The East Is Back in the NBA

The last few days in the NBA have been nothing short of a whirlwind.  The New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks – largely written off in recent years[1] – consummated blockbuster deals involving perennial All-Stars and future Hall of Famers.  FlyingHaque wrote a great article breaking down the Carmelo trade, so I won’t rehash the details here.  I’m more interested in what this does to the power dynamic in the NBA between East and West. That’s the inquiry of this article: will there be a shift in power from the West to the East in the National Basketball Association?  I think so.

For years, the East was derided as a weaker, lesser conference.  How many times has one of your friends, namely me, said, “You might be right, but they play in the East, bro. The East. It’s bad.”[2] I’m not just making this up – as I tend to do – there are statistics that show this:

(1) Nine of the last twelve champions have been Western Conference teams.[3]

(2) In 2009, a team with a .500 record made the playoffs in the East;[4] in 2008 a team under .500 made it;[5] in 2007 two teams, under .500 made it, which never happened in the Western Conference.[6]

(3) The average number of wins amongst Western Conference playoff teams exceed those of Eastern Conference teams anywhere from 2.5 to 4 from 2007-2010.[7]

Nevertheless, it seems like there was a consensus that, amongst the best teams in both conferences, the East and West were evenly matched, meaning the top teams in either conference were comparable.  Consider that in each of the years the team winning the East had the best record overall,[8] or that the top two EC teams had better records than their WC counterparts in 2010 and 2008, with the top three EC teams having better records in 2009.[9] It seems, at least now, undeniable that “top-to-bottom,” that is from the first seed to the eighth seed, the WC boasted better teams than the EC. Why is that?

I think it’s because of a talent disparity.  This is more of a feeling or a gut-check, so you’ll have to bear with me – I’m not going to make too much use of empirical data here.  Compare the 07-08 Mavericks (Nowitzki, Terry, Harris, Josh Howard, Bass, and Kidd)[10] with the 07-08 Sixers (Iguoadala, Andre Miller, Willie Green (?), Louis Williams, and Dalembert)[11].  That is a sort of a metaphorical condensation of my argument; that for the past few years, two teams both ranked seventh in opposite conferences possessed such a vast disparity of talent.  This disparity of talent affects the top-to-bottom quality of the WC conference as compared to the EC, even though the top few teams were comparable.  It’s not just the one example either: a comparison between the 08-09 Heat (Wade, Beasley, Chalmers, Haslem, Daequan Cook)[12] versus the 08-09 Rockets (Ming, Artest, Scola, McGrady, Battier)[13] isn’t pretty for the EC.

I encourage you to canvass www.basketball-reference.com; you’d be amazed at the talent gap amongst rosters outside of the top few teams in either conference.  It also didn’t help that talent was moving West for a few years.  The Lakers’ acquisition of Paul Gasol in February of 2008, Shaq’s departure from the Heat to the Suns in February of 2008, and other transactions were bringing improvements to WC teams that continued to strengthen its position over the East. I think that tide is turning.

Let’s just take a look – as of recently – the marquee players going in both directions and the young talent present in both conferences.  It speaks for itself

Going East Going West Young Talent East Young Talent West
Amar’e Stoudemire Pau Gasol John Wall Kevin Love
Carmelo Anthony Caron Butler DeMar DeRozan Blake Griffin
Deron Williams Vince Carter Landry Fields Stephen Curry
Jason Richardson Shaquille O’Neal Tyreke Evans
Gary Neal[14]

It is my contention that the recent trades have begun a shift in the balance of power in the NBA. I’ll support this in a few ways.

Comparison of Teams’ Rosters

In the East, the Boston Three Party has a few years remaining (especially with Rajon Rondo running the point), and the Miami Heat will be a force for several years, given their own star-studded constellation.  Now consider that the Nets have one of the best point guards in the NBA in Williams, and the Knicks possess what could be called the best frontcourt in the NBA.  Add Derrick Rose’s Bulls – who actually have size in Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer – and Dwight Howard’s Magic – who, I know, I called a bunch of 3-point shooters and Howard – you’ve got six teams that are capable of winning on a given night.[15]

Look at the West.  The Lakers are great, but what happens when Phil Jackson retires, or when Kobe ceases being super-human, or when Bynum departs?  The Spurs have the best record in the West, but I don’t think I’m going on a limb when I say they’re over-performing; Ginobili is 33, Duncan is 34 and already showing signs of age, Parker is almost 30, and don’t get me started on McDyess.  They have some young players, and I have a ton of faith/respect/awe for Popovich,[16] but who knows?  The Jazz lost their star young player, the Suns – sorry FlyingHaque – are bad since the departure of Amar’e, and I don’t care how well Grant Hill and Paul Millsap are playing.[17] The Blazers will never, ever, ever get healthy all at once, and when they do they certainly won’t have a center, and the Hornets will suffer as soon as Chris Paul[18] becomes a free agent and heads to New York.  The Mavericks will continue to be good, as will the young Oklahoma City squad – but they need a center and defense and rebounding and some… – leaving just a few teams at the top.

