NBA: East vs West, Who's Better, Who's Best

Stephen BrotherstonAnalyst ISeptember 9, 2009

PHOENIX - FEBRUARY 15:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Western Conference walks across the court in front of LeBron James #23 of the Eastern Conference during the 58th NBA All-Star Game, part of 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend at US Airways Center on February 15, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  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 Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The Western Conference teams and numerous slightly biased (or band wagon jumping) sports commentators have long proclaimed that the Western Conference playoff teams are, on average, far superior to their Eastern Conference counterparts.

They point to the wealth of NBA Championships won by the Lakers and the Spurs, the 50+ wins required to merely enter the Western Conference playoffs and then sneer at the under .500 clubs from the East that get in every season.

So is that it, the argument is over, the West is the Best, let it Rest? Of course not!

The West may win it all, on occasion, and at a rate that seems reasonable given a team from each conference makes the NBA finals every year. But for the past six seasons, the East and West have alternated winning.   Prior to that the streaks were longer but they still alternated.

Starting in 2003-04, the winners were: Pistons, Spurs, Heat, Spurs, Celtics, and Lakers.  Starting back in 1988 it was Pistons twice, then Bulls thrice, followed by Rockets twice, then Bulls thrice again, followed by Spurs, Lakers thrice, and Spurs. In the past 21 years, it’s been East 11 wins, West 10 wins.  It couldn’t be more even!

So, this still doesn’t address that it’s much tougher to get into the Western Conference playoffs, at least recently.  But are those Western Conference win totals really that much better than the East’s.

In the West, Phoenix just missed the 2009 playoffs with a 46 & 36 record compared to the ninth place Pacers who finished at 36 & 46.

Jason Fleming (Hoopsworld, Aug. 11, 2009), “It's always fun to debate which of the two conferences is stronger than the other. Last season the Eastern Conference won the majority of the inter-conference games, but the Western Conference boasted more .500+ teams (because they could feast on more bottom feeders).”

In 2009, the East won the inter-conference battle and the West won the championship.  But in 2008, the West won the most inter-conference games and the East won the title.

And the bottom feeders (“the dregs”) of the Western Conference, well in 2009 the 6 worst teams in the West won 50 fewer games than the six worst teams in the East.  In the East only one team failed to win at least 30 games, while in the West all six of the dregs failed to crack the 30 win plateau.

It must be nice to know in the West that you’re got 24 games each season against really weak opposition.  While in the East almost every team you face has a chance to beat you.

Another way to look at the dregs in the West vs. the “non-playoff contending” teams in the East is that the Western dregs only averaged 14 inter-conference wins compared to 19 inter-conference wins for their Eastern counterparts.   The Western dregs on average were only good enough to beat themselves, providing their playoff bound partners an easy four-game sweep. 

In the East, the non-playoff contenders were on average managing a 1-3 split, the resulting difference being six extra wins for each Western Conference team challenging for a playoff spot!

For 2009, all this analysis really can conclude is the best in the East had better seasons compared to the best in the West than their win totals would indicate and the weaker playoff teams in the West are still better than the weaker playoff teams in the East, even taking into account the Western dregs they had to feed on.

Theoretically knocking six "extra" wins off of Phoenix's win total would still put them at 40 & 42, still remaining just ahead of those Pacers stuck at 36 & 46.

Strangely in 2008, the West’s non-contenders and the East’s non-contenders almost had the same number of wins.  But the weaker Eastern clubs played their own conference as tough as in 2009.  And the West’s non-contenders played almost as bad against their own conference as their weaker non-contenders did the next year. 

For some reason, the bottom feeders in the West just want to help boost those win totals for the Western clubs heading to the playoffs!

All in all, it looks like the Eastern and Western Conferences are not as unequal as they might first appear.  And why should anyone be surprised by that?