Eastern Conference is finally evening playing field with the West, bringing NBA the parity it's been missing
The West has long been viewed as the deeper conference, but things appear to be changing ... for now
For the past several seasons, the prevailing narrative around the NBA was that the West was a much better -- and deeper -- conference than the East. In fact, for the bulk of the past decade, the West was viewed as a conference that perennially boasted multiple legitimate title contenders, while the East was largely buoyed by the presence of LeBron James, whether he suited up for the Miami Heat or Cleveland Cavaliers.
Each season, it seemed like the West was ripe with teams that could make a real run at a title, while the East generally had two or three, tops, including whatever team LeBron was on at the time. Over the course of the past nine seasons, the West boasted contenders like the Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker-led Spurs, the Lob City Clippers with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, a Thunder team that had three future MVPs (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden), the Harden and CP3-fueled Rockets and, of course, a Warriors team that reached the Finals for five straight years, and won three of the past five NBA titles.
The East wasn't exactly short on solid squads either, Teams like the 'Big Three' Celtics (for their final years together), the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls, Paul George's Pacers and the pre-Kawhi Leonard Toronto Raptors come to mind. However, legitimate contenders in the East were more few and far between than they were out West over the past decade, and ultimately most of the Eastern Conference teams seemed to lack the top-tier talent of their Western counterparts. Plus, those teams in the East also had the misfortune of running into a LeBron-led team at the peak of his powers and were thus unable to even get out of the conference.
The perceived imbalance between East and West grew to be so great over the years that there were calls for the league to re-seed teams for postseason play, or even eliminate conferences entirely. It didn't help when James defected from the Eastern Conference and signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2018, as the scale seemed to tip even further in favor of the Western Conference.
Lately, though, the East is doing its best to buck the trend of West dominance, beginning with the Raptors dethroning the injury-riddled Warriors in last season's NBA Finals. The loss, combined with the subsequent departure of Kevin Durant in free agency (to the Brooklyn Nets), effectively ended the Warriors' dynastic run which had dominated the league for the latter part of the decade. Golden State likely would have won three consecutive titles had Durant and Klay Thompson not both been injured during the series against Toronto.
To be clear, this is no eulogy for the Warriors by any means. Their run of success isn't over necessarily as they could easily bounce back next season and when they get their key cogs back healthy. But, it is at least on pause, though, as injuries have sunk their current campaign, and their absence as a vast favorite atop the West has already worked to level the playing field between conferences in a major way. The resulting landscape looks pretty even.
Entering Thursday, the Eastern Conference has a winning record against the West so far this season (76-75), and as it stands currently, seven teams in the East own a winning record, while only six teams in the West have more wins than losses. Also, the East has four teams playing .700 or better ball (Bucks, Celtics, Heat and Raptors), compared to two in the West (Lakers and Clippers). While these are admittedly rather rudimentary methods of comparison, strong teams typically establish themselves by this point in the season, and the fact that only six teams in the West are above .500 suggests that the conference isn't as deep as many thought it would be prior to opening day, or as it has been in years past. To make a comparison, the West had eight teams that finished with a winning record last season, and 10 the season before that.
In addition to boasting more teams with winning records, the Eastern Conference also appears to have evened things up when it comes to elite teams this season. Nearly two months into 2019-20, the NBA's top two teams are the Lakers and Bucks. Both are 24-4 through their first 28 games. Both teams also have an excellent opportunity to raise a banner come June, and it can't definitively be said that one team would best the other in a series. In addition to these two teams, both conferences each boast another squad -- the Clippers in the West and 76ers in the East -- that are poised for a potential championship run, meaning that both conferences have two teams that wouldn't be shocking everyone if they hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.
In our consistently updated season projection sees five teams from each conference potentially winning 50 games this season: the Bucks, 76ers, Heat, Raptors and Celtics from the East, and the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Nuggets and Mavericks from the West. It seems as though the parity that the league has long been searching for is finally upon us, at least for now. Part of this is due to the fact some teams in the East like the Heat, and even the Raptors and Celtics to an extent, have been surprisingly strong, while a couple of teams expected to be contenders in the West have disappointed, namely the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers., six of the top 10 teams -- Bucks, Heat, 76ers, Celtics, Raptors and Pacers -- represented the East. Additionally, FiveThirtyEight's
It's also worth noting that the Brooklyn Nets are absent from all of these top-tier rankings due to injury issues with Durant sidelined until next season with an Achilles injury, while Kyrie Irving has also missed a big chunk of the season as he tries to recover from shoulder bursitis. When the Nets are ultimately at full strength, they project to be another team that has a legitimate chance to compete for a title, which will in turn make the East even tougher. Plus, the Indiana Pacers have been able to remain extremely competitive (19-9) without All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, who will surely make them a lot better when he returns to action later this season. That's seven legitimate teams in a conference that some suggested was a two-team race prior to the season's start. The improvement of the East certainly isn't lost on those who compete within it.
"Miami's outstanding to start the year," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said when discussing the conference earlier this month. "Indiana's playing ridiculous basketball. We just got beat at Brooklyn. Like, you go through the list, it's just deeper and better. And that's why we know we're going to have to have all of our guys playing at a high level to have a chance as we continue to hope to improve. Because it's just a different level than it was a few years ago."
In order to truly shed the 'weaker conference' label, the East will need to maintain its current competitiveness for the rest of this season and beyond, and given the state of the NBA where stars sign shorter deals and move around more often than ever before, it's tough to predict exactly how the league's landscape will look even a year down the road. For now, though, the East appears to have at least pulled even with the West.
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