How Long Will It Take for the NBA Power Balance to Shift?

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IJuly 23, 2014

AP Images

Seldom has the balance of power between the NBA’s Eastern and Western Conferences been more pronounced—in top-to-bottom talent, team strength or next-generation upside—than it is now.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know which holds the hemispheric hegemony.

So how long will it take, exactly, before the pendulum swings the other way?

Not as long as you might think.

First, some perspective: Of the nine teams to finish the 2013-14 regular season with 50 or more wins, seven of them came from the West. More jarring still, the Dallas Mavericks—who barely sneaked into the playoffs despite winning 49 games—would've finished third in the East, behind only the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Making the disparity even more pronounced is the fact that, in the NBA, only 30 of a given team’s games are played outside its conference.

Knowing this, it’s conceivable the Mavericks could’ve outright won the East had the league been aligned differently.

Just how wide is the gap between the conferences? According to a study conducted by Neil Paine of Sports-Reference, this past season marked the greatest degree of disparity in 10 years, and the second most since 1959-60.

A Tale of Two Conferences
SeasonEast vs. West W-L%
Neil Paine,

In fact, since the 1999-2000 season, the East has taken home the majority of wins just once (2008-09), and even then it was by the slimmest of margins (51.3 percent).

On the one hand, the dynamic underscores just how far the league has come since the halcyon days of unquestioned Eastern supremacy, when the lion’s share of teams—including the NBA’s original eight—were all situated east of the Mississippi River.

On the other, such starkly disparate fortunes have only reinforced the belief of many that the league is long overdue for a systemic overhaul.

Back in April, Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry—tongue squarely in cheek—made the case for the NBA to adopt a “true seeding” approach to organizing the playoffs:

In this particular season, any conversation on this topic needs to address the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks. You could easily argue that fans at large are being robbed by not getting to see the highly entertaining upstart Suns (48-34) in the postseason. Instead, we are also being 'treated' to a few bonus Hawks (38-44) games. Using a true seeding approach, the Suns would be the 13th seed; using the conventional approach, they’re left out. Meanwhile, the Hawks — who don’t even really want to be there — are in. FANtastic.

The next day, CBS Sports’ Ken Berger weighed in on the same topic, albeit a bit more bluntly:

The current playoff system has been allowing a worse Eastern Conference team to advance to the postseason over a better Western Conference team 79 percent of the time since the turn of the millennium. The last time the eighth-place team in the East had a better record than the eighth-place team in the West was 1998-99. That isn't a one-time event. That isn't even a trend. It's a long-term imbalance between the conferences that has to be addressed.

Therein, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the issue is, indeed, on the league’s radar screen.

"I'm still in the studying stage, so I'm not ready to state it's a concern because it's a function of what the best alternatives might be," Silver said, per Berger. "It's not a new issue for the league, as you pointed out. It's been one that's been an issue for years."

However, it’s difficult to see how the NBA can actively spearhead a more merit-based playoff system without first addressing the issue of “tanking,” the colloquial term used to describe the alleged desire on the part of some teams to avoid making the playoffs in hopes of landing a high lottery pick.

By switching ad hoc to a true-seeding format, teams in the weaker conference already inclined to tanking would arguably find it easier to do so.

David Goldman/Associated Press

"We're not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that's not our goal,” Hawks general manager Danny Ferry told USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt in March. “We're trying to build something that's good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so."

If true seeding had been in place this season, Atlanta’s plan would’ve succeeded seamlessly.

We’ll save the discussion on various proposed fixes to the league’s tanking epidemic for another time. Until then, though, it’s at least worth considering whether such drastic measures—compelling though they may be—might worsen a phenomenon that, given time and more subtle solutions, might correct itself organically.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the East bottoming out any worse than it did this season. Especially with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade forgoing their chance to take their talents west.

Whether these and other players were motivated by a specific desire to avoid the standings slugfest happening across the conference divide, it’s difficult to say. Though one must think it’s at least part of the new-contract calculus.

Sooner or later, the confluence of static intra-conference superstars, players looking for paths of lesser resistance (Pau Gasol, anyone?) and emerging talent borne from the East’s lottery advantage is bound to turn the tide of disparity.

Unless it doesn’t, of course.

With the majority of small-market teams being in the West, it stands to reason the attendant front offices, with less in the way of error margins, will seek creative, more maintainable ways of staying competitive. Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder and R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs come immediately to mind.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

In contrast, New York Knicks owner James Dolan knows the profits will be there no matter what. As such, there’s less of an incentive to do the heavy lifting—whether through scouting, stats or roster management—necessary to compete.

Whether that dynamic is one that will ultimately be aided or compromised by the league’s current and future collective bargaining agreements, only time will tell.

Might one or two more years of pronounced Western dominance hasten the league’s sense of urgency? It’s certainly possible. Perhaps some semblance of an anti-tanking measure really is the silver bullet—a way of disincentivizing losing to such a degree that interconference parity becomes, as a byproduct, much more consistent.

Even if nothing materializes, there’s still this one, unimpeachable fact: Per Paine’s research, only once since 1969-70—the year that saw the West wrest control from the East after 16 consecutive seasons—has either conference gone as long as a decade on top. And that run ended all the way back in 1989-90.

Be the cause superstar migration, front-office dynamics or sheer influx of talent, the East will re-emerge as the superior conference sooner rather than later.

Whatever it lacks in talent or team depth, history—that tried and true equalizer—is on its side.


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