.6 percent chance or better of making the playoffs with the seventh being the defending champion Spurs.
This month will be a critical stretch for Oklahoma City. After difficult games against the Rockets and Warriors, the Thunder will head East for a slate against the Magic, Heat, Wizards, Hawks, Cavaliers and Knicks. The road trip will be a good chance for the Thunder to feast on some of the conference’s middling teams while proving themselves against a few of the best teams the East has to offer.
While making the playoffs will absolutely be an uphill climb for the Thunder, it would almost be more unlikely for them to miss out on a postseason berth. Since 1980, only one team with the reigning MVP has missed the playoffs -- the 2004-05 Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett.
The No. 8 spot in the West is currently a battle between Oklahoma City, Phoenix and New Orleans. The Suns are in hold of the final spot, with a 22-18 record (2½-game lead) despite a road-heavy schedule. New Orleans is ninth, but also has a lower net rating than the Thunder. Even with the threat of Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder are no lock to end up in the postseason, especially with the top-seven seeds seemingly already set.
The conference disparity in the NBA has caused some quirks we’re now used to seeing. Last year, we saw sub-.500 teams make the playoffs, while a 45-plus win team missed out. This year, we’ve seen the NBA-best Warriors go undefeated in their games against the other conference.
The gulf between the East and West continues to impact the league, wreaking havoc on a preseason title contender and breathing life into a former cellar-dweller. If recent trends continue, we could see a team make the playoffs despite having only five wins by Christmas, while one of the best teams in the league (and defending MVP) could be sitting at home.