The Western Conference has been better than the East for years, decades really. Overall, there has been a conference imbalance that spans the past 25 years. It hasn't been since the Celtics' heyday in the 1980s that the East has really been able to call itself the best.
However, last year things started to turn a little bit. The Western Conference's fifth seed had as many wins as the Eastern Conference's 8th seed. The vaunted 57-win mark that defines a contender was reached by two Western Conference teams vs. only one in the East (the eventual champion Cavaliers), but it's not out of line to describe the Spurs and Warriors, two historic teams based on various measures, an outlier. The East had better teams in seeds 4-8 and better teams just on the outside than the West did. Sacramento finished 10th with 33 wins vs. the Wizards in the East who finished 10th with 41, a whopping eight-game difference.
Now, that could be a blip, a random confluence of events. The Grizzlies were beset with terrible injuries, Blake Griffin missed nearly the whole season, the Rockets somehow managed to faceplant while simultaneously melting into a puddle, and much of the West was hurt by the absurdity of how good those top two teams were. Golden State and San Antonio had 51 wins to only nine losses vs. the West. Merely the fact that those two teams play in the West might be enough to tip the scales.
But things aren't that simple. If you want to evaluate how good a conference is, it can't be "best team vs. best team," especially when the Warriors are a historic outlier of legendary proportions. You need a look at the total strength of both sides.
James Herbert walked you through why the East's honeymoon could be over this season, and while I don't concur with all of his assertions, it's a compelling team by team case for why the East could slide back. (It should be noted, James happens to be the best of our crew at prognosticating season performance.) However ... there's maybe an even better chance the West isn't significantly better either. In fact, with the certain falloff of Oklahoma City alone, you could say the West is worse than a year ago.
Let's take a look.
The easiest way for the rest of the West to get better, record-wise, is for the Warriors to get worse and not beat them all into oblivion -- but that's not happening. They added Kevin Durant. Even with a compromised bench, and with a likely push by the coaching staff away from pursuing 74 wins and more toward being rested for the playoffs, this team has so much continuity and talent they are going to be as good as they were last year.
The best team in the West is Golden State, of that we can be sure, but that's also going to make the rest of the West look just as bad as last year because they'll be so far away from competing with the juggernaut.
They lost Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw, and gained Pau Gasol. They lost David West, and gained David Lee. The Spurs are going to win games, because at this point they've been winning more than 50 for so long it's basically an immutable law of physics. But don't underestimate the impact of losing a player of Duncan's brilliance, or what Diaw brought to the locker room, despite some concerns about his approach last season.
Tony Parker and Pau Gasol are going to have to defend high pick and rolls together. Kawhi Leonard has yet to take over a playoff series as the No. 1 option (that was still Parker and to a degree Duncan when Leonard won Finals MVP in 2014). They'll win games, and if the schedule breaks right, they could crack 60. However, even with the level of respect the Spurs demand, it's hard to see them being as good as last year, or winning 67.
(I'm going to regret this so much in April.)
Hmm. Someone seems to be missing from last year's squad. Who could that be? Oh, yes, Randy Foye left in free agency to join the Nets. Foye brought veteran know-how and floor awareness, and had a calming influence. Also gone is Dion Waiters, who gave the Thunder a second ball-handler and playmaker on the bench unit. Serge Ibaka was traded for Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova.
So, to recap, that's Ibaka, Foye and Waiters, all gone.
Oh, that's right, they also lost Kevin Durant, arguably the second-best player in the entire NBA. That's probably going to mean they're worse this season.
The Clips will likely improve on last year simply because, presumably, Blake Griffin won't miss basically the whole season with injury. However, with Chris Paul, Griffin and J.J. Redick all free agents next summer, this is a somewhat muddy composition. With all the trade buzz about Griffin last year, nothing should surprise, and a significant move renders all this speculation moot. Still, as of now, this is the one team that probably benefited most from Duncan's retirement and Durant's defection.
