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The East Has Finally Caught Up to the West in the NBA

After years of a West-dominated world, the Leastern Conference is more than holding its own this season 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Any basketball fan who has even casually checked the standings since, oh, Michael Jordan left the Bulls knows the NBA’s strength tilts westward. Season after season, the Western Conference outperforms the East—in individual talent, in depth of quality teams, in the 30 interconference games that each team plays every season.

So a night like this past Saturday is something of a surprise. The lowly Bulls beat the dominant Clippers for their first win against an above-.500 team all season. The Pistons upset the Rockets. And the Heat knocked off the Mavericks in overtime in a battle of third-place teams.

One night, of course, does not constitute a trend, especially with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic not playing and leaving early with an injury, respectively—but Saturday was merely the latest point in a quarter-season full of Eastern surprises. As the NBA adjusts to a new power landscape with Golden State in last place and newer contenders on the ascent, the East has closed the gap with the West from the top of the conference to the bottom. It remains to be seen whether this new dynamic lasts, but at least for now, four pieces of evidence suggest the long-lasting conference imbalance has faded.

1. The East is winning more games against the West.

The most basic measure of conference strength is record in interconference games. Every team plays every opposing team twice, so this statistic incorporates a conference’s full body of work.

The West, naturally, dominates this annual group competition. Dating back to 2004-05, when the then-Bobcats joined as an expansion franchise to give the NBA 30 teams, the West has defeated the East in interconference play every season except one (2008-09, a narrow Eastern win). Through Saturday’s games, however, the 2019-20 East holds a 71-68 record against the West, signaling a possible switch for the first time in more than a decade.

Much of the season still remains, with more than 300 interconference games to go, so there’s ample time for the West to regain its typical advantage. Moreover, analyzing the entire conference isn’t a perfect method because the Knicks beating the Warriors, for instance, does not reflect conference strength in the way it’s typically considered, by its best teams. However, increased interconference balance emerges even when looking at the top of the standings, both now and projecting for the rest of the season.

2. The East’s best teams are as dominant as the West’s best teams.

Pop quiz: Which of the two conferences, based on the records of their top teams through Saturday, is the East, and which is the West?

Best Records by Conference

Place in Standings Conference A Conference B
Place in Standings Conference A Conference B
1 24-3 23-3
2 20-7 20-8
3 19-7 17-8
4 17-7 16-8
5 17-8 17-9

Whatever your guess, the real takeaway here is that there’s little differentiation between the two conferences at the top. The best team in the East is just as good, record-wise, as the best team in the West. Ditto no. 2, and so on down the line. (By the way, Conference A is the East, B the West.)

By Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which uses strength of schedule and margin of victory to rate each team, the top 10 squads this season split evenly, with five in the East and five in the West. Looking forward, FiveThirtyEight’s projection system thinks nine teams will reach 50 wins this season, with five in the East and only four in the West.

The top Western teams usually outperform their Eastern counterparts for two reasons. The first is that they beat their supposed interconference equals; in every season in the 30-team era, even 2008-09, when the East won overall, the West still won the majority of matchups between playoff teams.

The West is winning those games this season, too, but only by a narrow 24-22 margin. That’s the closest the two conferences have been in playoff-teams-only record in the entire span. It’s easy to see the balance in individual game results: the Bucks with two wins over the Clippers, the Heat with a split pair against the Rockets, the Celtics with a split against the Nuggets, and so on.

The East’s top teams are also pummeling the bottom of the West. Teams currently in the Eastern playoff field are 26-5 against teams currently outside the West’s top eight, which would be the conference’s best performance in this stat by far. The West usually does about this well with its playoff terms versus the Eastern also-rans, so now the East is finally returning the favor.

The Bucks and 76ers were expected to remain at the top of the conference after last season’s steps forward, but the other Eastern powers register as something of a surprise. The Heat missed the playoffs last season but are playing cohesive, entertaining basketball with the additions of Jimmy Butler and a fleet of shooters. The Raptors remain contenders despite losing Leonard, with improvements from the likes of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. And the Celtics are a better team despite losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in free agency.

In the West, the best teams are generally those expected to be at the top after a frenzied summer; only the Mavericks are a surprise. But the East’s middle class has pushed through to the upper crust, enhancing the whole conference’s outlook as a result.

