As the calendars turn to 2018, the NBA is taking with it a narrative that hasn’t been applicable in almost 10 years. No longer can they say that the East has been the superior conference this season. Ever since a certain Michael Jeffery Jordan left the Chicago Bulls following the 1997-1998 season the West have topped the East in 17 of the last 18 campaigns, the exception (and only season) to that being when the East wrestled supremacy in 2008-2009; a year after the Boston Celtics flipped the dynamic of the NBA for the next decade and won the NBA Championship.
The East, holding three of the top four records that season (Cleveland with one, Boston with two and Orlando with four), coupled with the West holding six of the seven worst records that season (Sacramento (30), LA Clippers (28), Oklahoma City (27), Minnesota (26), Memphis (25), Golden State (24)) helped to bolster a stronger conference from top to bottom. This was perhaps a blessing in disguise for those West teams with poor records as the draft classes from 07-09 boasted what are currently generational talents in Kevin Durant (07), Russell Westbrook (08), Steph Curry and James Harden (09) who were scooped up via the draft by these same teams. With that and an aging Celtics roster by the turn of the decade, the power balance quickly swung back to the West, where in the East parity was consolidated in the form of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh teaming up in Miami, and Orlando eventually losing Dwight Howard to Los Angeles.
The Great Western Migration seemingly reached a boiling point this past off-season with many of the remaining superstars in the East fleeing, either through strong-arming trades or free agency, for superstar-laden power teams in the West. Now it appears that these new situations where superstars have been too used to being “The Guy” on their previous teams are taking longer to gel than originally anticipated (looking at you Oklahoma City…). Now the rosters in the East, which have been slighted for years as punching bags for LeBron’s inevitable trip to the Finals, have learned how to play team-oriented basketball to a level of success not seen in a long while.
For most of the 2000s the concept of isolation-driven basketball was the norm, only changing at the turn of the decade as the Big Three model became commonplace. Teams such as San Antonio, Golden State and Boston have ushered in an era of team basketball that removes completely relying on one or two or even three stars to carry the weight and instead encourages extra passing, team defense and taking the open high percentage shots. Some teams still stick to the dying model of stacking up superstars, while others are starting to embrace the new style of team driven play. Golden State has found a way to do both, which is why they have been the scariest team in the last 20 years.
While it remains to be seen which style will hold water going forward, the ones who have adopted the newer model have been raking in the fruits of success at a higher clip this year. For example, as of January 1st, the New York Knicks would not qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern conference while they would be an 8 seed in the West… that’s right, the Knicks. The big market laughing stock of the league for almost 20 years have a better record against the West this season (9-5) than against Eastern Conference opponents (9-13). On the flip side, a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves have feasted on the West at a 20-6 clip, but have mightily struggled against the East posting at 4-8 record. Further on down the list, the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently hold the 5th worst record in the NBA, have been 11-14 vs fellow Westerners but hold an atrocious 1-11 record against Eastern foes.
Some of this can be contributed to injuries to the big names in the West (Leonard, Curry, Paul), but the top teams in the East have also been missing some big names for the course of this season thus far (Thomas, Hayward). However, when you take into consideration how far ahead the experts and fans alike perceived the West to be from the East coming into this season it has been a big surprise to see how successful the East has been over the West. It’s time to reevaluate just how good the East is and maybe consider that in the West, stacking superstars might be a dying model.