The Clips, even if they're roughly the same team they've been, are closer to contention because two of the three teams ahead of them are farther away.
I am not the best-qualified person to discuss Portland's hopes for this season, given that I picked them to have the least wins in the league last season. Yes, fewer than the Lakers. Yes, fewer than the Sixers. It turns out Terry Stotts is some sort of advanced being, like an oracle or Matthew McConaughey.
However, I will keep hammering this point: the Blazers went 18-26 outside of January and February. They had a bad start and mediocre finish to the season. They caught fire for two months and rattled off some huge wins against a variety of good teams in bad conditions. They do have good talent, but a lot of things went right for them just to win 44 games. If those things don't go right for them and if Evan Turner doesn't produce a big spike in wins while Festus Ezeli is on the mend, it's not hard to see this team losing at least a few more games.
Considering they snagged the least impressive parts of the Warriors' starting five (Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut), along with their very own knockoff Curry (Steph's brother Seth), I've taken to calling the Mavericks "The Leftovers." I find it's more witty and less brutally cruel than the other nickname, "The Trash Brothers," which has been used.
But I digress.
Look, Dallas could actually be better than last year. They brought back Deron Williams, lost Chandler Parsons, gambled on Barnes and Bogut. They're again a borderline playoff team, and that's only if they can avoid injuries with Nowizki (38), Bogut (32), Williams (32) and Wes Matthews (30) all getting up there in age. Rick Carlisle has pulled a rabbit from his hat year after year but eventually there can only be so many bunnies, right?
Injuries, injuries, injuries. If fully healthy, Memphis is one team you can pencil in for a big jump. However, Marc Gasol is a 31-year-old center coming off a broken bone in his foot, which spells out "Y-I-K-E-S" in NBA terms. Mike Conley has been battling foot issues the past four seasons. Chandler Parsons is the only NBA player I can think of who has had microfracture surgery in his knee (albeit "minor" microfracture surgery) in the past five years. Brandan Wright missed all of last season. Tony Allen is 34, Zach Randolph is 35, Vince Carter is 39, and the bench is young and inexperienced. It does not take much to see how a good plan on Beale Street could go wildly awry with the slightest whiff of misfortune.
Let's say disaster doesn't befall them, but they experience a reasonable number of injuries given the above information. That's enough to put them around where they were last year, at 42 wins. Even a three-win improvement to 45 wins fails to keep pace with some of the East's expected improvement. Memphis should be better, but there are a number of East teams primed for the same kind of jump, only with less precarious foundations.
This is a big one. The Rockets wildly disappointed last season. It was, quite frankly, a disaster on all levels. Team chemistry, defensive effort, coaching, personnel, everything. But now Dwight Howard's gone and Mike D'Antoni has arrived with Jeff Bzdelik in place as defensive coordinator. They added Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, who are both good players, and added some depth with Nene.
With James Harden at the helm, you'd expect a bounce-back year. Except...
Listen, I worship at the Church of Seven Seconds or Less, but D'Antoni hasn't fielded a team with more than 44 wins since 2008. He has clashed with superstars in New York and Los Angeles. Multiple players across multiple teams have alleged his teams simply do not practice defense, which was the biggest area of concern for Houston last year. They are going to have to score so many points to offset their defense, and that's tough. Even if they manage to stay healthy, the defense is respectable, and the offense makes huge jumps, the Rockets, no matter how many wins they end up with, don't seem to be any bigger a threat than they were last year.
At best, they're roughly the same.
The Jazz are super trendy and for good reason. They should have been a playoff team last year and would have been most likely had it not been for injuries to both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors that overlapped. They added veteran contributors like Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, and get Dante Exum back from injury, on top of George Hill who they acquired in trade. There's a lot to like here.
However, they still missed the playoffs. And we've seen a lot of "should make the playoffs" teams that wind up falling short and never quite figure it out. Outside of Hill, who inspires a wide range of evaluation, the Jazz didn't add much in the way of true impact players. The Jazz have also only had two modes: when healthy, they play great defense and struggle to put up points, and when injured they convert to an offensively explosive team that struggles to get stops. They haven't found that middle ground. People are projecting a big jump from them, and that's the kind of team that has also shown the highest propensity to fall completely flat.
