From West to East: An Explanation for the Transition of Power in the NBA
It seems as though that every professional league here goes through a pendulum swing of power, from one conference to another.
Here is an in depth look into the NFL, MLB, and NBA's history of dominance of conference's with most of the time spent on the NBA.
In the NFL, from 1984-1996 the NFC won every Super Bowl and only lost one from 1981-1996. Then immediately following that stretch from 1997-2006, the AFC won eight out of the 10 Super Bowls.
The MLB, after following a decent amount of research, probably is the most even when it comes to winning streaks for a conference (yes the A.L. and N.L. are no longer real leagues because they both answer to one commissioner).
But going back to 1975, the N.L. won six of the following eight World Series, and then immediately following that streak the A.L. won sixteen titles to the N.L.'s only eight starting with the Baltimore Orioles in 1983 and ending with the Boston Red Sox in 2007.
Once again the MLB was and still is a lot more even the NFL and NBA, but still when you win two-thirds of the time it's a lot more uneven than the ideal winning percentage of one half.
The NBA has the longest history of domination by a conference, and this can largely be explained by the dominance of single teams.
Of the 62 total NBA championships to date, four team, the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, and Spurs have won 41 times! That is 13 percent of the number of teams in the league today winning 66 percent of every title played for.
To go even further, if you add in the Pistons, Warriors, and 76ers, who all have won three championships, to the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, and Spurs, you have 23 percent of the teams winning 80 percent of the titles!
These teams have all been a major part of the pendulum of power in the NBA as well. So, let's start and look at the beginnings of the NBA so you can see the true swaying back and forth of power.
In 1947, the first season of the precursor to the NBA, the Basketball Association of America, the Philadelphia Warriors from the Eastern Conference defeated the Western Conference champion Chicago Stags.
The East would not see the title again until 1955. In that seven year stretch, the West won every year highlighted by George Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers winning five of those doing it back to back and then the first three peat in the association's young history.
When the Syracuse Nationals, now known as the 76ers, won in 1955 the pendulum swung back to Eastern Conference. In a stretch of 16 seasons the West only one of the annual contests between the best of the East and West when the St. Louis Hawks defeated the Boston Celtics in 1958.
This then inspired Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, and their Celtics to win eight straight titles, with a total of 11 in that time period of Eastern dominance.
The West did catch up, but did not surpass the East. From 1971 to 1988, the West won ten titles compared to the East's eight. A 56 percent winning percentage by the West can by no means be described as dominant, with neither conference able to have a streak longer than two in a row.
The Pistons and then the Bulls took the pendulum back to the East side from 1989-1998, with the Pistons going back to back, then the Bulls three peated twice with the Houston Rockets from the West winning two title's when Jordan retired for the first time.
From 1999 to the present we have seen a domination by the West, with the Lakers winning three in a row with Shaq and Kobe, and the Spurs winning four in nine years. There was a stretch of five in a row by the Spurs and Lakers from 1999-2003, and from then to now the Larry O'Brien trophy switched hands every year.
There is the argument that since most of these stretches of domination were by single dynasty-esque teams, that the competition in their respective conference was weak. And, this can be a very pressing point especially when you look at the NBA where seven teams have won over 80 percent of the time.
What I have to say against that is that winning begets winning.
There was no question that during this past stretch of domination by the West where only two teams won the title, that the Western Conference was far superior to their eastern counterparts.
During that stretch the Kings, Suns, Mavericks, and even the Timberwolves were all considered not as good as the Lakers and Spurs, but were much better than their Eastern middle of the pack counterparts. The reason that I have found to be most compelling for why one conference dominates the other can be explained by European soccer, surprisingly.
Each country in Europe has a top soccer division, and the top team(s) in the each country gets to play in the Champions League. Now, to win in the Champions League you have to be as better than every other team in Europe.
Unfortunately for the mid-level clubs in each country, there is no way they can compete with the top teams unless they build a team that is comparable with all the top teams from all over Europe.
So, what eventually happens is what has happened in England where there are four teams that are always at the top who are built to compete against the top teams in Europe: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool.
Now, take that and compare it to the NBA, where the dominant conference at any given time is the Champions League and the other being the Premier League.
The teams in the Champions League of the NBA have to all build up to play against the prenenial power houses because they have to play them at least four times a year, and they get a shot to knock the better team out in the playoffs.
On the other hand, the teams in the Premier League only have to play the teams in the Champions League twice and they can play each other in the playoffs for a chance to take out the winners of the Champions League in the finals.
