West is best once again in NBA
After a whirlwind off-season that saw seven 2017 all-stars and a few other future Hall-of-Famers switch teams, one thing will almost certainly stay the same: the league's Western Conference will outclass the East. It may be a new season, but it's the same old story. Here's why
When the NBA regular season kicks off Tuesday, a recurring storyline will be at play: the continued dominance of the league's Western Conference.
The competitive imbalance between the East and West has been a feature of the league since Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls in 1998. In the 19 seasons since, Eastern Conference teams have won the championship just six times.
Why? Elite talents play in the Western Conference. Whether it's winning percentage, the number of teams with winning records or the number of All-NBA players from each conference, the numbers tell the story: In the NBA, West is best. If it weren't for LeBron James, who has played his entire career in the East, the disparity would likely be a lot worse.
This upcoming season may end up being the most lopsided in recent memory. Notable players such as Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap, Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Teague, Rajon Rondo and Brook Lopez are all recent all-stars who moved westward in the off-season. Only Gordon Hayward went in the other direction. There will be 24 players who have made multiple All-NBA teams since the 2010-11 season, and 20 of them will suit up in the Western Conference.
The West's overall winning percentage has been better than the East's in each of the past seven seasons. The gap is even clearer when you only look at interconference games, with the West averaging a winning percentage of .574.
It's not surprising then that the West routinely has more teams finishing the season with winning records. Only the 2015-16 season bucks the trend in recent history. The reason? The Golden State Warriors won a record 73 games, and the San Antonio Spurs won 67, steamrolling the rest of the league. The number of really good and elite teams (50– and 60-win seasons, respectively) has also skewed heavily West in the same period.
The imbalance is primarily driven by the amount of elite talent in the conference. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, the West has averaged 10.29 players per year on the All-NBA team. In each of the last three seasons, only one player from the East garnered first-team All-NBA honours. Unsurprisingly, it was James each time.
The talent divide also exists off the court, with the Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year coming from the West five of the last seven years.
Individual Eastern Conference teams have also been consistently worse. Only the Chicago Bulls have been spared a losing season since 2010. Nine different Western teams have averaged winning records to the East's six, while 10 teams from the West have had multiple 50-win seasons compared with seven from the East.
All of this begs the question: Why does the West consistently have better talent?
It isn't because talented players are moving west en masse. A player has gone to the Western Conference and won all-star or All-NBA honours with his new team only three times since the 2010 off-season (David Lee, Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala).
Where the West excels is drafting and retaining talented players. Since 2010-1011, Western Conference teams have drafted 24 all-stars and 23 All-NBA players who earned those honours with that same team, compared with 19 and 16, respectively, by Eastern Conference teams.
Seventeen different players have made multiple All-NBA teams while only playing in the West, and 10 of those stars have only played for one team. Only two Eastern Conference players with multiple All-NBA honours, James and Dwyane Wade, have spent their entire careers in the East, and neither has played for just one team.
The LeBron factor
LeBron James has made the finals for seven straight years and is responsible for half the Eastern Conference's titles since the 1997-98 season. The last time a non-James team from the East lifted the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy was the 2007-08 Boston Celtics.
James's teams have also been the second-best regular season team over the past seven seasons, behind only the machine-like Spurs. The NBA rumour mill is already churning with the possibility of James leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers next summer when he's a free agent. If this is his last season playing in the East, it could get ugly and prompt the league office to finally take a look at the issue.
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