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The NBA's East-West Divide Will Only Get Bigger

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 8:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans dunks the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on November 8, 2013 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
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Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 10, 2016

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

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 31: Head coach Brad Stevens and Jordan Crawford #27 of the Boston Celtics talk during a play against the Atlanta Hawks on December 31, 2013 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
Steve Babineau/Getty Images

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.

Western Conference Records vs. Eastern Conference
Dallas Mavericks9-3
Denver Nuggets7-4
Golden State Warriors5-1
Houston Rockets9-2
Los Angeles Clippers7-6
Los Angeles Lakers5-6
Memphis Grizzlies5-4
Minnesota Timberwolves9-5
New Orleans Pelicans7-2
Oklahoma City Thunder9-1
Phoenix Suns4-2
Portland Trail Blazers11-1
Sacramento Kings3-5
San Antonio Spurs11-1
Utah Jazz4-7
Total105-50
NBA.com

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

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 21: Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards; Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery on May 21, 2013 at the ABC News' 'Good Morning America' Times Square
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

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.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 20: Ricky Rubio #9 and Kevin Love #42 of the Minnesota Timberwolves make their way up the floor against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Noah Graham/Getty Images

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.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 19:  Jabari Parker #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after scoring a basket in the second half against the UCLA Bruins during the CARQUEST Auto Parts Classic on December 19, 2013 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  (Photo b
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

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?

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 25:  (L-R) Peter Holt, owner of the San Antonio Spurs, Adam Silver, Deputy Commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, Commissioner of the NBA, and Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, address the media following the NBA Boar
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

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

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