Understood this is not empirically proven, understood I’m not pointing to many statistics, but I still think this argument is well-grounded.

Star-Power in Both Conferences

There is a concentration of talent in the East now, plain-and-simple.  James, Wade, Bosh, Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Stoudemire, Anthony, Williams, Howard, Rose. Wow.  On the West it’s Bryant, Durant, Nowitzki, Paul (who knows how long), Gasol, Harris (archives are filled with this guy’s injuries), Roy (when), Parker, and then it’s all the same.  Star-power in a vacuum is meaningless, as the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers proved, but it does stand as a valid indication that the East possesses a step above the West.

I say to you that star-power is what makes a conference so formidable in the first place.  Consider back in 1997-1998, with Jordan’s Bulls, or in 2001-2004, with Shaq/Kobe’s Lakers, or recently with the Big Three’s Celtics, Kobe’s Lakers, etc.  Absent the few I listed above, the West is severely lacking, in my opinion, in this area.  Please take this argument with a grain of salt – I’m not dumb or naive enough to suggest that because a bunch of superstars are in one conference, the conference is inherently better or getting better; I understand that age, chemistry, and balance are crucial considerations as well.

Youth

Here, I think the West does have an edge, but only amongst rookies and sophomores.  Love, Griffin, Evans, and Curry are bona fide future super-stars; can the same be said about Wall, DeRozan and Fields?  I think the jury is still out, but tell me who you’d take.  To this argument, I point to Rose, Rondo, Howard, and LeBron as arguably the brightest young stars in the NBA – all in the East.  Look at those names; I rest my case.

Conclusion

I alluded to Jordan’s Bulls in 1997-1998 earlier as the last time the East really had a grip on the NBA.  I think that time has come again.  I should say, though, that in today’s age where any trade can happen, any franchise player can go anywhere, and all stars want to play together, it’s far from clear whether this balance will continue for longer than three to five years.

Suffice it to say: the East is back.

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[1] The 2010 Nets sat at 3-40 before finishing 12-70: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/27/AR2010012704424.html; http://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/NJN/. The Knicks also have been the source of ridicule, finishing with 50 or more losses from 2008-2010. http://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/NYK/.

[2] See also, Daniel Lord, a commenter on this blog, who sees the world in a good/bad duality.

[7] See n.3-6, supra – I’ve written before that I’m not good at math, and I’m not, but I just took the simple average of wins each season.

[8] See n.3-6, supra.

[9] Id.

[14] That one’s for you, Nate Baum.

[15] I’m not crowning the Nets at all, and I think the Knicks gave away too much for a short-term gain, but, Deron Williams can do a lot for a struggling team with newfound cap-space, as can Carmelo with the Knicks.

[16] See, SemihErden’s article explaining why, correctly in my opinion, the Spurs are a model franchise.

[17] Grant Hill offers 13pts, 4.5, 2.5 this season – pretty good. http://www.nba.com/playerfile/grant_hill/ Paul Millsap contributes 17pts, 7.8, 2.3 this season. http://www.nba.com/playerfile/paul_millsap/index.html?nav=page

[18] Rick Reilly reports that, allegedly, “[a]t [Carmelo’s] wedding in New York City this past July, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Chris Paul toasted to all three playing in New York someday.”

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6 Responses to The East Is Back in the NBA

  1. Lord says:

    good/bad duality? ok. that’s fine. that’s fine. that’s fine. that’s fine.

  2. Astick says:

    The West does have the considerably better rookie/sophomore class (though who knows there might be some late bloomers in the east…) as you mentioned. However, aligned with your main argument that the East > West, Love, Curry, Griffin, Evans are in the worst franchises in the NBA (ownership, management, coaching). So it is unlikely that those teams will ever turn those players’ skill into enough success to match other comparable East teams.

    I think what makes it more troublesome for the West, as you have hinted, is that there aren’t quality teams (except OKC) to fill the void of the aging Lakers, Spurs, Mavs.

  3. ad88 says:

    Dude basketball sucks this blog needs more hockey articles

  4. kidveesh says:

    Loved the article, but do you really have to consider Curry as a bona fide future superstar?? I know you’re a warriors fan, but come on now..

  5. FromMontanaToCrabtree says:

    @ Astick — good point! the teams on which those players play largely suck; as such they probably won’t be able to make a difference anyhow.

    @ ad88 — i don’t know if basketball sucks, but we’re working on a hockey section. didn’t they not have a season a while back or something?

    @ kidveesh — 2011 Skills Champion. enough said.

  6. Flying Haque says:

    loved the article, and i definitely agree, the east has a very good chance of being more dominant in the near future. however, i think it’s important that if we’re judging young talent, we talk about players at least 3 years out. there have been way too many players over the year who i’ve thought of as “superstars” because they were high picks/very good rookies who just never panned out as actual superstars. Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, and (especially) Tyreke Evans look great now, but I want to wait a few years to make sure they’re the real deal. I’m most unsure about Evans because he’s such a terrible shooter and isn’t really a point guard and isn’t really a shooting guard

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