This week, I watched a panel of experts make their Championship predictions for 2015-16. All of them picked the Cavs to win the East, but all four of the experts picked a different team to win the West. One picked the Spurs, one the Clippers, one the Thunder, and one the Warriors. Lebron has been one of the few bright spots for the East and he’s expected to lead his team to an unprecedented 6th straight Finals appearance. In Contrast, the West has half a dozen legitimate title contenders again this year. While there has been great quality and depth in the West for a long time, the East has been so bad for so long, I wanted to dig into the numbers to see how long the East has been down.
Everyone knows the great Eastern Conference teams in the 80’s and 90’s–the Dr. J and Moses Malone Sixers, Bird’s Celtics, the Bad Boy Pistons, Jordan’s Bulls. Really only the Showtime Lakers and Clutch City Rockets kept the league even somewhat balanced those two decades. Those were the days for the teams in the East. That said, after Jordan’s last title in the 1997-98 season, the West has dominated the league ever since. And the numbers are staggering.
When the 2014-15 All-NBA Team was announced, I noticed that 12 players were named from the West and only 3 from the East. Looking back over the last 17 seasons since Jordan’s last championship shows that of the 85 spots on the All-NBA 1st Team, 57 have gone to Western Conference players (67%). Same with the 2nd Team (57 of the 85 spots) and 50 of the 85 spots on the 3rd Team went to players in the West. That’s 164 of the 255 All-NBA spots for just over 64%. During that span the West has won 11 of the last 17 MVPs as well. Take out Lebron’s four MVPs and only two other East players have earned the top individual honor (Iverson and Rose). In that same time, 9 different Western Conference players have taken home the hardware.
Individual honors are not the only way of determining which conference is better, though it does indicate which conference may have had more star power. However, the team numbers suggest the same thing. Over that same 17 year span, the average win total for a top seed in the West was 61.7 wins, compared to 59.2 wins for the average top seed in the East. (Note: I did not count the 50 game season in 1998-99 nor the 66 game season of 2011-12 in these average win totals.) The fewest wins a West #1 seed team has had was 57, but there were five East champs with fewer than 57 wins with a low of 52 in 2001-02. Further, the average win total for an 8th seed in the West was 45.7 compared to the East’s 39.5. The average win total for 9th seeds was 43.3 in the West and 37.4 for the East. Not only were the West playoff teams about 6 wins better than their Eastern counterparts, they did it against a schedule heavy with better Western Conference opponents.
When it comes to scoring, the numbers are similar. In the last 17 seasons, the average number of West teams in the top 10 in team scoring is 6.5. Only twice did the East make up half the top 10 scoring teams. The West had two seasons with 8 of the top 10 in scoring. Not once in those seasons did the East have more teams than the West in the Top 10 in scoring.
In terms of Championships, 12 of the last 17 NBA champions have come from the West. Only the Heat (3), Celtics (1), and the Pistons (1) won championships in the East. The West had the Spurs (5), Lakers (5), Mavs (1), and Warriors (1) all win. Not only are West teams winning more championships, but they are also winning them easily with a 57-38 (66.7%) Finals record against the East. The West scored two 4-0 series sweeps and four 4-1 wins compared to the East’s zero sweeps and two 4-1 series victories. In other words, over the last 17 seasons, the West has won 2 out of every 3 Finals game over the East.
|Average Wins #1 Seed||61.7||55.6|
|High Wins #1 Seed||67||66|
|Average Wins #8 Seed||45.7||39.5|
|High Wins #8 Seed||50||42|
|Average Wins #9 Seed||43.3||37.4|
|All-NBA 1st Team||57||28|
|All-NBA 2nd Team||57||28|
|All-NBA 3rd Team||50||35|
Similar to how the Showtime Lakers almost single-handedly kept the conferences balances, Lebron James has been one of the only redeeming factors in the East. Without Lebron, the East’s representation on the All-NBA teams would drop from 28 1st Teams to just 19. That’s only slightly more than one All-NBA First Team player per year over the last 17 seasons. Without Lebron’s 4 MVPs, the East would have 2 in 17 years. Without his 2 Championships, the East would have just two. Lebron has spent his entire career in one of the weakest conferences in NBA history. The question this year is whether the Bulls, Pacers, Heat, Hawks or Wizards can knock off Lebron, his bad back and his injured side kicks or will Lebron bulldoze his way through the East playoffs another year?