For the past two decades the NBA’s Eastern conference has been the ugly little sister to the Western conference. The West has dominated the league in almost all aspects ever since Michael Jordan retired.

During the past two seasons the onslaught has been worse than ever. Many people have called for a restructuring of the league’s divisions in addition to changing the playoff picture. But, after the first thirty-five games this year, however, it appears the talent levels may be finally balancing out. We’re thirty-five games in and the East has made and early statement; potentially saved itself from self-destruction in the process.

The way the professional sports are set up, they are supposed to work like a business cycle. Teams go through peaks and pits of success every couple of years or so keeping a general balance of power. The NFL has mastered this system and after 49 championships, no team has won more than 6 rings.

This system hasn’t worked as well for the NBA though. Of the 61 championships, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers account for 33 of them. The problem with these teams’ dominace and steady expansion periods is that other teams get stuck in great recessions. And since Michael Jordan won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, the entire Eastern conference has been in a great depression.

After digging into the past, I found some stats that portray the full extent of the Western Conference’s dominance, and it isn’t pretty. The past six straight years the West has had a winning record against the East. Since the ’98-’99 season the West has won 12 out of 17 championships. Of those 17 years, the East has only posted two winning regular season records against the West. Also during this period, the West is 1018 games above .500 against the East.

The past two years the records have been as bad as ever before. Last season the West was 76 games over .500 and the year before they were 118 games over .500, the peak for the era. It’s no wonder that people everywhere were calling for a breakup.

But after 17 years of running the table the West appears to be regressing. This season the East is quietly winning the conference battle against the West with a record of 99-97. But what has changed? The West still has ample championship caliber teams. There are teams like the returning champions Golden State Warriors who have only lost two games, and the champions from a year prior The San Antonio Spurs who appear to already be in postseason form. So you would think the West is poised to once again dominate the East. Not quite.

So how exactly did the East manage to flip the script this season?

 

The Draft

The NBA draft is the fairest way for a struggling team to rebuild. The way it works is the team who wins the championship gets the last pick, the runner-up gets the second to last, and the remaining playoff teams from the previous season fall in order under that. The 14 teams that didn’t make the playoffs are called “lottery teams.”

This is because each team gets put into a lottery for the number one pick, and each teams probability depends on their standings after the season. The last place team has the best odds to win the pick, however, ever so often the bottom five teams will end up of with surprising jumps and falls in the order of their picks. The point is that if you finish terribly, you’re going to get a good pick.

Even though the lottery consists of seven teams from each conference, they rank them all together and often it is the East who dominates the 1-5 picks. The past two years the East has had 13 of the 20 Top-10 picks. This gives them a dramatic edge in landing the next superstar that could potentially turn their franchise around. The way the NBA works, this is supposed to balance out the distribution of stars.

The issue with the draft is there is some serious luck involved. Each draft consists of one or two ‘sure thing’ stars then eight or nine ‘high ceiling/low floor’ types of players. Your team needs to be lucky enough to not only land a favorable spot in the lottery; but also hit on those question mark players. In the past the East has not been nearly as fortunate as the West in nailing these stars. I will discuss that further later.

A way to get good idea of how the East seemed to get better ‘over night’ is to look at the most recent draft. I picked out the seven top preforming rookies from the draft and their respected teams.

Here’s how it came out. The East came out with five of the seven: Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks), Jahlil Okafor (Sixers), Justise Winslow (Heat), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Nets), and Stanley Johnson (Pistons). That leaves the West with only two: Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves), and Emmanuel Mudiay (Nuggets). Although there are many other rookies that have plenty of time to pan out, the East has a clear advantage after the 2015 draft and it appears to be paying large dividends to their success.

 

Offseason Moves

Every offseason the NBA is host to one of sports’ largest jungle of movement: NBA free agency. This period in early July usually ends with three or four blockbuster signings, along with tens of other important additions and subtractions to teams. Teams can rebuild through offseason without actually losing any real assets. If a team is able to land a big free agency, it can immediately affect their on-court product for the better. The opposite is true as well. Often playoff teams become instant lottery teams after the first day of free agency if they can’t hold onto their players.

The way the offseason can affect the power of conferences is when players move from one conference to the other. After looking at the 2015 offseason, I found a number of conference changes that have changed the level of play in each conference.   Below I have outlined the biggest changes that I found (Trades included):


WEST to EAST

David Lee (GS to BOS)

Jeremy Lin (LAL to CHA)

Nicholas Batum (POR to CHA)

Spencer Hawes (LAC to CHA)

Jeremy Lamb (OKC to CHA)

Monte Ellis (DAL to IND)

Marcus Morris (PHO to DET)

Gerald Green (PHO to MIA)

Amar’e Stoudemire (DAL to MIA)

Arron Afflalo (POR to NY)

Nick Stauskas (SAC to PHL)

Tiago Splitter (SA to ATL)

EAST to WEST

Mason Plumlee (BK to POR)

Lance Stephenson (CHA to LAC)

Deron Williams (BK to DAL)

David West (IND to SA)

Paul Pierce (WAS to LAC)

Lou Williams (TOR to LAL)

The basic trend that appears is  no real stars that switched conferences, which is completely normal. What we saw instead was a number of key role players in the West pick up their bags and head East to become a more important player to their new team. Also we saw a number of stars in the East finally give up on the idea they could carry their teams, and head west to become a role player on a better team. This all plays out perfectly giving the space the teams in the East they need to develop players and speed up the rebuilding processes.