The difference between US sports leagues and the European club style is that the Premier Leagues don't have any Champions League teams in their conference. This leads to complacency, and also leads to one conference dominating the other, because you only have to be a little better than your top competitor within your conference.
And if your top competitor is not in the Champions League, you don't have to be a Champions League caliber team for a shot to win the championship because you only have to be as good as the Champions League team for one playoff series.
Another key difference is that US leagues allow for more competitive balance, and this is why there is a pendulum effect of one conference being better than another.
What I am truly saying is that bad teams are rewarded with top talent by means of the draft. In basketball, one player can affect a team's performance more than any other sport. This is because basketball has the smallest amount of players playing at one time, and the top players can play for the whole game, compared to other leagues where the best players only play for about half the game.
So, while the bad teams are getting top pick after top pick, the bad conference will eventually get a lot better because the M.J., Magic, and LeBron's of the world make their teams almost automatic competitors. And the failure rate of the top players in the basketball draft is much lower than the other leagues.
All of this in the end helps the Premier League become the Champions League, because the players in the Champions League get old and retire all the while the top talent for what was the worse conference go into their prime, and the pendulum goes back to the other side.
Now here is the point where I am going to give you, the much respected reader, an opportunity to understand fully why I say that the East has taken over the power in the NBA.
Sure, I could be like all the talking heads on ESPN and talk radio and give you no reasoning and history behind why I say this. But if you actually have read this far, you know that I just gave you the history, and I now going to give you the reasoning.
I can't put a finger on the exact moment when the pendulum started to swing back to the East, but I believe that there was a series of events that happened that caused it to occur in this order: When the Pistons beat the Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton Lakers; Shaq being traded to Heat; and/or when Brian Colangelo took the job in Toronto.
When the Pistons beat the star studded Lakers it was an amazing thing.
Everyone thought that the Lakers could not lose after Derek Fisher's miracle game winning shot with .4 seconds against the Spurs. But the Pistons took it to the Lakers and shocked the whole world.
This gave the East hope, because then they knew it was possible to actually take on the West, but the Pistons way of beating the West was so unique that it really could not be duplicated.
The Pistons created the perfect storm of personnel, coaching, and management to win their last title. The whole concept of amazing defense and tenacity, in a period of time when it was frowned upon by the league office, was revolutionary.
As a side note I say it was frowned upon because of the changes of rules to take down the hardcore Pat Riley Knicks, original Bad Boy Pistons, and Dennis Rodman's of the 1990s, to inspire more points which leads to more fan interest and money.
The Pistons showed that beating the West was possible, and when Shaq was traded to the Heat for Lamar Oden, Caron Butler and Brian Grant, it told the East that it was OK to acquire top talent by other means not called the draft.
I say this because I just can't recall any star players even wanting to play in the East during that time period, because most of the stars in the NBA were playing out West.
Lastly, I really believe that Bryan Colangelo moving to the East was really the catalyst for the change we are about to see the in NBA.
What Brian Colangelo brought to the Phoenix Suns was an extremely innovative style of play that while it was copied from Don Nelson, was perfected in Arizona. Colangelo brought in Mike D'Antoni, who coached a fast paced style that was extremely conducive to winning.
While that style has never won a championship, it allowed lower quality teams to compete with teams like the Lakers and Spurs who were winning championships.
Colangelo resigned from the Suns and signed with the Toronto Raptors to be their GM all in early 2006. When this happened, Mike D'Antoni did not have the proper support system around him, and as we have all seen this season, he left for the Knicks, and the Suns have been what can only be described as ugly without him.
Colangelo also brought the idea of signing players from Europe to the East. This was something that he did amazingly well with the Suns. It can be seen that the foreigners signed/drafted by the West such as Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, Leandro Barbosa, and others were far more successful than the ones in the East; Darko Milicic comes to mind as the prime example.
So now, we are in a state where the Eastern Conference seems to be superior to the West. With the big three in Boston, LeBron in Cleveland, the Pistons being the Pistons, Dwight Howard pulling down everything for the Magic, the Bosh and crew Raptors, and now Derek Rose who is looking like he is going to be a star in Chicago.
All of this is happening while it seems like the only up and coming team in the West are the Trailblazers and Hornets.
So, maybe I am wrong and the West will be able to keep up with the East, but if history has told us anything, the arm of the pendulum seems to be going eastward.
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