Just pause for a moment to look at the NBA’s standings.
As of this writing, only three of the teams in the Eastern Conference would make the playoffs in the Western Conference. The top 10 teams in the Western Conference would make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
Just four teams in the East have an above .500 record, and that counts the stock-about-to-fall-like-it’s-1929 Charlotte Hornets at 22-21. Below them, you have a hodgepodge of underperforming teams. The Miami Heat are sitting at .500 after making the NBA Finals last year, the Boston Celtics are sitting at .500, seemingly securing their spot as one of the most overhyped teams in NBA lore, the Atlanta Hawks are sitting after .500 after garnering offseason plaudits for having the league’s best offseason — and so on.
And remember, these teams’ records would be even worse if, you know, they didn’t play against the rest of the muck in the Eastern Conference. Teams in the East have a 122-146 record against the West this year, essentially, lop off a win from each of those team’s totals to get an idea of where they’d stand in a balanced setup.
This comes after an offseason in which the NBA’s balance of power was finally slated to be even. A HoopsHabit article from January tried to answer the question — which conference had the higher number of stars?
Of the seven active MVPs in the NBA, five are in the Eastern Conference, including the two-time reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Of All-Stars in the past 10 years, 18 of the 39 are in the Eastern Conference, just under half. Among the top 40 players in Win Shares, 23 are in the Eastern Conference. The data essentially shows that, in terms of star power, these conferences should be pretty balanced.
So what gives? Well, I think we’re seeing the same things at play that led to the decades-long West-over-East imbalance in the first place: a different standard in general managing. Now, though, rather than the number of stars, the biggest differences have been in the littler things: the quality of role players signed, the quality of the non-lottery draft picks, and the quality of coaching.
The Celtics and Heat, for example, do actually have terrific coaches — but not the quality of role players to surround them with. Two All-Star caliber players alone isn’t enough to guarantee a playoff spot anymore, not with NBA teams smarter than ever before at who they focus defensive resources on and who they let freely attack. They tried to make changes at the deadline to address that, and we’ll see if Evan Fournier and Victor Oladipo, respectively, do enough to right their ships’ sails.
Down at the bottom, though, it’s a Museum of Consequences.
The Wizards gave a questionable max extension to John Wall, and ended up having to dump him for Russell Westbrook — at no point did the decision-makers worry about the defensive end of the floor. The Magic have spent draft after draft getting the longest power forward or center available, with not a lot of concern for shooting ability or skill. The Pistons... well, where do I begin?
The good news is that the Western Conference’s skilled teams outside the playoff picture are going to get their fair shot at making the postseason. The Mavericks, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Warriors are the conference’s No. 7 through No. 10 seeds right now, and with the league keeping the play-in style tournament at the end of the season to figure out those last two seeds of the playoffs, those teams won’t really feel like they have as much bad luck as maybe they would have in past seasons.
The West certainly has its two abysmal teams — no hypothetical Museum of Consequences would be complete without the Rockets (how bad does the Harden deal look now?) and the Wolves (gestures at decades of unwise decisions). But the West’s side of the playoff bracket may once again feel like the true test of a champion: Any winner would have to beat at least two of the Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Lakers, and Nuggets to advance.
Once again, the West is the NBA’s clear-cut best conference. It likely will be until further notice.