A prevalent topic within basketball circles in recent weeks, months, and even years has been the ridiculous imbalance between the Eastern and Western Conferences, and with good reason. We’re now in our sixth consecutive year of the West posting the better record in inter-conference matchups, and the 15th in 16 campaigns since the 1999-00 season. The gap is widening some in the most recent samples, as well – last year was the third-largest West-favored discrepancy in league history and the biggest since 2004. And so far, this year is on pace to fall just decimals short of that mark.
Justifiably, much of the discourse here has been focused on the present and future of the issue, with the biggest names in media and, reportedly, league executives beginning to heed the call for attempted reform. There’s no true need for a conference system for any competitive reasons; calls for change among fan bases and executives alike, who have seen their franchise negatively affected while others profit accidentally from a flawed system, are beginning to partially drown out even such legitimate concerns as scheduling, travel imbalances, and the potential loss of certain great rivalries.
However, it is worth noting that these sorts of issues aren’t unique to the NBA. The NHL has carried its own perception of West-heavy quality for the last half-decade or more, and was laughably imbalanced for the majority of its existence before the turn of the millennium. European soccer, though operating under very different general guidelines than North American sports, follows an extremely top-heavy trend that frequently sees lesser squads employ strategies geared only toward attempting to eke out a scoreless draw given their massive talent deficit. And perhaps closest to home, a sub-.500 team made the playoffs this weekend from the NFL’s NFC South division while a 10-6 team and multiple 9-7 groups missed out.
Within any sport that spans this sort of massive geographical landscape, a perfectly balanced setup is difficult to achieve. It’s virtually impossible to please everyone, and with years of existence actually representing a somewhat small sample size in relative terms, it often takes a half-decade or more to recognize the problems and implement realistic changes.
It’s also undeniably true that learning from past mistakes can help prevent future one. With that in mind, let’s turn our gaze in the opposite direction for a moment. Were there distinct underlying trends that led to the NBA’s current predicament? If so, are any of the mendable variety, or the sort that could serve as warning signs for the league going forward? Let’s take a look at some of the larger undercurrents that have contributed to the problem over the years and see what we can learn from the past.
The 70’s – Where It All Started:
The 1970-71 season was the first in which the league used the system we’re familiar with today, with an expansion from 14 teams to 17 and the creation of the Eastern and Western Conferences. And right off the bat, the West had a head start – a smaller league still working to integrate top talent was heavily reliant on elite superstars, and they held a stacked deck. This was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sophomore season in Milwaukee [the Bucks were at the time a Western Conference team], coming off of Rookie of the Year honors in the previous year, and he would win the first of his six MVP awards as the Bucks walked to a title and a 30-8 mark against their Eastern counterparts. His future team, the L.A. Lakers, had stars in Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor who may have been past their primes, but who managed a 93-47 record (.664 win percentage) against the East in the first four years of NBA conference play.
The East had some talent, particularly in New York (Walt Frazier) and Boston (John Havlicek, Dave Cowens), but it wasn’t enough to stack up to these behemoths. The West seized the leg-up in these early conference seasons through what appears to be nothing more than the luck of the draw, winning over 60% of inter-conference matchups the first two years and holding the better record each of the first four and seven of the first nine.
The 80’s, Where Everything Flipped:
With the turn of the following decade, however, the tides changed somewhat drastically. Despite Kareem staying in the West and being joined by Magic Johnson and the dynastic Showtime team in Los Angeles, the East reeled off 10 consecutive winning years starting with Magic’s rookie season in 1979-80.
A number of factors were at play here. Milwaukee remained strong in Kareem’s absence, but switched conferences with San Antonio in 1980 and were a constant powerhouse in the East for the majority of the decade. When they faded, the Bad Boy Pistons ascended in the Central division after a bottom-out rebuild that spanned most of the early 80’s. Larry Bird was drafted in the late 70’s and by this time at his legendary peak, and a gentleman named Michael Jordan entered the league in 1984. Later in the decade, guys like Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing were on the scene also.
All of this pre-empted the longest period of Eastern dominance the league has seen, and really, their only such sustained run. It peaked in its final year, 1988-89, when the East sported a 186-126 record versus the West, or just short of a .600 winning percentage. Isiah’s Pistons torched the West that year, going 22-4, and the East’s top six seeds feasted on a lack of depth in their opposing conference to the tune of over a 70% win clip on the year (110-46).
Much of this feels like typical ebb and flow, however. A few good draft picks here, a few aging stars there, and what had been a fairly convincing run of dominance for the West in the 70’s was flipped on its head. But not for long.
The 90’s; Major Groundwork Laid?
By raw results only, this was easily the most even decade in terms of conference balance. The East and West got the better end in five years each, and if one counts the 1999-00 season (this would technically encompass an 11-year period), the two were exactly even with 1,974 wins apiece against each other. The West rebounded from their 80’s debacle with three winning records in a row at the start of the decade, as teams like Larry’s Celtics and the Pistons Bad Boys ran out of steam in the face of Hakeem Olajuwon’s emergence and the steady climb of teams like the Utah Jazz with their patented Stockton-to-Malone attack. The West appeared to be reclaiming long term superiority as Michael spent two years in retirement (years the West, perhaps not coincidentally, dominated as they hadn’t since the 70’s), only for His Airness to return and bring with him one last Eastern resurgence to close out the millennium.
