I’ve found all of the flap about how bad the Eastern conference has been this season pretty annoying. Annoying because it’s elaborating on the obvious. Annoying because it’s the same story we’ve been hearing for over a decade. And annoying because while everyone is talking about it, they’re all talking about it from the same angle. A few days ago, The Pest posted a closer look at this season’s Eastern conference, giving another perspective to the story. Now, I’m going to look at the recent history of the issue.
For the purposes of examining this era of the “Leastern Conference” I’m going to stick with the last 15 seasons (starting in 1998-99) as a definition of “recent” to make things simple and because Jordan’s departure from the Bulls is as fitting of a cutoff as any.
We can accept it as fact that the Western Conference has been somewhere between “better” and “much better” than the East over this period. I won’t belabor this much because anyone who’s been paying attention knows and has heard about it more than enough. Over these last 15 seasons, only one sub-.500 team has made the postseason in the West. In the East, there have been eight teams with a record below .500 make the playoffs and five teams make the playoffs with a .500 record exactly.
The same disparity exists on the top of the conferences. Ten of these last 15 (two-thirds) Championship winners have been from the West.
In one area, however, the East has dominated: parity.
Only 3 Western Conference teams have won those 10 Championships (Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks) and only 1 other team has even made it to the Finals (Oklahoma City). The same number of Eastern Conference teams (3) have won their 5 Championships and where the West has sent only 4 different teams to the Finals, the East has sent 9. The West won more championships, but being a deeper, “better” conference didn’t have anything to do with it. Most of the Championships belong to just two teams. For 7 straight seasons, and 11 of 12, only the Lakers and Spurs came out of the West. If Shaq had stayed in Orlando or an Eastern Conference team had gotten the #1 pick in 1997, the championship disparity might be gone or even favor the East. That’s a seismic shift based solely on the addresses of two tall people.
It’s also useful to note that the conferences have split championships 5/5 over the last decade, even though the West’s has been more dominant in inter-conference regular season play. As the East has gotten weaker overall, its share of the Championships has gotten bigger. A deeper West has not resulted in more champions.
As the articles about the terrible Eastern Conference have piled up this year, everyone wants to ask why this is happening and frequently, blame falls to management or ownership but are these owners really doing a worse job than their Western Conference counterparts? It’s nice that Denver hasn’t missed the playoffs in ten straight seasons but they only once made it beyond the first round and never had a true contender.
Minnesota during the Garnett years, the Suns during the Nash years, Portland, Utah… A lot of Western Conference teams have had regular season success without seeing the Finals. Most not even their conference Finals. These teams will be talked about in barber shops and and barrooms by ardent fans who remember the teams that had a shot and missed but outside of those states, they’ll be largely wiped from main stream memory. Who wants to hear about the Carmelo Nuggets who played while the Spurs and Lakers were dominating the NBA? Not many, outside of Colorado.
These things run in cycles and often times, the cycles depend on who the best couple of players are. Or rather, where they are. From 1999 to 2011, 10 of the 13 NBA Champions came from the West. But that followed a period from 1989 to 1998 where 8 of the 10 NBA Champions hailed from the East. As we know, a lot of those numbers have to do with where Michael Jordan got his mail. If Larry Bird had been drafted by a team out West, would Magic Johnson have made the Finals 9 times? Again, we’re talking about altering the conversation in drastic ways based on where two rich guys spend their Christmases.
The Detroit Pisons or New Jersey Nets haven’t had nearly as much regular season success over those years but by virtue of making a pair of NBA Finals both the Jason Kidd Nets and the Ben Wallace Pistons have a place in history, even among fans of other teams.
The caveat, of course, is that Denver fans never had to put up with a 12-win season or force themselves to root for the potential of Yi Jianlian like New Jersey had to. Since Detroit’s remarkable run of 6 straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances, they’ve fallen apart and have lost more than 60% of their games for 5 straight years.
The “Leastern Conference” jokes will continue but my Boston Celtics, horrible for most of these 15 years, have a Championship and the Utah Jazz don’t. I wouldn’t trade their 15 seasons for mine. I’m sure Detroit fans wouldn’t either.
As bad as the East has been this year, it still boasts two of the best teams in the league with the Heat and the Pacers. Arguably, these are the best teams in either conference. The East has at least as good of a chance of producing an NBA Champion as the West does and that’s what we’re all about, right? Win or go home. It sucks that there aren’t more true competitors in the East but only one of them gets a shot at the trophy anyway. And if the Heat make it a 3-peat or the Pacers win their first Championship in franchise history, that’ll be the third Eastern Conference team to win it all in a row. That counts as a streak, in my book.