Thursday, January 21, 2010


Or, The Journey to the Center of the East

In H.G. Wells' science fiction classic The Time Machine, the protagonist, known simply as the Time Traveler, hurtles through the far future thanks to a device of his own invention. During one stop he encounters a far-future earth with a leisure class living without toil or (seemingly) trouble above ground and a brutish, dirty working race reclusively residing beneath the surface. Wells dubbed the beneath-the-cellar-dwelling race "the Morlocks" and his societal dichotomy has reappeared countless times in fiction in the ensuing 100+ years. Superman battled "mole men" in a black-and-white film in the 1950s. And most comic book superheroes have done so since. In nearly every case, those who dwell beneath the surface are dirty, unkempt and out to overthrow the race above. There have also been well-documented accounts of actual humans living in squalor beneath our city streets today. And, stories of a society thriving in a labyrinth beneath our feet always fascinated me.
Perhaps this is why I can't help but think of Wells' Morlocks when I look at the standings in the Eastern Conference of the NBA. The East is an earth with two separate and unequal classes of team. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat are the club's that live in the nationally televised spotlight with at least one superstar per roster. They have contended for and/or won titles in recent years. They've got dependable home crowds and provide a draw whenever they come to a town near you.

Beneath them, mostly toiling away on regional cable channels and before sporadic crowds, lies the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks. Some of these teams have a top-flight player and others still draw a solid crowd at home but they are lower-class citizens in the NBA. Each year sees one or two of these second-tier clubs claw its way to street level for a breath of fresh air but they usually do so at the expense of one of their brethren. The Pistons have been cast out of the light in recent years, allowing Toronto to escape the darkness of the basement. With the Raptors scuffling this season, though, the Bobcats have climbed above the .500 mark and made a case to be considered superior to their also-ran siblings.

Mired in mediocrity, plagued by poor personnel decisions, embroiled in mind games and scandalized by threats of gun violence, the lower-level teams are not going to catch Lebron and the Cavaliers this season. Although they share the same court a few times a year, they are not truly in the same league. Each group of teams - the glamour clubs and the grunts - is mostly only competing against members of its own group. The top teams vie for playoff seeding and homecourt advantage deep into the postseason tournament while the bottom teams vie to reach the center of the East's standings and gain access to the bottom few playoff spots.

In this regard, the bottom feeders are not like dastardly mole people that Supe tangles with. Neither the 76ers or Knicks are looking to steal the title this year. The Bulls are not going to take over the earth. Nope. The effort in the subterranean reaches of the East isn't exactly aimed at overthrowing the surface dwellers. Not at all. The NBA's morlocks are just looking to beat out their fellow cellar-dwellers for the 7th or 8th seed in the conference. Think of this chase for the final spots in the playoffs as midterm elections among the Mole People and nothing more. It doesn't affect the game's stars or their clubs. It's just an internecine struggle amongst middling franchises.

Whether they want to admit it or not (and they don't), these bottom feeders are playing a shadow season in the midst of the Games of the Week on ABC and ESPN and this underworld campaign began in earnest last Friday when the Raptors throttled the Knicks at the Garden on Italian Heritage Night. Following the Knicks loss to Toronto, they split a home-and-home set with the Pistons. The game with Toronto and the second tilt with Detroit were vitriolic affairs. As well they should be. These are the games that will decide the season for these clubs. The way that the Knicks play against their direct competitors for the last playoff spots will do far more to tell the tale of this campaign then the result of this Friday night's game against Kobe Bryant and the defending-world-champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Jan. 15 Toronto @ Knicks (L, 104-112)
Jan. 15 Washington @ Chicago
Jan. 16 Knicks @ Detroit (L, 90-94 )
Jan. 18 Detroit @ Knicks (W, 99-91)
Jan. 20 Toronto @ Milwaukee
Jan. 22 Milwaukee @ Toronto
Jan. 22 Indiana @ Detroit
Jan. 23 Philadelphia @ Indiana
Jan. 27 Philadelphia @ Milwaukee
Jan. 28 Toronto @ Knicks
Jan. 30 Knicks @ Washington
Jan. 31 Indiana @ Toronto
Feb. 2 Toronto @ Indiana
Feb. 3 Washington @ Knicks
Feb. 3 Chicago @ Philadelphia
Feb. 5 Milwaukee @ Knicks
Feb. 5 Detroit @ Indiana
Feb. 6 Indiana @ Milwaukee
Feb. 9 Detroit @ Milwaukee
Feb. 9 Washington @ Charlotte
Feb. 10 Philadelphia @ Toronto
Feb. 16 Knicks @ Chicago
Feb. 17 Chicago @ Knicks
Feb. 19 Milwaukee @ Detroit
Feb. 20 Washington @ Toronto
Feb. 20 Charlotte @ Milwaukee
Feb. 20 Philadelphia @ Chicago
Feb. 22 Milwaukee @ Knicks
Feb. 22 Chicago @ Washington
Feb. 24 Indiana @ Chicago
Feb. 25 Milwaukee @ Indiana
Feb. 26 Knicks @ Washington
Feb. 27 Chicago @ Indiana
Mar. 3 Detroit @ Knicks
Mar. 3 Washington @ Milwaukee
Mar. 5 Knicks @ Toronto
Mar. 5 Milwaukee @ Washington
Mar. 7 Philadelphia @ Toronto
Mar. 9 Philadelphia @ Indiana
Mar. 10 Charlotte @ Philadelphia
Mar. 12 Washington @ Detroit
Mar. 14 Indiana @ Milwaukee
Mar. 15 Knicks @ Philadelphia
Mar. 16 Charlotte @ Indiana
Mar. 19 Philadelphia @ Knicks
Mar. 19 Detroit @ Indiana
Mar. 20 Chicago @ Philadelphia
Mar. 23 Indiana @ Detroit
Mar. 23 Charlotte @ Washington
Mar. 24 Philadelphia @ Milwaukee
Mar. 24 Washington @ Indiana
Mar. 26 Washington @ Charlotte
Mar. 28 Chicago @ Detroit
Mar. 31 Philadelphia @ Charlotte
Apr. 2 Milwaukee @ Charlotte
Apr. 2 Chicago @ Washington
Apr. 3 Toronto @ Philadelphia
Apr. 3 Charlotte @ Chicago
Apr. 6 Milwaukee @ Chicago
Apr. 6 Detroit @ Philadelphia
Apr. 7 Knicks @ Indiana
Apr. 9 Milwaukee @ Philadelphia
Apr. 10 Detroit @ Charlotte
Apr. 11 Chicago @ Toronto
Apr. 12 Washington @ Knicks
Apr. 12 Toronto @ Detroit
Apr. 14 Knicks @ Toronto
Apr. 14 Indiana @ Washington
Apr. 14 Chicago 2 Charlotte

It looks like there are three playoff spots to be had and nine mediocre teams (10 if you include Miami) within 10 games of each other. By my count, there are more than 60 games pitting two of these subterranean rivals against each other, including 11 games in the last 10 days of the regular season. Avert your eyes from the bright lights of the better teams and thrill to the desperation of these games.

Welcome to the Underworld.

We shall sporadically check back on this shadow season to see how our light-starved contestants are faring in their journey to the center of the East.

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