The 2018-19 season was a rare occasion of conference imbalance not being a complete NBA nightmare.
The Western Conference had more good teams than the East, without question, and there are far fewer games available against awful opponents for the West teams. But as opposed to normal circumstances, the best non-playoff team in the West — the 39-43 Sacramento Kings — was no better than the worst East playoff team, the 41-41 Detroit Pistons. As such, the 16 best teams in the NBA actually made the playoffs in 2018-19.
That’s the biggest issue with historic conference imbalance in the NBA: mediocre East teams often get rewarded with a playoff berth at the expense of good West teams simply because the West has a greater share of competitive teams and has for most of the past two decades. In the last 10 years, the West No. 9 has had a better record than the East No. 8 seed seven times.
It didn’t happen last season as the West only went eight good teams deep. But it’s almost assuredly going to return this season.
In the West, you have the eight playoff teams from last season, only two of which took big offseason losses. Of those, the Warriors will not fall under .500 barring a catastrophic injury to Stephen Curry. The Thunder could very well dither into the lottery range, especially if Chris Paul is traded or put on ice.
There to replace the Thunder as a “good” team: the L.A. Lakers, who are No. 2 in preseason title odds. So that leaves us even at eight good teams in the West before accounting for non-Lakers lottery teams who have reasonable designs on the playoff race. This includes the Mavericks (debuting Kristaps Porzingis), the Kings (who made a good run at it last year before coming up short), and the Pelicans (minus Anthony Davis put plus good vibes, Zion Williamson, and a team that makes sense). The Thunder loom as well if CP3 and Danilo Gallinari are healthy and stay on the roster.
Among the West’s 15 teams, only two are expected to scrape the cellar: the Grizzlies (full rebuild mode) and the Suns (just bad, though finally with a point guard). The other 13 could be competitive, with the aforementioned 12 in the playoff hunt. (As previously discussed, the Timberwolves have fallen completely out of the plot.)
What about the East?
The Eastern Conference has a bunch of interesting teams and two great teams (the Bucks and Sixers). You can make cases for the Celtics, Nets, Heat, Magic, Raptors, Pistons and Pacers to be competitive in the East. That’s all of last season’s East playoff teams plus Miami, which nabbed Jimmy Butler.
Here’s the issue: after Milwaukee and Philadelphia, would any of those teams be a sure bet playoff team in the West? Is there a chance that the No. 9 seed in the West — the Kings, Mavericks, Pelicans, Spurs, Blazers, Nuggets, or Thunder, depending on how things shake out — could be as good as the East No. 3 seed? They can’t possibly end up with a comparable record because the East No. 3 seed plays more games against the Knicks, Hornets, Wizards, and Cavaliers. But could we see a West team good enough to have first-round home court in the East miss the playoffs entirely?
It seems possible if just one of these West fringe teams breaks out and the East muddles along.
Would that spark the league into action on conference imbalance?
Would a totally boring East playoff bracket and a star like Zion or De’Aaron Fox or Luka Doncic staying home with a 45-win season do anything to move the needle?
No, it wouldn’t, because East franchises are both benefiting from the imbalance and blocking its reform.
The league office doesn’t blame the teams, but it’s clear that the commissioner is protecting those governors from an embarrassing vote. The league argues that seeding the top 16 teams in the NBA playoffs regardless of conference would pose additional travel problems, a fair point. That hardly seems a big enough reason to shirk an opportunity to make the playoffs more compelling and better reward smart team-building.
The only thing that could possibly work is shame, and the best spark for shame is a truly outrageous year of imbalance. So perhaps the brewing East-West nightmare scenario can become a net benefit for the NBA in the long-term, if it convinces a few more people influential in league circles to embrace change.