For most teams, the NBA regular season is 3 games away from wrapping up, and if you read a lot about the game, you will spend a considerable amount of time over the next few weeks reading about MVP candidates, title contenders and all of the other award winners. Throughout the season much has been written about the abhorrent quality of the Eastern Conference, the powerhouse that is the Western Conference and the way the current system incentivises teams to bottom out and lose through the draft lottery and how it has been particularly exciting to have Adam Silver take over the front office of the league with some potential for exciting new ways to fix the problems that the league has. The few defenders of the current draft system point to the way it is designed to lift up teams from the bottom and over time, even out the league as a whole. But I am here to tell you that under the current system it cannot, has not and never will work.
For almost as long as I can remember the Western Conference has been significantly stronger than the East. But it has never been this bad. The three measurements I use for this are as follows –
Which Conference does the team with best record come from?
Which Conference does the team with worst record come from?
And by far the most important one,
Which Conference requires the higher record to make the playoffs?
The reason that’s the most important one is because that’s what makes the West so much better is the teams in the middle. There might be a great side or two in the East and an abomination in the West, but the majority of both divisions sits in between these two and that is where the West dominates
The quantity of just how much better one conference is than the other is measured by where the 9th placed team in the good conference would finish if they were in the bad conference.
For example, if the season were to end right now, the best record belongs to the Spurs (West), the worst record belongs to the Bucks (East) and in the West a 59.5% winning record is currently missing the playoffs, while in the East a 45.6% winning record is making it to the post season. The West wins all three categories. And to quantify even further just how much better the West is, the 9th placed Phoenix Suns with their current record would not only make the playoffs in the East, they would be THIRD! Clearly a HUGE win for the West.
Last season, the best record was in the East, but so was the worst record, and the lower record to make the playoffs was also in the East. A 2-1 win to the West, and the 9th placed Jazz would have finished 7th in the East.
The season before had 2 wins for the West and a tie for the top record, with the 9th placed Rockets also 9th in the East
Going back through the years –
10/11 –9th placed Rockets would have finished 6th in the East
09/10 –Rockets to 8th in the East
08/09 – Suns to 5th in the East
07/08 – Warriors to 5th in the East
06/07 – Clippers to 8th in the East
05/06 – Jazz to 6th in the East
04/05 – Timberwolves to 6th in the East
03/04 – Jazz to 4th in the East
02/03 – Rockets to 7th in the East
01/02 – The 9th placed team in the East Finally had a better record than the 9th placed team in the West. That 9th placed team, the Bucks, still would have only finished 9th in the West.
We have to go back to the 01/02 season for a very minor East win.* Since then we have had 12 consecutive seasons of Western dominance coming to a head this year with over the top imbalance between the conferences.**
With the draft system supposedly giving a leg up to all of the terrible teams, you would think that something like this would be impossible, but it is clearly getting worse, not better. It is because the draft in its current form is actually contributing to keeping the West on top.
If we were to abolish conferences right now, the Suns would be in equal 11th in the league while the Atlanta Hawks would be in 18th. As it stands, the Suns are missing the playoffs, and will go into the lottery for the draft, while the Hawks will be cannon fodder in the East playoffs and regardless of how the lottery goes, would be picking after the Suns.***
So the clearly better team between the two gets the higher pick. How does that make sense if the point of the draft is an equalizer? A very good team in Phoenix gets the opportunity to improve before a very bad team in Atlanta does – and that is if we are just comparing their raw records and not taking other things into consideration.
Without trying to make things TOO much more complicated, even the teams in the East that have semi respectable records, only have those records because they play so many more games against other Eastern Conference teams.
At the time that I am writing this, almost all teams have played 49 games against teams from their own conference, and 30 games against teams from the other conference. So if it wasn’t already hard enough to make the playoffs in the West, it gets even harder having to play against great teams regularly. But it also means that teams that may seem better in terms of a raw win record probably aren’t.
Take the Charlotte Bobcats for example. They are currently in 7th spot in the East with a winning record of .506 – however this record is slightly boosted by their schedule. They have played 49 games against teams from the East winning 55% of them. They have only had to play 30 games against teams from the West winning just 43% of those games.
At the same time, the New Orleans Pelicans are currently all the way down in 12th over in the tougher conference with a record of .405. The Pellies don’t have the advantages of the Bobcats and have played 49 games against teams from the West winning just 27% of those games, but in their 30 games against teams from the East, they have done brilliantly and won 63%.
So what if the Bobcats had to play 49 games against the West and the New Orleans got 49 against the East? I’m glad you asked. The Bobcats would have a winning percentage of .481 and the Pelicans would have .494 which certainly paints a different picture to their current positions in real life. At the least I would say that these two teams are fairly evenly matched. Under the current system, New Orleans would have a 98% chance of getting a top 10 pick and a 1.1% chance of getting a top 3 pick in the most loaded draft in a generation while Charlotte would have a 100% chance of getting about the 16th or 17th pick.^ Once again the West would get stronger while the East gets left behind.
There have been multiple calls from respected writers this season to abolish the archaic divisions within each conference due to just how pointless they are, but I see no reason at all to stop there. The Conferences need to be abolished and a more even competition schedule put together. If it means losing a handful of games a season to allow for extra travel then so be it. I don’t think we find out anything extra about how good or bad a team is in 82 games that we couldn’t work out in 75 or 76. The owners are rolling in money with even the worst franchises valued over $500 million. I see no reason that this can’t happen.
Over to you Adam Silver. It’s time for change.
*And even then, the top placed East team that year (Nets) finished with a record that would have gotten them only 5th in the West, so really not much of a win – But I had to stop somewhere.
** In that 12 year stretch, 11 times at least one team from the West finished with a 50% winning record or better and still didn’t make the playoffs. In the East that happened once.
***Just to clarify, I’m not taking into account any trades that have been made, I’m speaking idealistically.
^I am aware that unless the pick goes in the top three, the Pellies won’t get the pick anyway through trades, but again that’s not the point, the system would have it the way I described were it not for the trades.