By the time the current 2014-15 regular season comes to a close, the Western Conference will have had a winning record over the Eastern Conference in 15 of the last 16 seasons. That’s an absolutely mind-numbing statistic considering how complicated and intricate the league’s luxury tax and salary cap system is. After all, the measures put in place by a professional sports league’s collective bargaining agreement are meant not only to outline the terms and conditions associated with billions of dollars exchanging hands, but also to ensure that those dollars are at least to some degree evenly spread out and that there’s competitive balance in the league.
It wasn’t too long ago that players like the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan and the Orlando Magic’s Shaquille O’Neal made the Eastern Conference a force to be reckoned with, and the Bulls in particular practically guaranteed that the NBA title would head East. And while the best player in the game today (LeBron James) is still in the East, all it takes is one look at the standings to realize that Western Conference dominance is clearly playing out like a broken record over the last 15-plus years.
Consider that there are two weeks to go in the regular season across all of the NBA and the top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs. If the postseason started today, the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics would take up the six, seven and eight spots in the East. All of those teams have a losing record. While the Bucks are keeping theirs somewhat respectable sitting at a record of 38-39, the Nets are a staggering six games under the .500-mark at the moment.
Let’s compare those stats to the Western Conference, where the Oklahoma City Thunder currently occupy the final playoff spot with a record of 42-35. Keep in mind that the team has amassed that record without star Kevin Durant in the lineup for the majority of the season and has also faced much stiffer competition in attempting to lock down its spot than most teams in the East. Put those facts together and consider that the Thunder would be in sixth place with the same record playing in the Eastern Conference and that both the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns would be in the playoffs in the East as well. The Utah Jazz would also be right there. There’s no question that in a given NBA season there’s bound to be some divide between the pretenders and the contenders, but when the Nets and Boston Celtics are still in playoff contention, things are getting a little bit out of hand.
It’s getting to a point where players signing free-agent contracts in the offseason consider the idea of playing in the East over the West due to the simple fact that they know it’ll be easier to make a playoff run. At the same time, for West Coast fans it means you’re rooting for a really good team in the West that may not make it to the postseason. What a difference 15-plus years can make.
Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to witness when the balance of power shifts over to the East again and if it really even matters. Many argue that the dominance of one conference over another is just a natural evolution, but the reality is the lopsidedness found between teams competing in the NBA is a beast all its own. None of the other three major sports leagues including the NHL, NFL and MLB have this problem. Sure there are juggernaut teams in each of those leagues, but not entire conferences.
As for the NBA, the question remains, is it really a problem and can anything be done about it? Short of Commissioner Adam Silver implementing some sort of crossover rule for the playoffs or the top guns in the West making some sort of an exodus to the East, the powers that be are probably inclined to just let things play out the way they may and allow time to take its course.
Depending on which side of the continent you live on, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Regardless of your perspective, however, it’s obvious that a more competitive Eastern Conference would improve the NBA’s product on the court and likely provide the league with better television ratings, more revenue and a heightened interest in the league as a whole. If only there was a way to permanently even things out and make things more unpredictable, the way the NFL and NHL have done over the last 10 or 15 years. After all, it’s the unpredictability of everything that adds to the real-life drama we call professional sports.