If you follow the NBA at all, then you know that the Western Conference has owned the Eastern Conference over the last several years — 16 years to be specific.
Yes, the West has had a better head-to-head record against the East in 15 of the last 16 NBA seasons! That’s not just amazing, it’s pure dominance. For the record, the East finished 12 games above .500 against the West in 2008-09 — a season in which the Lakers still wound up champions (and can thank Kevin Garnett’s season-ending knee injury for the hardware).
Other than that, the last time the East topped the West on the season was 1998-99 — a lockout shortened season in which the Spurs handled the eight-seeded Knicks in the NBA Finals. Go back any further, and now we’re in the Jordan Era to find a time in which the Eastern Conference was king.
On the surface, it appeared that last season was when the West was at the peak of it’s powers. They had the 67-win Warriors atop the standings, and a 45-win Thunder team that missed out on the postseason. Things seemed almost unfair.
However, in reality, if the NBA were to make a rule change allowing simply the best 16 teams to make the playoffs (regardless of conference), it may be the West that sees the most immediate benefits.
The West’s true peak was in 2013-14, fittingly enough when the Spurs knocked off the reigning back-to-back champion Heat. They were 118 games over .500 against the east that season, the best winning percentage against the East in their historic run.
Despite the perception, the West was just 76 games over .500 against the East last season. That’s still dominant, but the proof is in the pudding. The Eastern Conference was improving.
It’s still early, but 2015-16 could be that tipping point. So far it’s the East that owns a 20-16 winning record against the West, including six of the top-10 overall records in the NBA. For comparison, Eastern Conference teams only held five of the top-14 overall records last year — one of which was the Wizards, who currently sit out of playoff position at 3-4 so far this season.
Should the Cavs still be considered such heavy favorites to win their way out of the East again this season? Yeah, probably. They still have the same team with LeBron on it. That alone qualifies them as the best team in the conference.
As is the case with all situations like this, it’s not just one-sided. The West has lost a step. Sure, the 9-0 Warriors look better than ever, and it’d be silly to ignore the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers. But after that, the bottom half of the playoff bracket doesn’t appear nearly as dangerous as it did last season.
We won’t see change right away. From everything I just told you, it still seems clear that the Cavs and Warriors are favored to do battle again in the Finals this season. But change is on the horizon. It’s time to stop sleeping on teams in the East.
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