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.
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.
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.