Merrim-Webster Dictionary defines mediocre as, “of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance”
As of today, the Denver Nuggets hold the 8th seed in the Western Conference with a record of 32-35. Right on the tail, sits the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves with records of 29-36 and 26-36 respectively.
With only 15-16 games remaining in the 2016-17′ season for the 8th-10th seeds in the Western Conference, it is looking more and more likely that the team that does notch the final playoff spot in the west will have a record below .500.
Yes, thanks to the top-heavy Western Conference and a much more competitive Eastern Conference, the 2016-17′ NBA Western Conference Playoffs will likely feature a team that lost more games than it won for the first time in 20 seasons.
It’s been two decades since any team from the Western Conference has entered the postseason with a record below .500.
That 1996-97′ season, three teams were able to make the playoffs with sub-par records: The Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns were the 6th and 7th seeds with identical 40-42 records, while the Los Angeles Clippers took the cake with a measly 36-46 record.
For the two decades since that recently uncharacteristic underwhelming final outcome in the Western conference, the West’s playoff teams have personified greatness, even the eight-seed.
The year after the 10-games-below-.500 Nuggets were swept out of the first round, losing each game by an average of 12.6 PPG, the West’s bottom seed has tried it’s best to hold their own against the top seed.
The 1997-98′ Houston Rockets led by the aging, but still excellent, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Clyde Drexler pushed John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz to a deciding 5th game.
Two years later, Chris Weber and Co. pushed the would-be NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to five games and even came back from a 0-2 hole in the series.
Of course, there was the 2006-07′ Golden State Warriors and the 2010-11′ Memphis Grizzles who pulled off two of only four eight-seed over one-seed upsets in NBA history.
And most recently, the 2013-14′ Dallas Mavericks pushed the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in a thrilling series.
If it wasn’t mentioned above, there was also a handful of series that were pushed to six games.
In fact, only four times in the last 20 years has a one-seed in the Western Conference swept the eight-seed (the 2004-05′ Phoenix Suns over the Grizzles, the 2007-08′ Lakers over the Nuggets, the 2011-12 Spurs over the Jazz, and the 2014-15′ Golden State Warriors over the New Orleans Pelicans).
If the Nuggets were to make the playoffs, it would be an impressive feat for who they are: a team searching for its identity with nine of their 15 players on their roster have five years or less of NBA including three rookies (Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, and Jamal Murray).
However, their presence in the playoffs -if the remain below .500- would be a definitive sign of change in the Western Conference.
What has been a fairly balanced conference for two decades now with around half its teams having a record at or above .500, is slowly shifting too much in the favor of the west’s elites i.e. the Golden States, Spurs, Rockets etc. of the conference, and less in favor of the rest of the west.
That is why the Nuggets could sneak into the playoffs with a record of 8-21 against teams who have won more than half their games, the worst record for a western conference playoff team in two decades and also have a record below .500. If that doesn’t define mediocrity, I don’t know what does.