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West is Still Best, East is Still Least

The pendulum should have swung back by now.  The nature of these things is that eventually they even out.  But the Western Conference of the NBA has been, on the whole, better than the Eastern Conference for over 10 seasons now, a trend that is showing few signs of reversing. 

After the NBA re-organized into three divisions of five teams each per conference in 2004, the strange playoff seeding system pitted the 63 win Spurs against the 60 win Mavericks in the second round of the 2006 playoffs.  At that time, there were multiple calls for reform, including suggestions for Conference realignment or an abolition of the conference structure altogether.  NBA Commissioner David Stern's response was essentially, don't worry, this is a temporary situation, the East will be back, everything is fine.

When the Heat beat the Mavs to win the 2006 NBA title it seemed to justify Stern's position.  But the fact is that the East has done OK with titles - the Pistons, Heat and Celtics have won three of the last ten, the Lakers and Spurs gobbling up the other seven.  It's the other end of the standings where the problem is most pronounced, and it's certainly not getting better.

For eight consecutive seasons, the ninth place team in the Western Conference (i.e. they missed the playoffs) has had a better record than or the same record as the eighth place team in the Eastern Conference (i.e. they made the playoffs).  Five of the last six seasons, an Eastern Conference team with a losing record has made the playoffs.  The last Western Conference team to make the playoffs with a losing record was the 1997 Clippers

No big deal right?  It is what it is, and so what if weaker Eastern Conference teams are playing in the postseason.  Well, that's one way to look at it.  It's only a game after all.

But it is one league, all playing under the constraints of the same salary cap and the same collective bargaining agreement, so at some level it's totally illogical NOT to have the best 16 teams playing in the postseason.  What exactly is the justification anyway?  The conference structure is a recognition of geography and of the logistics of the travel necessary for Portland to fly to Miami for a game.  By having geographic conferences and scheduling more in conference games than out of conference games the NBA decreases the travel burden some.  I get that.

But the net effect is a double penalty to the bubble teams of the stronger conference.  If the Eastern Conference is measurably weaker, the teams that are getting into the playoffs with losing records are compiling those records against a weaker schedule than Western conference teams have to face. 

There are mechanisms in place that are supposed to keep this sort of ongoing disparity from happening.  The draft rewards teams with losing records with a greater opportunity to acquire impact players.  The salary cap and the free agent market allow teams the opportunity to improve, and make it difficult and expensive to maintain a highly paid roster over the long term. 

It goes without saying that the landscape of the NBA is very different today than it was in 2000, when the Western Conference really started it's dominant run.  Of the 15 players to make an All NBA squad in 2000, seven are now retired, and several others are at the end of their careers (Allen Iverson, Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd to name a few).  Similarly, of the 15 players to make an All NBA squad in 2009, nine of them were drafted since 2000.  So the talent pool has regenerated - but the conferences remain unbalanced.

It's true that the top of the Eastern Conference has improved.  First overall picks LeBron James and Dwight Howard are the cornerstones of contenders in Cleveland and Orlando.  The Celtics returned to the elite level by swinging for the fences and spending freely to build a winner.  In those cases, good draft fortune and some aggressive front office moves have done what they are supposed to do - allowed weaker teams to get better.  The numbers over the decade indicate that the East has definitely improved at the top.  From 2000 to 2007, there were nine Western Conference teams that won 60 or more regular season games compared to only one from the East.  In the last two seasons, there were three from the East, and only one from the West.  So at least a few Eastern teams have responded to the challenge.  But far too few have been able to sustain any level of success.

As for the argument that titles for the Pistons, Heat and Celtics prove that the decade hasn't tilted that far west after all, you have to realize two things.  For one, the bigger problem is in the five through twelve teams in each conference, not at the top.  Moreover, don't underestimate the impact of the earlier rounds of the playoffs on the Finals matchup.  Eastern teams have weaker playoff opponents in their first three series than Western teams.  The wear and tear of surviving to represent the West is not insignificant.

The problem is worse this season than ever before.  Looking at the NBA in it's entirety today, ten of the top 15 records in the league belong to Western Conference teams.  The tenth place team in the West has the same record as the fifth place team in the East (the Heat and Hornets are each 17-16).  The Clippers, twelfth in the West at 16-18, would be seventh in the East.  The Clippers are starting to play better, and it would be great to think about the playoffs.  But the reality of passing four teams in the standings is pretty daunting.

All of the young, improving teams (the Thunder, the Grizzlies, the Clippers) are in the West.  All of the disappointing teams (the Wizards, the Bulls, the Pistons, the Sixers) are in the East.   The fact is, depending on your opinion of the Kings, there are only two weak teams in the 15 team West.  There are very few easy wins coming out of the West this season.

Of course, there's nothing to be done about it.  At some level, you'd like to think that common sense would enter the discussion and Stern would say "Here's an idea, let's have the best 16 teams go into the playoffs."  But the conference stucture is deeply ingrained in American sport, and that's unlikely to change soon.  So the Clippers, by virtue of their geography, will continue to fight it out to try to get a seat at the overcrowded Western Conference table, at least for the foreseeable future.