Why is the NBA Eastern Conference so bad?

Feb 16, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; General view of the NBA logo and the Sprint Arena at the 2013 jam session for the NBA All-Star game at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you take a quick look at the NBA standings you’ll see a slew of sub .500 clubs in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and in the West the 19-17 Denver Nuggets would be on the outside looking in if the season ended today.

In a league with a salary cap and draft lottery and where one player can have such a dramatic impact on the on court performance of a team it’s quite the anomaly for their to be such competitive disparity between the two conferences.

Even looking deeper at the stark differences between the two conferences there are no easy answers that jump out as too why there is such a drastic difference between the teams in the East compared to the West.

The first and most obvious thought to explain the phenomenon is that the East just had more teams that were on the bubble of contending who decided it would be easier to get worse and tank for Andrew Wiggins than try and get better than the Pacers and Heat and make a run.  Then the Western conference teams come to town and pummel the unsuspecting hopelessly overmatched teams from the east and the lopsided standings ensue. This theory would be all well and good if not for the fact that the majority of games are played within their own conference. So this means every time a Western conference team plays another one of them will get a loss, and the same applies to the East only inverse. So when the lowly Milwuakee Bucks take on the world beating Orlando Magic, just like in a cripple fight, somebody has to walk away a winner.

When you break it down to conference versus conference the East has a pitiful .337 winning percentage against the West. And even that number is inflated by the Heat and Pacers who have a .545 and .583 winning percentage against the West respectively. If you were to remove that the Eastern conference’s winning percentage would be some horribly low number that would require someone who is better than I am at math or at least more interested.

Tim Duncan has been the only number 1 pick with a lasting impact in the Western conference in the last 15 years: Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The next place I went to look to try and find an answer was the draft see if maybe there were some big time number one pics that had landed in the West that have helped sway the balance of power to that conference. That didn’t have any answers for me at all, the only thing I really learned is that the last decade or so has had some pretty volatile first overall picks, of all the number one picks since Tim Duncan only two have actually made it to an NBA Final and those are Dwight Howard and LeBron James. Add the fact that those two players did so on Eastern conference teams and the mystery deepens.

Also over the last 10 years there has been only three number one picks that went to the West, the three being, Yao Ming, Greg Oden, and Blake Griffin. While Yao Ming did help turn the rockets into contenders, and Blake Griffin has had a positive impact on a resurgent Clippers squad over the last 3 years Greg Oden was an unmitigated disaster being hobbled by injuries his entire career and Yao Ming was forced into early retirement due to injuries, meaning the West has hardly benefited from a lottery ticket in the draft, although I suppose Kevin Durant going second overall to Seattle/Oklahoma City didn’t hurt their rebuilding efforts.

Next easy place to guess where the competitive balance may be shifted is in team payrolls. While the NBA is a cap league it is not quite a hard cap with exceptions and a luxury tax available if a team feels it needs to spend the extra dollars to put it over the top. But examining team salaries for this season… once again the plot thickens! Of the top 10 payrolls in the league seven of them belong to teams from the Eastern conference. The three Western conference teams in the top 10 are the Memphis Grizzlies and then both Los Angeles teams. So clearly the West isn’t simply outspending the East either. Although there is some merit to money being key to competing as 7 of the top 10 top spenders are currently in play off positions, and those on the outside are the Lakers who’s injury issues should have them thinking of tanking, and the seemingly always dysfunctional Knicks and the underachieving Brooklyn Nets.

It’s also not a case of the Eastern conference filling up the bottom of the payroll as in the bottom 10 teams its split evenly at 5 per conference so money doesn’t seem to be a differentiating factor between the two conferences.

Jason Kidd is the one clear cut area that the East loses on Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Even coaching there is no real clear cut advantage between the two conferences. Even though this season there were nine head coaches coming into the league who had never had an NBA head coaching position before they were split nearly down the middle with five in the East and four in the West, so apart from Jason Kidd who is in way over his head things are pretty much a level playing field with the X and O men around the league.

Maybe if I had better insiders like The Woj I might have been able to plumb the true depths of this mystery and come up with some real reason to explain the disparity between the two leagues. It’s not even like a one off, the Eastern Conference is year and year out the basketball equivalent of Justin Beiber or the Wayans brothers… just consistently bad. Looking at the star studded Eastern Conference it’s difficult to believe that many of those teams can be so bad but it seems there is some missing ingredient that is collectively being overlooked by those teams in the East  that sees them coming up short year after year.

Topics: NBA

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  • Justin Bowman

    It’s something that I’ve been thinking about as well. Your bubble/tank theory is the one that I agree with the most. A lot of GM’s have been looking at the 2014 draft for a few years now. They knew it was going to be the draft of the decade, and therefore made a lot of decisions based on it. You’re partly right about the fact that if you’re not going to be competitive with the Heat or Pacers, there’s no point to be mediocre. This would be a horrible season to be stuck in no man’s land and end up with an early playoff exit and a mediocre pick. Heading into this season however, Chicago, Brooklyn, and New York, in theory, should have been elite. Had Derrick Rose not gotten injured again, the Bulls would still have Deng, and would likely be top 2 or 3 in the East right now. Once Rose went down, they traded Deng, and are surely going to lose more because of it. Brooklyn had a lot of hype, and rightfully so. Combining Paul Pierce and KG with Williams, Johnson, and Lopez, plus additions like Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko, were going to make the Nets a contender. However, they just can’t get everyone healthy at the same time, and Lopez is gone for the season. The Knicks should be better, regardless of the injury to Tyson Chandler. But frankly, they’re a mess. Carmelo Anthony is a great player but not a very good leader, and J.R. Smith has drifted back to his old idiotic ways. That Bargnani trade didn’t help them, and the fact that Amare is only a shell of his former self doesn’t help matters either. The Hawks could have been decent, but they replaced Josh Smith with a less talented Paul Millsap, and lost Al Horford for the season. The Raptors are a surprise, but in my opinion they aren’t helping themselves by winning. They will not even come close to competing with the conference’s elite, and will wind up with a mediocre draft pick. I think the Wizards are a young team on the rise, and they’re pretty much right where they should be. Detroit acquired some talent, but none of if fits together. The Magic are usually a contender, but Dwight Howard screwed them over. So they’re obviously in rebuilding mode, but they have assets and will be good again soon. The Celtics demise started with Ray Allen leaving for Miami, followed by last season’s injury to Rondo, which ultimately was the nail in the coffin causing Pierce and KG to get traded and Doc Rivers to leave. They could have been decent again this season had they not made those moves, but what was the point really. Danny Ainge made the right move to blow it up, and get in on the draft sweepstakes. Philadelphia were close a few years ago but they lost Iguodala, Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday. Then they signed Andrew Bynum to a very dumb contract, and he never even played a single game. Cleveland drafted one of the busts of the decade with the #1 overall pick last year, and the Andrew Bynum experiment failed. The Milwaukee Bucks have been the kings of mediocrity, and maybe the 2014 #1 overall pick is just what they need to finally start building toward something elite.The only team I left out is Charlotte, and that’s because well, they’re Charlotte.

  • William_JD

    …it seems there is some missing ingredient that is collectively being overlooked by those teams in the East that sees them coming up short year after year.
    -
    Eastern Conference teams think basketball players are Black guys from New York, Philly, Baltimore, DC. Western Conference teams think they can be from any race from anywhere on the planet. They’re pulling players from a much bigger pool of talent.

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