I really want to stop at "they're the Kings." I do. I don't feel that there needs to be much more in the way of analysis. But I'll show my work anyway.
They have five centers. Their big free-agent acquisitions were Arron Afflalo and Matt Barnes. Darren Collison just plead guilty to a domestic violence charge. DeMarcus Cousins' patience is running short. It's year one with new coach Dave Joerger, their ninth coach in the past 10 seasons, and fifth in the past five. Ben McLemore's confidence is shot. Rajon Rondo is gone. Rudy Gay has reportedly told them he's leaving in 2017 free agency, making it even more difficult to trade him. Omri Casspi might be their seventh best player.
Their owner is unpredictable, their GM still inexperienced, their reputation poor. They are the Kings, and while it's hard to see them winning fewer than 25, it's just as difficult to see them winning substantially more than last year's 33.
Lot of talent, good coaching, veterans, good young guys, a little bit of continuity. But Denver is still hugely inexperienced with Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic as core players. They've had bad luck on top of bad luck when it comes to injuries, and their opening schedule is a total nightmare. They're likely chasing .500 for most of the season. The Nuggets could be better, but that assumes linear growth and oftentimes there are setbacks on the way to progress.
There is a wide swath of things that could go wrong here.
Anthony Davis hasn't been able to turn this team into a top-10 defense yet, so there's no reason to believe this year will be the one, despite some good additions on that end of the floor. The Pelicans lost established offensive talents in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, but gained E'Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill who are a little more balanced. The Pelicans never really gelled with Alvin Gentry last year and if they don't get it together out of the gate, you wonder if Gentry's job will be safe. You want to believe they'll have better injury luck but Davis and Jrue Holiday (who will also miss a month of the season to be by the side of his wife Lauren who must have a benign brain tumor removed) both have bad histories when it comes to missing time.
This doesn't look like a better team than last year, at least on paper.
OK, this one I have no answer for. The Wolves will absolutely be better with Tom Thibodeau, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. But we've never seen Thibs as a head coach outside of Chicago, and teams as young as Minnesota often struggle to find wins. They'll improve, but probably not enough to significantly raise the strength of the entire conference.
They were supposed to be good last year, and crashed. They opted for Earl Watson at coach, and their roster is a strange mix of veterans and super young players. They should improve on last year, but it's hard to see a major gallop forward. They could surprise, though, there's talent there.
Too young. Guys have to learn how to win, and these guys have not done so yet. Luol Deng will provide guidance, but there isn't a player on the roster you feel completely good about giving the keys to. They just lost Kobe Bryant, and there's going to be some hangover from that experience while the franchise recalibrates.
THE BIG PICTURE
As previously stated, at the top the West is still better than the East, but the gap is closed if only for the decline of OKC. Realistically there are only two title contenders in the West, three if you include the Clippers. Last year there four if you included a healthy Clippers team.
In the end, there are only five West teams that stand to be better than last year -- you can take your pick from the Blazers, Grizzlies, Rockets, Jazz and Wolves -- but it's also unlikely all those teams make the same leap, if any leap at all, and none are going to make a leap that has any sort of substantial implication.
Meanwhile, there's a very good chance of regression with several teams. We know the Thunder won't be as good, we know the Lakers, Nuggets and Kings won't be substantially better.
The East, on the other hand, did have moves that shook up the power structure. Boston added Al Horford. The Raptors could be better if only for internal growth and a healthy DeMarre Carroll. Indiana brought in Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson. Top to bottom, there is better parity in the East, where more teams are likely to compete for playoff spots in a meaningful way (rather than backing into a spot).
The Warriors may make the West better overall, but that's a huge outlier. It's wise to pump the brakes before assuming the West will return to power this season as a whole.