The Western Conference… Isn’t That Strong This Year

Posted: 12/01/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

There have been a number of prevailing themes and talking points in basketball over the last few years, from small-ball to midrange jumper aversion to the tanking debate (cough Sixers cough). Right up there with those talking points these past few years has been the Western Conference’s total domination of the Eastern Conference. Last year, seven WC teams won 60% of their games or more, compared with three EC teams. Since the 2003-04 season, at least one sub-.500 Eastern Conference team has made the playoffs in nine seasons, something that hasn’t come close to happening in the Western Conference in that time. Time after time, undeserving teams have made the playoffs as teams like the Thunder and Suns of the past few years have been left out of the playoffs despite winning 45+ games. The Western Conference hasn’t always had the very best team, thanks largely due to the fact that LeBron James has resided in the Eastern Conference for his whole career, but they always have most of the good teams. This season was supposed to be more of the same, if not even more extreme. The Spurs, Clippers, and Rockets made moves in free agency, Oklahoma City got healthy, Golden State returned its entire core from last season’s championship team, the Grizzlies looked as solid as usual, and the Pelicans were thought to have perhaps the best player in the entire conference in Anthony Davis. Those seven teams were supposed to be faced with an absolute dogfight throughout the season and postseason, and that was without even considering potential improvements from teams like the Jazz, Timberwolves, Suns, or Kings. Ironically, though, just as one WC team has clearly become the best in basketball, eclipsing even LeBron’s Cavs, the rest of the conference has seemingly taken a step back. About a quarter of the way through the regular season, only the Warriors and Spurs have fewer than seven losses. Only three teams are winning at least 60% of their games. The much maligned Eastern Conference? They have six such teams.

So the West has been worse than normal and the East better so far this season. Will that continue going forward? I believe that the divide between the winning percentage in the conferences will be smaller this year, because there are a number of Eastern Conference teams who, for a variety of reasons, are clearly better this season than they were last year (Indiana, Miami, Charlotte, Boston, Detroit). While there were five or six truly dreadful teams in the conference last year, I think only the Nets and the Sixers qualify as awful right now, although I’m risking putting too much stock into a relatively small sample size. But is the West really that much worse than they have been? To answer that question, I think I’m going to have to go from team to team. The main decliners to this point, strictly in terms of wins and losses, have been the Pelicans, the Blazers, the Rockets, and, to a lesser extent, the Clippers and Grizzlies. For the Blazers and Grizzlies, the regression makes total sense and was fairly predictable; Portland lost most of their team this offseason, and Memphis stood pat with their aging team while others got stronger. It’s New Orleans, LA, and Houston that are more interesting cases and are perhaps the keys to understanding what direction the Western Conference is going to head in. With that said, I’m going to write about each of those three teams going forward. For now, though, I’d just like to note that the Eastern Conference went 3-0 against the West tonight, with wins from three of the worst teams in the conference: Brooklyn, Orlando, and… Philadelphia? Yes, crazy things are happening this season, which means both that the EC might be better than the WC and that the Warriors might actually go undefeated.

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