However, this time period was more important for the future blueprint it laid out. A number of pivotal pieces of player movement during the latter half of the 90’s set the stage for the remarkable inequality we have seen in the last 15 years or so. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, both drafted initially by Eastern teams, made their way to Los Angeles (Shaq after four years in Orlando, Kobe the summer he was drafted) to form an eventual dynasty. The Celtics finished one game from dead last in 1996-97, only to lose out on the Tim Duncan Sweepstakes in the 1997 NBA Draft and see him drafted by San Antonio, setting up another superpower when he was placed alongside David Robinson. Elsewhere, there were Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash to Dallas, Kevin Garnett to Minnesota, Chris Webber’s trade from Washington to Sacramento, and of course MJ’s most meaningful retirement and the disbanding of those legendary Bulls teams.
Perhaps it is tough to define these moves as anything but the natural course of NBA business at the time. Shaq was a case of a player flexing a bit of his recently realized negotiating muscle, and Orlando didn’t have much choice or bargaining leverage to bring back a better haul. Duncan and Garnett were both purely the luck of the ping pong balls, as were Dirk and Nash, though one could argue several Eastern teams made errors in passing on both of them earlier in their respective drafts. Nevertheless, it is those very same pieces of fortune and circumstance that are the root cause of the divide. Several large dominos fell the same way all at once, and a combination of luck and judgment laid the foundations for the continued Western Conference dominance we see today.
The Spiral Effect:
From there, it’s been nothing but a downward trajectory for the Eastern Conference. They’ve had exactly one winning season versus the West since 2000, and seem to be falling further and further behind. Two potential game-changers in LeBron James and Dwight Howard were both drafted into the East, but Dwight is now in the West and LeBron’s dominance versus the opposing conference (a 199-117 record through last season, or over a 62% win frequency) hasn’t been enough. Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Dallas have used the foundations they set in the late 90’s to create lasting powerhouses, while a former force like the New York Knicks have bumbled a never-ending series of personnel decisions all the way to laughingstock status.
There have been a couple attempted coups by Eastern teams, but they don’t ever seem to get them right. Carmelo Anthony’s move from Denver to New York looked somewhat promising originally only to devolve into the current dumpster fire, and the Jazz are regarded as the clear winners in the Deron Williams blockbuster that sent him to the Nets. Boston’s trade for Garnett in summer 2007 was perhaps the only certain success among such larger attempted moves, and it likely played at least some role in the East’s only triumphant year this millennium, the 2008-09 season (a season in which, of course, a Western team still won the title).
Even the Draft seems to continue favoring the West even as Eastern teams, at least theoretically, should be drafting in better average positions given all their failures. Possible generational superstars in Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis both landed in the West, and a look over the last 10 drafts or so just seems to reveal more instances of Western teams nailing draft picks where their Eastern counterparts take duds.
At this point, the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is at least worth a suggestion as a factor. Such a miserable decade and a half wears on many franchises, some of whom turn to panicked and shortsighted front office or personnel fixes that only compound their problems and play the cycle out all over again. Star players theoretically ought to capitalize on the imbalance by moving East to prey on weaker competition, but many place organizational stability atop their list of priorities, and there’s just so much more of it in the West. The game’s best coaches are there (Pop, Doc, Rick Carlisle, etc), and outside of perhaps Miami or Chicago, Western cities seem to be perceived as more favorable destinations for marquee free agents.
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In the end, though, even if the league were to keep the system exactly as is for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to imagine the pendulum wouldn’t swing back around eventually. Regardless of the sociological factors, so much of what appears to be at the root of the West’s current dominance, even that groundbreaking late-90’s period of player movement, was largely simple chance and variance. How the Draft falls is a massive factor, and the East’s increasing levels of putridity give them the long-term edge here even if they’ve yet to capitalize on it recently. History tells us that the chances of obtaining a superstar talent skyrocket with a top-three pick, and 12 of the last 15 such selections have fallen to the East. It’s mathematically impossible for the conference to fail to improve eventually if this sort of trend holds. Better general asset management by Western Conference teams over the last decade plays a part in why the recent one sidedness continues, yet even that should level out eventually, if simply due to the higher rate of front office personnel turnover.
And of course, the players are noticing the trends as well and may have finally begun their own eventual cumulative backlash. Several Eastern franchises have begun to get their act back together in recent seasons, and guys who care only for rings know they have an easier path to the Finals potentially awaiting them. A consensus top-15 player in Kevin Love moved West to East this offseason, and even a slightly less desirable piece like Pau Gasol chose Chicago over the ridiculous rigors that come with a Western contender. Kevin Durant’s 2016 free agency also looms as a potential major turning point – were he to return home to Washington, it might signal a changing of the guard, along with guys like Duncan and Nowitzki finally making their exits.
In the here-and-now, though, don’t expect much to change. The West is a 10-deep slaughterhouse that’ll surely leave at least one deserving team home for the postseason, while sub-.500 teams jockey for lower playoff positioning in the East. For fans of individual teams on the wrong end of this tradeoff, this has to be excruciating. But for the rest of us? We can switch League Pass to whichever game we please.