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More parity: Investigating this NBA season's ultra-competitive nature

More parity: Investigating this NBA season's ultra-competitive nature

It’s early, give it time.

Ah, we’re only a couple months in.

Wait, the league is as tight as it's been in *how* many years?

With less than two months remaining in the regular season, all but four teams are in the thick of the NBA playoff hunt. All of the squads that are still in contention have at least 24 wins under their respective belts.

As of the morning of Feb. 23, only six franchises enter the second half of the campaign with more than 35 wins. In order, they are the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies.

The rest of the field is essentially towing that .500 line, whether it’s five games above or five games below the middling mark. According to a Jan. 29 post by NBA data analyst Tom Bassine, the top regular-season teams have not been as dominant as usual compared to past years. Just six days prior to Bassine's post, NBA University tweeted a graph that put that information into perspective historically.

(The Ringer's Rob Mahoney also put together a great article on the subject.)

Referring to that graphic, it's been almost 40 years since the NBA has seen this kind of parity. And while there has been some separation (along with roster changes) since the end of January, players and coaches around the league acknowledge that this season just feels different.

“This seeding is crazy,” Cavs star Donovan Mitchell told Basketball News. “You could win four in a row and be second. You can lose four in a row and be 10th. The league is competitive. I think it's one of the most competitive years since I've been in the league. It's just one of those things where everybody's beating up on each other and the teams that you consider lottery teams aren't playing like lottery teams, to be honest."

Mitchell mentioned the way the Orlando Magic have had the Boston Celtics number. He brought up the Oklahoma City Thunder’s fight, and how teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons have come to play no matter who’s been out there.

“You’ve got to give the guys and got to give the organization and coaches credit. You’ve got to give them credit,” Mitchell said. “Every night they're coming out playing hard, playing to win. That's what makes it tough, there's no guarantees in this league. And seeing teams great from the top to the bottom, continuously fighting.”

Consider this: The Miami Heat started a road trip with a letdown a few weeks ago. They lost 122-117 to the bottom-of-the-barrel Charlotte Hornets, and head coach Erik Spoelstra took it hard. However, the next day, Miami was still the ninth-best team in the league despite being only five games over .500. 

“That’s a head-scratcher to me, you know?” Spoelstra told Basketball News at the time. “Usually, you had the top teams, maybe a handful of middle teams and the rest were tanking, and that’s not the case anymore.”

The Heat came in the very next game and grinded out a 100-97 victory in Cleveland. Currently, their record sits at 32-27 as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.

So what is the reason for this increased parity? Why is this season so different from past campaigns? 

“Honestly, I think it’s ‘cause a lot of guys have missed games,” Jimmy Butler said after that win over the Cavs. “When you can’t get a rhythm of who’s gonna be in a lineup, who’s gonna be out and different roles change from night to night... We’re a prime example of that. I think that’s why teams are so up and down. But when guys get healthy and they get their guys back, it’s gonna start to look a lot different.”

Butler’s teammate Bam Adebayo attributes it to the wild individual-scoring performances and surges in scoring. In addition, he thinks that everybody got better, including some teams making big offseason trades.

“The East is tough this year," Adebayo says, "and I feel like it’s gonna be tough again for a long time.”

“I think the one thing that you would probably say that everybody's fighting for as a team is consistency,” added Billy Donovan, whose Chicago Bulls are clawing at 26-33. “Sometimes, you get this congestion where teams are trying to find that consistency. They are trying to find things to continue to build on game after game, and I think that's what good teams do. Some of those upper-echelon teams in the East and the West have been able to have a level of consistency, and some of the other teams — where they're all condensed — they're fighting for that consistency.”

Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff made a bold statement when asked about the ultra-competitive nature of this season.

“I think there's a lot of really good players in the NBA right now, and if you go from top to bottom, you don't see that disparity in levels of talent on teams,” Bickerstaff said in late January. “What you do see typically is just different levels of experience. But I think the day of the super-team is over with, and I think there's a lot of extremely talented basketball players and a lot of extremely talented coaches that put people in the right position and there's going to be a little bit more balance in the league.”

(Sidenote: It’s sort of ironic that Bickerstaff made the super-team statement when he did, since the Phoenix Suns did the unthinkable by acquiring Kevin Durant at the NBA trade deadline less than a couple weeks after the fact.)

Commenting on the development of individual talent throughout the league “first and foremost,” Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins delivered perhaps the most logical response.

“I definitely think the Play-In Tournament has added more intrigue, more investment in teams throughout the course of the season,” Jenkins stated. “I think the Play-In Tournament has just created an opportunity to have two more teams compared to the eight-team initial [seeding]. Now it’s 10, but you can even go deeper; now you can add 12, 14, 15 and still have a chance to get in that 10th spot. So, I think that’s probably one of the biggest natures. And then, obviously, the league’s in a great spot. There’s so much talent influx coming into this league. Teams are drafting well, they’re developing well on top of all of those things.”

Sharing the same sentiment as Jenkins, Spoelstra had a big smile on his face. He has felt a shift in teams’ mindsets across the NBA for two to three years, since the Play-In was added to the fold.

“I think that’s the biggest driver in this,” Spoelstra said. “You just have far less teams tanking. Am I allowed to say that word? It happens in this league. But now, you have a bunch of teams that probably weren’t necessarily thinking that they would have — in either conference — that they would have a chance of being in the Play-In, and they’re at this point. You might as well go for it.”

Heading into the second half of the season, the NBA is packed with a ton of possibilities. Look at the standings. The Magic are still only four games back of the East’s final spot currently held by the Toronto Raptors, who are simultaneously being chased by the Bulls and Indiana Pacers. 

And forget breaking down the West — everybody but the Spurs and Houston Rockets are in that race, with current Play-In teams who could be in position for home-court advantage by this time next week.

Whether it's a result of the deadline acquisitions, buyout signings or an improvement in camaraderie, teams are going to lay it all out on the line to ensure they’re playing past mid-April.

“The experience you get, that’s just driving the competition level league-wide,” Spoelstra said. “And this is the way it should be.”

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