For quite a while now, there has seemed to be a discrepancy between the competitiveness of the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NBA. And, for as long as I can remember, the discrepancy has always seemed to favor the West.
In recent years and this season especially, we continue to see this difference in the NBA’s competition level. This year, eight out of 15 teams in the East that have a 50 percent winning percentage or greater. In the West, there are 11 teams at or above the 50 percent mark in winning percentage. If any of the top 12 teams in the West were to move to the Eastern conference today, they would be a playoff-qualifying team. This seems to happen every year. There are always a few teams in the East who make the playoffs that wouldn’t even get a sniff of them if they were competing for a sport with teams in the West.
The discrepancy between conferences seems to grow almost every year when the free agency rolls around. In recent years, some of the biggest names to flip from the Eastern Conference over to the West are Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, and LeBron James. There doesn’t seem to be one clear answer as to why the West tends to attract and retain better talent. We have seen players move from team to team to follow friends, All-Stars, and coaches while other players seem more interested in large sums of money and the local nightlife. Perhaps some of the movement is based on the competitive nature of players. To some players, it may have felt less rewarding to be one of the best in the East so they moved over to take on a new challenge. Whatever the players’ reasoning for choosing their teams it seems like the majority of big names in basketball end up in the West.
It is certainly much harder for players to make the NBA All-Star team in the West due to the saturation of star players. In the interest of basing these claims on statistics, a friend and I took a minute to look at each player and make a list of this seasons star caliber players based on their performance thus far. Labeling of these players was discretionary based on this year’s performance only compared to the rest of the players in the league (scoring, assists, rebounds, steals, shooting percentages, and blocks were considered in the decision making). After sifting through the data, we found that there were only 18 star players in the East Compared to the 28 star players in the West (full list in table below). Every team in the West has at least one star player while in the east we see five teams (Brooklyn, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland) with no star caliber players at all. Many of these teams do have up and coming talent such as Trae Young, but they just aren’t performing at a level that puts them above and beyond their competition yet.
If the skill level discrepancy was a once and a while issue, it wouldn’t be a problem. But, year after year we see deserving teams miss the playoffs just because they happen to be surrounded by stronger competition. I believe that the best teams should be represented in the playoffs regardless of their geographic location and under the current system they aren’t. The NBA should make playoff qualifying decisions based on overall record and not solely on conference placement.