It’s one of the best stories of the NBA season so far, but it’s rarely commented upon. It will have a bigger, more lasting impact that the Golden State Warriors winning streak or Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour, but people don’t trust the reality of the situation. That is, after years and years and years of dominance by Western Conference over the Eastern Conference, we have suddenly—very suddenly in fact—achieved parity. The Eastern Conference has held anywhere from a slim to solid advantage in games over the Western teams all season. We’re past the first trimester of the season; this isn’t a small sample size fluke. Instead this is a historic realignment and how it has happened will have far reaching implications for the Association.
First of all let’s look at the context of this sea change as it’s absolutely staggering. In every season this century except one, the Western Conference has dominated the East by margins that suggest the need for relegation or at least some sort of playoff realignment. In the sixteen seasons to conclude since 2000, the West has won an *average* of 64 games more each season over the East, and that factors in the 2008-’09 season when the East somehow eked out a 12 game advantage. The West quickly restored order winning the interconference matchup by 42 games the following season and 72 the season after that. The West dominance reached a peak in ’13-’14 with a 118 game advantage and the left coasters held a plus 76 mark last season.
How did this change happen so quickly? There are a few structural reasons, all of which point to this being sustainable.
The work of the Steve Kerr/Luke Walton duo in Golden State is remarkable and I’m sure the Hall of Fame has a spot ready for San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, the next echelon of great coaches are in the Eastern Conference. Mike Budenholzer of Atlanta and Brad Stevens of Boston are widely recognized as two of the brightest minds of the game, and several veteran coaches like Dwane Casey, Frank Vogel, Randy Wittman and Steve Clifford have adapted their strategies to fit the contemporary pace and space game.
The 2003-’04 Detroit Pistons Loom Large
When you think of the Pistons of mid ‘00s, it’s easy to bog down in a debate over who had the best Afro of that era, Ben Wallace or Questlove, but the Pistons have a greater significance. They were the last ensemble cast team, i.e. no superstars, to win a title. Several teams of that ilk have come close, most recently the ’14 Indiana Pacers and the ’15 Atlanta Hawks, but for the most part the NBA is thought of as a superstar league because most of the title teams boast a player who is of household first name only caliber renown (LeBron, Steph, Kobe, etc.). The problem is that there are maybe ten such players and 30 teams. The standard strategy has been to tank and hope the next LeBron lands on your roster, but several teams have decided to just go ahead and build a team. After all superstars want two things shit tons of money and a chance at a ring. The Carmelo Anthony experience in New York has probably persuaded a lot of top players that they alone aren’t going to rescue a struggling franchise. With the NBA salary cap about to rise vertiginously, these ensemble teams may become far more attractive destinations for potential free agents. It’s a lot easier to go from 47 wins to a title than 17. Furthermore, elite talent can be found in the middle of the first round (see Leonard, Kawhi) or at the end of the first round (see Butler, Jimmy) or even in the second round (uh hunh, see Green, Draymond). The virtue in losing is diminishing fast, so why not try to win.
When SB Nation did it’s 35 under 25 Survey of top young basketball players as part of its season preview, the balance was striking. 17 were from the Western Conference 17 were from the Eastern Conference and one, Ben Simmons was still in school. It’s meaningless, but an East v. West rookie game would be fun and close. The Eastern teams have gotten better at talent development and drafting.
The reason this story gets overlooked is that Golden State and San Antonio are still the best teams and Philadelphia is still the worst. However, of the 27 teams in the middle, the Eastern Conference is by far superior. One barometer of the West’s success is that it was routine for the ninth or tenth seed in the West to be a top six playoff team in the East. These days that has reversed. Detroit, the #10 in the East would be the Western Conference sixth seed if the boundaries were redrawn.
Perhaps the best indicator of the change is the play of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder, by most reckonings the third best team in the West if not the league has a record that is emblematic of the change afoot. The Thunder are 23-10 overall; 16-2 versus the West, and 7-8 against the East. Yeah, it’s probably time to lose those caveats about the Leastern Conference or how unfair it is to play in the West. It’s last year’s news, literally.