Why is the Western Conference Always the Best?
Amid a season chock-full of intriguing story-lines and amazing individual performances lies the horrifying wreckage that is the Eastern Conference’s bottom half. And like other monuments to humanity’s innate depravity (the smoking ruins of post-war Europe, the ghostly remnants of Chernobyl, Michael Bay’s career, etc.), the nightly abominations unleashed by the Bobcats, Wizards, Raptors, Pistons, and Nets compel the casual observer to reevaluate his or her assumptions regarding the meaning of life and the existence of God.
If you think me guilty of hyperbole, I suggest watching tape of a Nets-Bobcats matchup. You will never be the same.
The West is not, of course, without its own indigent underclass (the Hornets, Kings, and Warriors come to mind); yet these teams (with the exception of the Hornets) are not entirely without hope or appeal. Indeed, even fans of a highly dysfunctional franchise like the Kings can at least take comfort in their squad’s talented young core, which far surpasses anything the East’s bottom-feeders can field. The latter conference’s worst teams, meanwhile, find themselves in exceedingly desperate straits, and will likely be thus confined for the foreseeable future.
But this isn’t exactly a new development. The NBA’s post-Jordan era has, after all, been marked by the Western Conference’s singular dominance over its Eastern counterpart. Beginning with the 1999-2000 season, the former has produced nearly 72% of the total number of fifty-win teams, and 61% of sixty-win teams; during that same time-span, 20 teams with .500 (or worse) records have qualified for playoff seeds in the East (the West: 0); and, finally (and most importantly), ten of the last thirteen championships have been captured by teams residing west of the Mississippi. What’s more, the three Eastern squads (the 2004 Pistons, 2006 Heat, and 2008 Celtics) that managed to wrest titles away from the West’s iron grasp were not only regarded as underdogs prior to their eventual triumphs, but they also benefited from key injuries (Karl Malone in ’04, Andrew Bynum in ’08), internal discord (the ’04 Lakers), and/or questionable officiating (the 2006 Finals). Perhaps it’s unfair to completely discount those franchises’ achievements, but as the years pass they appear more and more as exceptions that merely prove the rule.
But why, exactly, have Western teams enjoyed this monopoly? What factors have allowed them to dominate the basketball landscape over the last decade and a half?
As is almost always the case in sports, luck has played an inordinately important role in determining the West’s dominance. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the Spurs would’ve enjoyed nearly as much success over the last fifteen years had it not been for a timely injury (David Robinson’s season-ending one during the ’97 season) and the fortuitous bouncing of lottery balls (the ’97 Draft Lottery, which landed San Antonio the #1 pick and, consequently, Tim Duncan). And it’s equally hard to imagine the Mavs transforming from a hapless doormat into a bona fide powerhouse, had the Bucks not gifted them Dirk Nowitzki’s draft rights in exchange for the legendary Robert “Tractor” Traylor.
Fortune and fate, however, can explain only so much, particularly in comparison with the following two factors.
The Western Conference has been blessed with a veritable surplus of managerial superstars: Mitch Kupchak, Donnie Nelson, R.C. Buford, Sam Presti, Daryl Morey, Kevin O’Connor, Masai Ujiri. Hell, even David Kahn(!) and Chris Wallace have demonstrated some aptitude of late. Creative and resourceful thinkers and strategists have often separated the wheat from the chaff in the NBA; it should thus come as no surprise that the West has enjoyed a run as dominant as any in league history over the last decade or so, given its monopoly on executive talent.
Meanwhile, the reputations of even the East’s leading lights are anything but unimpeachable, including those of: Gar Forman (the Carlos Boozer signing), Danny Ainge (the Kendrick Perkins trade), Joe Dumars (the Darko pick, the Chauncey Billups trade, and the Ben Gordon/Charlie Villanueva signings), Larry Bird (until recently considered one of the league’s less competent executives), and Otis Smith (the Rashard Lewis signing and the Dwight Howard Crisis). Only Pat Riley’s record remains relatively unblemished, and even his greatest triumph (i.e. the assembling of the Big Three) is one for which he can only claim partial credit.
One only has to observe the apparent immunity of some Western franchises to misfortune to realize the acuity of this discrepancy. The Rockets (Yao Ming) lost a superstar to injury, and the Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony) and Jazz (Deron Williams) lost theirs to the marketplace; and yet all three franchises have remained remarkably competitive in spite of these setbacks (though recent transactions by the Nuggets may prove this a premature evaluation). Meanwhile, Eastern teams that have faced similar circumstances (the Cavs sans LeBron, the Raptors sans Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, the Nets sans Jason Kidd, etc.) have proven much less impervious to the vicissitudes of the NBA, a phenomenon that can only be explained by the inability of the latter conference’s executives to supplement their best players with deep and talented supporting casts.
Creativity and Team Culture
For whatever reason, Western franchises have shown themselves infinitely more receptive to experimentation than their Eastern counterparts. From the the Spurs’ international scouting to the Seven Second or Less Suns, and from Mark Cuban’s unique managerial style to Daryl Morey’s statistical team-building methods, the former have oft been at the forefront of innovation.
The East, meanwhile, has found itself trapped within a self-perpetuating cycle of creative stagnation. Indeed, its teams are apparently betrothed to ideas that were fresh and daring in the early and mid- 1990’s, chief among them being a single-minded devotion to the “defense wins championships” philosophy that allowed talent-deficient squads like the Knicks and Heat to compete with their more gifted rivals (principally Jordan’s Bulls). There’s a reason why Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun style seemed so incongruous with MSG, and why the conference’s dregs are not only uncompetitive, but also unwatchable. And while the Kings and Warriors may be far from perfect (to say the least), they at least entertain; the same cannot be said for the Bobcats, Raptors, or Pistons.
Aside from the benefits derived from their liberality, Western franchises have also achieved success as a consequence of a institutional fortitude absent in many Eastern franchises. Whereas the Cavs, Raptors, and now the Magic seemed prepared to sell their souls to appease and retain superstars that, for all intents and purposes, already had one foot out the door, the Nuggets and Jazz sought a clean break as it soon as it became apparent that their stars were likely departing regardless. Is it even possible to imagine the Spurs bequeathing managerial power to Tim Duncan, as the Magic were or are apparently prepared to do in order to induce Dwight Howard to remain in Orlando? Or Sam Presti allowing Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook to sabotage Scott Brooks, as Carmelo did D’Antoni?
Of course not. No wonder the East sucks: dysfunction, incompetence, and inflexibility is a toxic brew indeed.