For two decades, the NBA’s Western Conference has been superior to its Eastern Conference by multiple measures. While East teams have won championships in that time (seven of the last 20, a perfectly respectable rate), the West has typically had more elite teams at any given time, more star players, fewer truly bad teams, and far greater depth.
The disparity between depth of elite teams and overall conference depth has been the impetus behind the movement for universal playoff seeding, where the 16 best teams in the league regardless of conference make the postseason. (That movement has stalled in favor of play-in games and an in-season tournament, though it appears the NBA is interested in reseeding the final four teams.)
Every year around this time, an analyst or two will toss out a theory that conference imbalance is finally over, using some data point or another to prove their case. A popular statistic in these efforts is East vs. West head-to-head records; this is largely meaningless, especially just a quarter into the season. In the end, the West always reigns supreme: greater competition for All-Star nods, a better No. 9 seed than the East’s No. 8, more firepower at the top of the table.
But this year, seriously, for real, the East appears to have caught up in all but one category.
Let’s run down the key factors in conference balance.
The elite teams
The East has one team standing decently above the rest right now: the Milwaukee Bucks. So does the West: the L.A. Lakers. Each conference has another set of really, really good teams (Raptors, Sixers, Heat, Celtics in the East and Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets, Mavericks in the West). There’s no evidence that the group of West teams at the top of the table is any better than the East teams. In fact, including the Bucks and Lakers in the conversation, you’d probably give the nod to the East gauntlet. These teams are good!
The Clippers and Lakers were Nos. 1 and 2 in preseason title odds, and the Bucks have probably overtaken them both in most analysts’ minds. It’s not wishful to think the East will have an advantage in the NBA Finals, not this year.
The playoff field
The teams fighting for the low playoff seeds in the East at this early juncture are equal to or better than the teams fighting for the low playoff seeds in the West.
This was actually telegraphed a bit last season as in a rare occasion the West No. 9 seed (Kings, 39-43) were not better than the East No. 8 seed (Pistons, 41-41). Last season was a leading indicator that the West wasn’t as deep as it used to be. That’s holding up again this year, as the East No. 8 seed (Magic, 10-11) is better than not just the West No. 9 seed (Blazers, 9-13) but the West No. 8 seed (Suns, 9-11).
These records are all pretty close, but this is actual progress given how much worse the last playoff teams in the East are than teams that miss the playoffs in the West. Equal mediocrity is better than what we’ve seen in decades.
Even the bottom of the East is pretty similar to the bottom of the West these days.
Each conference has one completely uncompetitive teams (Knicks, Warriors), two more teams on pace to win fewer than 25 games (Cavaliers and Hawks in the East, Grizzlies and Pelicans in the West), and an assortment of mediocrities. This is parity!
Compare this to last season, when four of the five worst teams in the NBA were in the East.
This stuff actually matters when it comes to the NBA Draft — given that teams play the others in the conference more often, conference imbalance totally skews records and thus draft results at the bottom of the standings.
All that said, there is one non-standings area where the West is still superior: star power. The All-Star pool will reflect this when voters start looking at ballots in the next few weeks. Once again, there will be better Western Conference snubs than there are Eastern Conference candidates. We’ll talk about this more as we actually get into All-Star balloting. The gap may be dropping a little, but it’s still there. Just look at the unofficial MVP race: four of the six top candidates are in the West (James Harden, Luka Doncic, LeBron, Anthony Davis vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler in the East).