East vs. West: Which Conference Tips the Balance of the NBA?

Rob MahoneyNBA Lead WriterAugust 21, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 21:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat defends against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half of Game Five of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 21, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Like it or not, conferences remain the one relevant dividing line in the NBA. The East-West designation determines playoff seeding, regular-season scheduling and All-Star selection, and until the league wipes out that bit of organizational convenience, the differences between the conferences will remain an important part of the NBA discussion.

Thus, at the least, it's worth considering which of the two conferences can claim the current superiority. The league balance tends to be cyclical, with the most obvious swings coming courtesy of dynastic establishment.

With that in mind—and with the Lakers and Spurs among the truly dominant teams of the past decade or so—it seems safe to say that the Western Conference has edged out the East ever since San Antonio won the title in the lockout-shortened '99 season. But can the West really still lay claim to the NBA conference crown?

The answer to that question depends on how you construct your argument and, more importantly, how you choose to measure the balance between conferences. Walk with me.


Strength of Field

If we're looking at overall conference strength as the sole determinant, the West wins outright and without much fuss. Ten Western Conference teams finished the 2011-2012 regular season .500 or better, and while two of those teams (Phoenix and Houston) will likely slide under the .500 mark next season, two more (Golden State and Minnesota) are waiting to take their place.

We're looking at another year in which it takes far more than a winning record to earn a playoff spot out West, all while the East offered safe postseason harbor to any club that performed moderately well in the regular season.

The West can also claim more .700-plus teams and .600-plus teams than the East, despite the fact that the competition in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race forces similarly skilled opponents to grind one another into undeserved losses.

It's a tough lot competing against the likes of the Clippers, Grizzlies, Nuggets and Mavs on a frequent basis, especially when the conference parallel offers good teams that are nonetheless a step down from the middleweights of the Western Conference crop.

Advantage: West


Stable Contenders

One could also make the argument that a conference is best judged by the quantity and quality of its legitimate championship contenders. In regard to that criterion, only three teams really qualify for the discussion: the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers.

If we're to extend the limits of the top-tier contenders any further, the balance only tips more in the West's favor. The San Antonio Spurs are likely the next in line, and compelling arguments could be made to include the Memphis Grizzlies or Los Angeles Clippers ahead of the Boston Celtics for the unofficial fifth/sixth spot.

That's just how unbalanced things are without the Chicago Bulls in good health. Derrick Rose's successful return could very well bring Chicago back into this conversation, but until we see how he's able to perform post-surgery, there's no logical basis with which to grant the Bulls contender status or give the East any benefit of the doubt.

Advantage: West


Best of the Best

Now, if we zoom in all the way to the best in the league, the East starts to put up a bit more of a fight.

Given the dynamic of the 2012 NBA Finals, it doesn't at all seem like a stretch to put the Miami Heat just a half-step above the Oklahoma City Thunder for the season to come—such is the distinction owed to a championship team that builds on its core and doesn't sacrifice any heavy-hitters to age, free agency or the trade market. The Heat will only be healthier and improved relative to last season, and that's enough to give them the slightest of advantages over a tremendous Thunder team for the 2012-'13 season.

That said, the Lakers are the wild card in all of this, as they have the potential to beat even the Heat but first need to run a gauntlet of a regular season while testing their offense and improving their defense.

Los Angeles showed signs of being a quality ball club on both sides of the ball interchangeably last season, but ultimately failed to put together strings of successful offense and defense simultaneously. Things will be profoundly different this time around with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash—among others—wearing the Purple and Gold, but I'm inclined to side with the proven product in Miami over what could ultimately come to pass in Los Angeles.

Advantage: East


These are but three classifications used in an attempt to understand which conference currently holds dominion over the NBA landscape, but there are surely more. What's the most prudent way to frame this debate, and which conference can currently claim to have the edge?