NBA: How the West became so much better than the East

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12: Stephen Curry
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12: Stephen Curry /

The Western Conference is so much better than its East counterparts, and it’s going to stay this way for the foreseeable future

It has been said that the richest one percent of Americans own 90 percent of the country’s wealth.

In the NBA, the Western Conference is now the one percent. Last year, the conference went 246-204 against the East. Nine of the league’s All-NBA players hailed from the West along with 90 percent of the All-Defensive team.

That was before three perennial all-stars headed in the direction of the setting sun. Paul Millsap, Paul George and Jimmy Butler each changed conferences, padding the talent difference between two conferences. Yes, Gordon Heyward moved to the East. But that hardly muzzles his new conference’s talent exodus.

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The talent difference is so striking, ESPN effectively argued that the second tier players in the West are more talented than the East’s best squad.  The point isn’t farfetched. According to the network’s ranking system, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyle Lowry are the only top 20-caliber players left in the conference.

Fourteen of the 16 best players, according to ESPN, are in the East. In case you were wondering, Butler was ranked 11 and George 13.

The East’s average ranking, according to ESPN’s list is 24.9. By comparison, the 13-24 best players in the West averaged a ranking of 23.8. That includes Millsap at 19.

Even if we turn to a more objective measureable, the West dominates the East in a landslide. James led the NBA in real plus-minus last year. Butler, now in the West, was third. The next highest Eastern Conference player is Giannis Antetokounmpo at 11. Millsap, now with Denver, finished the year 16 in the category. Otto Porter Jr. (18) and Jae Crowder (20) are the only other two in the top 20.

To put talent difference in perspective, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight compared the West’s dominance of now to yester-years. Two things are clear; the West has been better than the East for a long time and it’s way more talented now.

The East last claimed superiority during the Jordan era. The league’s superstars almost entirely played in the West during the early 2000s (think Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, Garnett, Dirk) while the talent shifted slightly when Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard rose to prominence later in the decade.

But now, LeBron nearly stands alone. And for the first time, 22 of the league’s 30 best players live in one conference.

How did we reach this point? Is it possible that elite players just don’t want to play in the same conference as LeBron? I think there is a more reasonable answer.

First and least notable, prominent East coaches utilize systems conducive to team, not superstar, basketball. Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer uses a free-flowing style of offense that counters contemporary defenses by employing quick passes and pick-and-rolls. But it doesn’t center around one position or player, valuing team cohesiveness over star prowess.

Similarly, Brad Stevens is known for developing a past-first offense that only recently adjusted to fit the offensive aptitude if Isaiah Thomas. The Pacers, at their high point, were known for their team defense under Frank Vogle. Likewise were the Bulls, under Tom Thibodeau. Along with the Wizards and Raptors, these four franchises are the most consistently successful, non-LeBron teams in the East over the past decade. And each values team basketball over individualism.

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  • So it makes sense that stars were more likely found out West.

    The NBA is star-driven league and the stars want to play with each other. It take one star to attract another. And here is the second and most significant point; over the last 10 years, two teams executed draft purges the landed them unparalleled talent. Both of them are in the West.

    The first of the two teams was the Seattle/Oklahoma City franchise. In 2007, the team selected Kevin Durant with its No. 1 pick. A year later, Russell Westbrook and in 2009, James Harden. Even though the trio split before their potential materialized, each stayed in the Western Conference.

    Golden State executed the second of the two draft purges, bagging Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green within a span of four years. Each of those four stayed with the Warriors, forming a super team with Durant.

    So, seven of the league’s top 20-ish players was drafted by two teams over a seven-year span. In other words, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti and Warriors GM Bob Myers combined to, at one point, draft 35 percent of the league’s top talent. All of that talent currently plays in the Western Conference.

    With a strong base of stars accumulated through smart player evaluation and drafting, the West has been able to hold on to the league’s best players. Chris Paul decided play with Houston because of James Harden. If an East team had Harden, Paul may have ended up there. Durant only left the Thunder to play with another elite team, the Warriors.

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    And then there is Paul George, leaving the Indiana Pacers to team up with an established star in OKC. His options in the East were limited.

    It’s possible an Eastern Conference team can put together a draft run of its own. The Philadelphia 76ers are trying to and there is other, young talent scattered across the east. But when you think of team’s with high upside, Minnesota, Los Angels Lakers, Phoenix, Denver…most them are out west. Which means high league disparity may exist for years to come.