If you think the Eastern Conference is in trouble now, just wait until next season; it's only going to get worse.
That's when the already-superior Western Conference could grow even more dominant, thanks to a flawed lottery system that will award valuable picks to some very good teams.
Most of the discussion surrounding the inequality between the West and East has focused on teams like the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards "earning" playoff spots with sub-.500 records. But the flip side of that conversation is far more interesting, and it's one that has outgoing NBA commissioner David Stern a little worried.
Per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, Stern said in a Sirius XM radio interview:
If I were a fan, and I am, I'd be focusing more on the issue that one of those teams that doesn't make the playoffs in the West nevertheless will be lottery eligible and turn up with a better pick than you might think they should get. That to me is the potential is that lurking out there that's going to occasion a lot of conversation.
We'll come back to this critical point momentarily. But first, chronicling just how vast the conference disparity is will help provide a little context.
Wide and Widening
All the talk about the gap between the East and West this season is justified. For years now, the West has boasted more quality teams than the East. But the discrepancy is larger than ever this season.
From a basic perspective, it's stunning to see just three Eastern Conference teams with winning records. According to Sean Highkin of USA Today, the current playoff picture in the East is unprecedented: "No conference in NBA history has ever had five teams with losing records make the playoffs. In other words: It's ugly."
Out West, each of the eight current playoff seeds are comfortably over the .500 mark, a figure that stands out all the more starkly against an Eastern Conference playoff picture that features just three teams—the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks—with more wins than losses.
And the deeper we look into the numbers, the wider the gap becomes.
Of the league's 10 most efficient offenses, nine of them reside in the West, per NBA.com.
A contrarian might suggest that the East has always been a gritty, defensive-minded conference anyway. So offensive rating isn't the best indicator of overall quality.
While it's slightly encouraging to see the East has six of the top 10 most efficient defenses this year, it's important to remember that those six teams are feasting on a weaker crop of offenses because they're playing opponents from their own conference.
If we use net rating, which measures overall point differential on a per-100-possessions basis, we see that eight of the league's 10 most statistically dominant outfits are in the West.
The fact that both the East and West play a disproportionate number of contests against teams from their own conferences might make those numbers a little noisy. So, here's the head-to-head tale of the tape: In 155 games pitting a team from the West against a team from the East this season, the West has won 105 of them.
|Golden State Warriors||5-1|
|Los Angeles Clippers||7-6|
|Los Angeles Lakers||5-6|
|New Orleans Pelicans||7-2|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||9-1|
|Portland Trail Blazers||11-1|
|San Antonio Spurs||11-1|
That's good enough for a winning percentage of .677.
Just two teams (surprise! Indiana and Miami) have winning records against the West, while all but three Western Conference teams have played better than .500 ball against the East.
Get the picture?
That Pesky Lottery
All right, let's get back to Stern's comment on the lottery ramifications of this troubling issue. To get an idea of the danger he describes, let's flash forward to the summer of 2014.
We're going to see a bunch of teams from the West with really good records—easily good enough to make the playoffs in the East—miss the postseason entirely. Those clubs will be disappointed, but probably only until they realize they're going to have a shot to get markedly better by picking early in one of the most loaded drafts in recent memory.
Suppose the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets or Los Angeles Lakers—all currently in position to draft in the lottery because of their ridiculously difficult conference—were to snag the No. 1 overall pick.
While making that supposition, also keep in mind that every one of those teams (with the possible exception of the Lakers) would have a very easy time making the playoffs in the East. Instead of battling for playoff position, though, they're currently set to duke it out for ping-pong balls in June.
What if Minnesota wins the lottery and adds Andrew Wiggins? Imagine what he'd be able to do with Ricky Rubio feeding him the ball and Kevin Love being his usual dominant self.
And what if Jabari Parker ends up alongside Anthony Davis on a suddenly loaded Pelicans team? He'd be an ideally skilled hybrid forward to pair with the rangy, versatile Brow. They'd be an elite one-two punch for at least a decade.
The list goes on. What if Julius Randle ends up in Memphis to rejuvenate the Grizzlies? What if Joel Embiid winds up in Los Angeles to hold down the defense alongside a recovered Kobe Bryant and whichever marquee free agent hopefully arrives over the summer?
It's hardly a foregone conclusion that the West's lottery teams will get their hands on all of the top talent. But they're going to wind up with some of it. When a team like the Wolves or Grizzlies slots a stud rookie into a winning culture with already-defined roles, it'll create an ideal environment for said rookie to thrive.
Conversely, those same top-tier picks will be viewed as saviors if they end up in the East, which is a much more difficult set of shoes to fill. Success is still possible, but the ugly situations on some of the Eastern Conference's worst teams aren't exactly conducive to optimal growth.
In a nutshell, the West is already the superior conference, and some of its good teams are going to reap the benefit of a valuable lottery pick. The gap is going to grow, and that's probably not a good thing.
Think about it: Who needs a lottery pick more, the Pelicans or the Charlotte Bobcats? The Timberwolves or the Celtics?
It's no wonder all but a handful of teams in the East have to constantly answer questions about tanking. Making the playoffs puts them at an even greater talent-building disadvantage while simultaneously helping teams in the other conference that are already better off.
That's just bad for competitiveness on all fronts.
What to Do?
Justifiably, there's been plenty of talk about reform. We've heard of 30-year wheels and the abolition of divisions, among other things. But the former won't help in the near term, and the latter probably isn't drastic enough to effect real change.
The simplest solution is to get rid of conferences altogether.
That way, we still have a bunch of bad teams clustered at the bottom, but at least the playoffs will feature 16 competitors who gained entry to the tournament based on merit. Better that than some geographical line in the sand that has nothing to do with quality.
Balance out the schedule so every team plays one another at least twice. That's three-quarters of the season on its own. Then follow the NFL's model and fill in the rest of the available schedule slots based on the position of the previous year's finish.
Bad teams will still be bad, but at least they won't have to compete for lottery picks with good teams that missed the playoffs because of conference inequality.
Something has to happen. There will always be haves and have-nots in the NBA; there's no avoiding that. But we might as well foster growth among the league's weaker teams while also rewarding the stronger ones with deserved playoff spots.
If changes don't come quickly, we'll soon see the West get even stronger. And that's not good for the league.
*All statistics accurate through games played Jan. 1, 2013