Also I took a quick look to the 2014 season to see if there was any West to East moves that may be affecting this year’s season. Here are the biggest moves I found: Kevin Love (MIN to CLE), Goran Dragic (PHO to MIA), Thebo Sefolosha (OKC to ATL), Timofey Mozgoz (DEN to CLE), Isaiah Thomas (PHO to BOS), and Pau Gasol (LAL to CHI). Now these moves were crucial to the rebuild in the East. All of the players are still on their new teams and most have signed new contracts. These players are all on notoriously playoff teams in the East and have a huge impact to their teams. It’s evident that the migration to the East is heavily affecting improvement of the conference.

Career Decisions

As I have stated numerous times above, the NBA is a business, which makes the players businessmen. Although we would love for everyone to care as much about winning as money, in most cases it simply doesn’t play out that way. These guys are human – they have maybe tens years to provide for themselves and their families for the rest of their lives.

With most of the talent in the West, most of the money is over there too. The teams in the East have much more room in their salary cap to overpay these young role players. This may be the cause of the increasing amount of players migrating to the East.

A large part of this has already panned out and can be seen in this years East’s improving success. However, this trend isn’t even close to over. With the salary cap going up next season, the East will have even more space to sign these big players. Also, many of the biggest stars structured their contracts to be in free agency for this cap increase. Don’t be surprised if next season we see the trend of role players going East switch to stars heading East.

Another reason these players might be switching to the East actually doesn’t have to do with money. They’re switching to the East because it’s simply easier. If I told you “Hey, would you like to do less work to get to the playoffs, be more successful, and be paid more for doing it?” wouldn’t you say yes? That’s what’s happening in the East right now. Players know their time in the league is limited and that they will be remembered by their success and not the strength of their team and conference. They are switching to the East knowing that they have a better chance to make it to the finals from that conference.

Aging Stars

For years, the NBA has been dominated by a number of all-time great super stars. In our lifetimes we have seen a number of great players emerge and disappear. The players that stand above even those great players are considered the “all-timers.” The types of players that appear in double-digit all-star games, have been on the All-NBA team as well as the All-Defensive teams, from Rookie of the Years to Most Valuable Player awards, champions. These players have existed since the conception of the NBA and continue to dominate the game today.

Most recently, we have been blessed to see some of the best of even those players. As the years pass by however, those players are slowly retiring one by one. As they retire, new players take the next step and play up to that new level. During the West’s dominance in the past two decades we saw six of the NBA’s top players to ever play the game, and two of them in the top ten. It has been fun to watch them play but it has also been brutal to watch them go. The problem with NBA superstars is they often can’t give it up. The latter part of a superstar’s career is full of too much playing time and too many shot attempt, sometimes hurting the team. Here’s a quick look at the six all-timer’s we have recently seen go and will have to see go over the next few years:

Steve Nash – 18yr pro, 10yr Phoenix, 5yr Dallas, 2x MVP, retired

Jason Kidd – 21yr pro, 8yr Dallas, 5yr Phoenix, 9x all-defensive team retired

Dirk Nowitzki – 18yr pro, 18yr Dallas, 13x All-Star, 1 ring, Dallas

Kevin Garnett – 21yr pro, 14yr Minnesota, 15x All-Star, 1 ring, Minnesota

**Tim Duncan – 19yr pro, 19yr San Antonio, 5 rings, San Antonio

**Kobe Bryant – 20yr pro, 20yr Los Angeles, 5 rings, Los Angeles

 These players are all considered to have changed the game in one-way or another. Their value to the league cannot be put in words. The theme you can see from all of them: All Western conference players. Players like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Kevin Durant have picked up where they left off but none have established the same dominance we saw from the all-timers.

Hometown Heroes

Lastly, we have seen a new trend materialize within the NBA. In the past players have always cared about their legacy and how they will be remembered.   That used to mean playing for one team a player’s whole career and then investing in the team one way or another after they are finished.

In the early 2000s money began to become increasingly more important and we saw a number of stars break the previous tendency in order to make the most money. Also a number of players were chasing personal accolades: the race to get as many rings as possible.

Well as of late, players have found the new fad to obsess over. With contracts higher than ever, money is slowly taking a back seat in the minds of the league’s superstars. Players have become infatuated with playing for something more than money. Last year, LeBron James had a historical homecoming to his city of Cleveland. He went from the leagues previous runner up, to the leagues last place team – all for the love of his city. Players around the league took notice. He set a new standard for the leagues stars: To not only win a championship, but to do it for your city.

This may not have affected the East/West power rankings too much yet; but with the looming cap raise and free agency, we could see a number of the leagues stars return to their home. Most notably, Washington native Kevin Durrant of the Oklahoma City Thunder who is widely accepted as the league’s second great star has made it known he will consider the idea of a homecoming next off-season.

The reason this homecoming notion is so important to the leagues balance of power and why it made this article is the fact that America’s four biggest basketball hubs all lie within the East. Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington have produced the best basketball players since the beginning of the game. If players began to go back to their hometowns we could see a serious influx of players to these cities and potentially shift the power completely between the league’s two conferences.

Although it is early in the season, the NBA’s Eastern Conference has made serious strides of improvement. Last year critics would tell you that the two-seed in the East wouldn’t beat the six-seed in the West. It’s obvious that this year things are much different. There are at least ten legitimate teams in the East this year and it appears there will be a real race to get the eighth playoff spots, unlike many of the past seasons.

With young developing talent, along with the familiar faces of LeBron James, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade – the East’s future looks bright. While there are still a couple of bottom feeders, the league is working with the owners to eliminate the gap between the worst and best teams. Only time will tell if the East can manage to hang on to it’s new stronghold and begin to balance out the leagues talent levels again for the first time since the golden years of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

Photo: Teammates Kristaps Porzingis #6 and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks try to stop Frank Kaminsky #44 of the Charlotte Hornets during their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 11, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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