It was a common criticism of the Celtics last year to suggest that they owed their spectacular regular season record, in part, to the relative weakness of the competition they faced in the Eastern Conference, despite the fact that they boasted a better winning percentage against teams from the Western Conference. In addition, they ended the Rockets' surprising 22-game win streak, and emerged with an impressive three wins from the 'Texas Triangle' road trip.
When Boston took seven games to dispatch an inexperienced Hawks team in the first round of the playoffs, many observers were also quick to suggest that the Celtics were not true title contenders. If they struggled to eliminate a supposedly weak Eastern Conference rival, which posted a comparatively poor regular season record, how could the Celtics possibly win a series against whatever powerhouse emerged as the champions of the West? Few gave the Hawks or the Celtics the credit they deserved for being strong, competitive teams.
Even when the Celtics survived two more close, physically and emotionally draining series against Cleveland and then Detroit to emerge as Eastern Conference champions, most commentators still gave them inadequate respect.
The popular perception was that the Celtics, who barely made it past three "weak" Eastern Conference foes, would lose in resounding fashion to the seemingly invincible Lakers, who cruised through the "tough" Western Conference. Many commentators predicted a 4-1 or 4-0 Lakers victory in the series. We all know how accurate those predictions proved to be.
A quick glance at the current standings for this regular season suggests that the East may emerge as the "stronger" conference this year. Currently, no team in top eight of the East has a record below .600, whereas three top eight teams in the West—Memphis, Denver, and Dallas have records of .500 or below.
At the other end of the spectrum, only one team in the East—Washington—has won fewer than a quarter of its games. In the West, four teams, including Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Minnesota, and the LA Clippers have won fewer than a quarter of their games.
Yes, it is still early days, but a series of high draft picks and superstar trades during the past few months have arguably made a number of teams in the East significantly more potent, including Chicago (Derrick Rose), Miami (Michael Beasley), Cleveland (Mo Williams), Toronto (Jermaine O'Neal), Philadelphia (Elton Brand), and more recently the Pistons (Allen Iverson).
Moreover, the continued improvement of teams like Atlanta, which is currently undefeated, will make the Eastern Conference a much more difficult place to visit for Western Conference teams.
Will we see a reversal of fortunes between the Eastern and Western Conferences this year? Early signs suggest the case, but such predictions like a Lakers sweep of last year's Finals are notoriously wrong.
UPDATE: 17 November 2008
With another week of the season behind us, the East is still looking like the tougher conference. The Western Conference currently has five teams (the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Thunder, and Clippers) which have won fewer than one-third of their games. The Eastern Conference, by contrast, has just one team (the Wizards) in that category.
At the top end of the scale, the Western Conference has just two teams which have won 70% or more of their games (the Lakers and Suns), while the Eastern Conference has four teams which have done so (the Celtics, Cavaliers, Magic, and Pistons).
Furthermore, three teams which currently sit outside the Top 8 in the Eastern Conference (the 76ers, Bulls, and Bucks) would find themselves a place in the current Top 8 in the Western Conference, based on winning percentage.