3. The East’s middle class is just as respectable as the West’s middle class.

The best teams to miss the playoffs in the 30-team era have all hailed from the West. They all outperformed at least one Eastern playoff team in their respective seasons, if not more.

Best Teams to Miss the Playoffs in the 30-Team Era

Team Wins Losses Eastern 8 Seed Record That Season
Team Wins Losses Eastern 8 Seed Record That Season
2008 Warriors 48 34 37-45
2014 Suns 48 34 38-44
2009 Suns 46 36 39-43
2018 Nuggets 46 36 43-39
2015 Thunder 45 37 38-44
2005 Timberwolves 44 38 42-40
2013 Jazz 43 39 38-44
2011 Rockets 43 39 37-45

From this pattern arose numerous proposals to balance the conferences better come playoff time, from making teams switch conferences to force a more even field or doing away with conferences entirely to let the best 16 teams in regardless of geographic affiliation. That disparity is gone this season; every middle class Western team, to continue a previous chart, has about the same record as every corresponding Eastern squad.

Middling Records by Conference

Place in Standings East West
Place in Standings East West
6 17-9 15-11
7 13-12 11-14
8 11-14 11-14
9 12-16 11-14
10 11-15 10-15
11 10-18 10-15

Besides Indiana and maybe Utah, both in the 6-spot in the standings, no other team has an impressive record here, but that’s kind of the point. The West’s depth has dissipated to the point that even pleasant surprises like the Suns and Thunder are several games below .500, but they’re still in the playoff hunt because no other teams are seizing ground, either. That’s how the East has seemingly always been—but the East now resembles the West at the top, and the West looks like the East in the middle as the two conferences converge.

4. The East has just as many top players as the West … sort of.

Beyond record, perhaps the single most illustrative stat reflecting recent Western dominance is this: In the 30-team era, 66 percent of All-NBA players have come from the West. The West has had the majority of All-NBA honorees every single season in that span, and the margins haven’t often been close.

A similar proportion of MVP shares have come from the West, which has won 62 percent of points-weighted MVP votes (for which a first-place vote is worth 10 points, and so on). And the East would look even worse by comparison if it hadn’t had LeBron to rely on for almost all of this era, as the four-time winner outperformed the entire rest of the Eastern Conference over this span. (LeBron earned one MVP point last season, his first in the West. That tally is removed from this chart, though it’s so small it doesn’t make a difference either way.)

Of the top 10 players in MVP vote shares since 2004-05, only James and Dwight Howard spent any time in the East. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Steve Nash, Steph Curry, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook have all plied their trade exclusively out West.

A wide-angle view of the top players this season evinces a more even distribution of talent. When the Ringer staff voted for the top 25 players of the season thus far, the final split was 13 Western to 12 Eastern players; of the 21 honorable mention players who also received votes, the split was 11 West to 10 East.

This is all good news for the East. Here’s the bad—and where the West still might retain the advantage going forward. At the very top, the West dominates as always; in our Ringer rankings, Giannis Antetokounmpo earned the no. 1 spot, but the next six players call the Western Conference home.

The leading MVP candidates are Giannis and three Western players (LeBron, Harden, and Doncic). The West has Big Twos and individual players lighting up scoreboards by themselves, even on inferior teams—see: Karl-Anthony Towns on the Timberwolves—while the East’s best team might have just one All-Star, and the conference’s only so-called Big Two has seen those two players—Irving and Durant—combine to play just 11 games this season.

Over the short term, this persistent superstar imbalance could prevent the East from truly rising to match the West; on the other hand, while the West might boast more established talents, the East could counter with more budding youngsters like Siakam, Jayson Tatum, and the still-young 76er stars.

In general, the league is so overstuffed with talent at this point—heck, Durant, who moved from the West to the East, and Zion Williamson, drafted into the West, haven’t played at all this season—that this sort of spread would make sense. There are almost enough elite players for everyone who wants one (er, sorry, Knicks fans). Moreover, the increased volume of star player transactions might benefit conference balance if more players like Durant and Butler move from West to East.

As the league embraces a possible first step into playoff realignment—the reported proposal would reseed the four semifinalists without conference consideration—a full 16-team overhaul could be the natural next step. It figures that this kind of thinking would come after years of complaints—only to arrive when the East has finally evened the scales for the first time in years.