Before we delve into the discussion about which side of the USA is better at basketball, let’s just break down a few things for any newcomers.
The USA is vast. Like, really big. It is simply impractical, unfair, and ecologically irresponsible to have one giant league where every team plays each other and we end up with a winner.
That’s fine if your country is the size of a Texan ranch like the UK.
But in a place this big? Nah
So, the solution is to break the country into smaller chunks for the majority of NBA games.
Firstly, the country is separated into 2 larger chunks that only really come together in the NBA Finals. Each chunk contains 15 NBA teams. Those are the Conferences.
Quality and winning records aside, the only real differences between the two Conferences are the geographical region of the United States they happen to fall under. There is also one team in Canada, the Toronto Raptors. Sometimes a team franchise is sold and physically moves to a different city. If that city is not in the same geographical region then some reorganizing has to be done to maintain the balance of 15 teams in each Conference.
Each Conference is separated into 3 smaller groups.
Those are the Divisions.
So, how does it work?
The smallest groups of teams are the Divisions.
WESTERN CONFERENCE DIVISIONS:
Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Lakers
Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland Trail Blazers
New Orleans Hornets
San Antonio Spurs
EASTERN CONFERENCE DIVISIONS:
New Jersey Nets
New York Knicks
If we take a look at the Divisions in each Conference we see that each Division has 5 teams. There are 3 Divisions in each Conference. That gives us our total number of teams.
For years the Western Conference has been stronger and more competitive than the Eastern Conference overall.
In fact, over the last 20 years, Western teams have won 13 of the 20 available NBA Championships. However, the balance is actually much more evenly distributed if we push the range back to around 40 years.
But do the NBA Playoffs and Finals give a true representation of the overall talent of each Conference?
MORE OF THAT LATER
It should be fairly obvious as to why there needs to be an equal number of teams in each Conference. As you will see when we discuss qualification for the NBA Playoffs, it would not be fair to have a greater number of teams from one Conference over the other.
Let’s look at the mechanics of the league.
Each team plays the other teams in its Division 4 times. That gives each team a total of 16 inter-divisional games.
Each team will also play an opposing team from the same Conference 3 or 4 times per season.
Teams do meet opponents from the other Conference, just not as often for logistical purposes. They play each of the 15 teams in the opposite Conference twice. Once at home. Once away.
All of this means that each team plays 41 times at their home stadium and 41 times away. Giving us 82 games in total. Voila! You have yourself a regular NBA season.
REGULAR SEASON WINS
In the last 23 seasons, the teams in the Western Conference have had more combined wins across each season than the teams in the Eastern.
For five straight seasons at the start of the last decade, Eastern Conference teams won no more than 42.2% of the games they played against Western Conference teams. That number climbed a little to around 44% for the second half of the 2010s
The last time that the combined might of the Eastern Conference teams bettered the Western over a regular season was 2008/09 when they won 51.3% of their games.
That number has been as shockingly low as 36.9% in 2013/14 and 39.6% in 2019/20
Now then. Of the 15 teams in each Conference, the top 8 finishers (in terms of their winning percentages) progress to the NBA Playoffs.
There is now a Play-In tournament that decides the 7th and 8th teams to qualify, so it is technically possible to make the Playoffs from as low as 10th position.
The teams stay in their respective Conferences right through the NBA Playoffs and up to the Finals themselves.
So, each semi-final is a clash between the 2 surviving teams from each Conference. In effect, this guarantees that the NBA Finals will always be East vs West
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Even with the kind of dominance we saw in regular season games, the Western Conference still only has 13 championship wins out of 20. There has to be some credence given to the notion that Western teams have a harder road to the Finals. Statistically, it is incontrovertible. How much does that take out of them going into the Finals? That is a much harder thing to quantify.
Tough games in the run-up prepare a team mentally and physically for the biggest games of all. But there are also tolls to be paid in terms of expended energy and potential injuries.
It also goes to show that knockout games are a much less predictable entity.
WHY ARE THE NBA PLAYOFFS AND FINALS STRUCTURED THIS WAY?
Surely, we hear you cry, the fairest way to find the winners is to take the best 16 teams overall and let them duke it out?
Sure. That would certainly be fairer. Why should a team with a better record in the Western be omitted from the Playoffs in favor of an Eastern team with a worse record?
WE HAVE TO THINK ABOUT “THE GOOD OF THE GAME”
How does the long-term prognosis look for the National Basketball Association if Western Conference teams continue to widen the gap and attract more elite players? The NBA is already in danger of becoming lopsided.
Ensuring that Eastern teams have something to fight for late in the season is essential to the continued existence of the league.
The more interesting, relevant aspect of the discussion is not whether the West is better, but why.
We talked about this for a long time here in The Jump Hub office and think we have nailed the three big reasons.
The last truly great dynasty that the Eastern Conference produced? The all-conquering Chicago Bulls, ably assisted by the incomparable Michael Jordan. It ended in 1998.
That’s a long time ago…
The Detroit Pistons had a lovely run of form in the middle of the 2000s but it was hardly the stuff of legend.
During the same period, the Western Conference has produced three teams worthy of that title.
When the Bulls finally capitulated, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers won 9 of the next 12 NBA Championships between them. Spurs 4, Lakers 5. The Spurs were incredibly consistent, winning at least 50 games in each non-lockout-affected season since 1997!
The Lakers have really had two dynasties. The first featuring Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. They took three straight NBA championships and appeared in four finals over five seasons.
Bryant was crucial again in the second. This time taking 2 straight Finals wins and dominating in every way.
We must now consider the Golden State Warriors to bet part of that elusive club. With the unmatched Stephen Curry hitting baskets from anywhere he chooses, they have won 4 of the 8 NBA Championships since 2015 and appeared in all but 2 Finals. Remarkable.
Here at The Jump Hub we also review odds for popular futures bets such as the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) award.
It’s hard to look beyond the contributions and achievements of 2 coaches over the last years of the NBA.
2 of the dynasties that we mentioned eariler, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers were motivated and guided by 2 incredibly talented coaches.
Greg Popovich created a core strength and team ethic in San Antonio that conquered all before it. The Spurs played for each other. And for him.
Phil Jackson steered the rivals/teammates O’Neal and Bryant to their victories and was still doing the business when Pau Gasol partnered with Bryant and they went all the way again.
Jerry Sloan has been rock-solid in Utah for 2 decades.
George Karl has to be considered among the most impressive coaches in all of NBA history.
Rick Carlisle is now a winning coach and looks set to continue to do great things.
Scott Brooks, Nate McMillan, the list goes on. Coaching talent is all over the Western Conference and it clearly attracts the best in the business.
The Eastern Conference, by comparison, can only really boast Pat Riley and Doc Rivers as superb coaches.
In terms of anyone else even coming near the league of Jackson, Popovich and Sloan? It’s not happening.
They have talented coaches too, of course. Stan Van Gundy, Byron Scott, and Mike Brown spring to mind. But the strength undoubtedly lies in the West.
Perhaps attracted by the likes of those coaching legends, the superstar power of the Western Conference has also tended to outstrip its Eastern rival.
Aside from the legendary names we have already reeled off, owe have the likes of Tim Duncan. Arguably one the best power forward ever to play the game.
David Robinson wasn’t too shabby either when he won his first championship.
Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker joined the Spurs and they won a second title in 2003.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin for the L.A. Clippers.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry for the Dallas Mavericks.
Steve Nash for the Phoenix Suns.
Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum for the L.A. Lakers.
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker for the Spurs.
The East can’t really compare…
LeBron James is the knight in shining armor for the East. Aided by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh they formed a formidable pack. But that’s about it…
The Eastern Conference teams cannot compete with the level of superstar power that the Western has had, spread across so many teams. And that is a huge problem.
TIME FOR CHANGE?
Another conclusion that some commentators have come to is that the Draft lottery system is deeply flawed.
Changes were made to address the dreaded tanking issue. They went some of the way towards doing that, but not nearly far enough. And they don’t even come close to addressing the disparity between the Conferences. As things stand, some valuable picks are bound to be awarded to teams that don’t really need the help.
In the past, teams from the West with really good records that would have seen them placed in the NBA Playoffs if they competed in the East, missed out altogether. Their consolation was that they had a good chance of a significantly better pick position due to the way the system operated.
The 2021/22 season does not represent the issue particularly well
Certainly, the Western Conference had the 2 best-performing teams in the country by some distance. But the Eastern had the Miami Heat in joint 3rd place with the Golden State Warriors (who went on to claim the victory in the NBA Finals lest we forget)
Adam Silver, the current commissioner of the NBA was reluctant to tear apart the NBA’s tried-and-true playoff formula. And it seems that he may have been justified. Silver was hoping for the cyclical nature of the sport to render such ideas unnecessary. It seems he might have gotten his wish in 2021-22.
The Western had 8 teams that lost more games than they won. The Eastern only 5. It may be that this season is just one of those statistical anomalies that are unavoidable. Time will tell and it may be that the pendulum has finally swung the other way and evened things up.
The Western has proven to be the superior conference in recent years. Some of its good teams reaped the benefits of valuable lottery picks.
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There has been plenty of talk about the need for reform in the NBA. We’ve done a ton of it ourselves.
When discussing the issue of disparity between the Conferences, it seems that there is one solution that might negate that.
Do away with them altogether
It would still leave the league with a bunch of poor teams lurking at the bottom. But the drama of the NBA Playoffs (the shining jewel in basketball’s crown right?) would be guaranteed to be played out by the 16 best teams in any given season.
The schedule could be balanced out so that each team played every other team at least twice. The rest of the slots would then (NFL style) be filled according to each team’s previous year’s positions at the close of the season. There would be no more competition for lottery picks between teams with vastly different win ratios.
There are downsides, of course. Travel could be mitigated somewhat by having teams play away against several teams in the same geographical area.
Is it perfect? No
Nothing can be. The 2022/23 season will tell us if the trend has indeed levelled out and whether any further action is actually needed.
However, there is one place that we feel it is way beyond time that action was taken…
It’s hard to avoid almost any article we write from becoming a ranting diatribe about the despicable practice of tanking, so we will reign ourselves in here. Suffice it to say that we are in total agreement for once. Tanking is a cancer at the heart of the sport that we love. It belittles achievements and taints everything with a sourness that is hard to get rid of. How can any self-respecting sport allow a situation to continue where it is better for a team to lose games in order to gain an advantage later?
It’s simply not good enough. Not by a long shot.
Ultimately though, the Western Conference wins out. The list of quality teams is deeper and more talented.
It boasts a greater selection of superstar talent and has had more dynasties over the past 15 years.
In fact, it’s not even close at this point…
As we said, time will tell whether the tides have turned.
All of life is cyclical, especially in the world of sports.
Fortunes rise and fall. Once in a lifetime players appear that can change the course of history.
Provided the NBA creates the levelest playing field that it can, the East will surely rise again.
Bring it on