After the NBA’s Christmas showcases were all in the books, the Eastern Conference had dropped the only one that involved one of its teams squaring off against the loaded West. Defending champion Golden State held off Cleveland, pulling out the cover in a game that was tightly contested throughout.
Again, riding the conference that has been the superior one for going on two decades proved to be profitable, but going with that angle wouldn’t exactly have been sharp if you were aware of recent trends. The Warriors’ win was just the 99th the West has pulled out over the East in 246 games entering Tuesday’s slate.
While a 147-99 edge in interconference play may seem trivial considering it’s late December, this is a wild development among NBA circles.
The West has beaten the East head-to-head 17 times over the last 18 regular seasons. The disparity between the conferences hasn’t gone unnoticed. Even the most casual observer has been aware that the more attractive, effective ball has mostly been played outside of the Eastern time zone.
The LeBron James-led Cavs and Heat have picked off a title this decade while Boston and Detroit returned to prominence for a spell last decade, but the fact is the West has been best with little room for debate.
With talent like Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler moving to the East, there was trepidation that games between the conferences would be less competitive than ever. The All-Star format won’t even be East vs. West anymore since the top two vote-getters will get to pick their teams, playground-style. There’s an underlying reason to that little tweak.
In head-to-head competition, the West was 42 games over .500 against the East during the 2016-17 regular season, up from a plus-14 in 2015-16. That had been the closest the East had come to competing with the West besides their plus-12 finish in ’08-’09. Between 2012-15, the Eastern Conference had lost 268 more head-to-head meetings against the West over that span.
While it remains to be seen whether they can maintain the advantage they’ve built up, don’t let Golden State’s takedown of Cleveland despite the absence of Stephen Curry fool you into a false sense of confidence that order will be restored.
The 76ers-Knicks and Wizards-Celtics matchups showcased talent that is on par with what West teams bring to the table. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Kristaps Porzingis, John Wall, Bradley Beal, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum are all incredible talents with their best days ahead of them.
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Charlotte’s Kemba Walker are all having tremendous seasons and rank among the NBA’s best at their positions, so the fear that the East would suddenly grow even more inferior appears to be misguided.
There are still some bad teams in the East – Atlanta and Chicago may wind up vying for the league’s worst record – but most of the hopeless reside out West now. Consider that the Blake Griffin-less Clippers, injury-riddled Grizzlies perennial doormat Kings, slumping Mavs and painfully young Lakers and Suns are among the NBA’s bottom 12 and the sense the West is substantially deeper dissipates.
With Golden State still far and away the NBA’s best team when completely healthy and Houston currently running No. 2, the East will continue to play second fiddle. It’s just no longer as clear-cut as it has been over most of the past few decades.
Suddenly, one can argue the East will be more compelling over the next few months. How will Isaiah Thomas’ return affect Cleveland’s ability to pull away? Can the Wizards piece things together to run away with the Southeast or will a Heat team that now has center Hassan Whiteside back replicate last year’s sizzling second-half to emerge as a major factor? Toronto passed Boston by percentage points when the Celtics fell to the Wizards on Christmas night and has been one of the league’s best bullies, dominating inferior competition. Can they finally take the next step?
Over the course of the next week, we’ll get to see the Raptors visit the Thunder on Wednesday for a potential statement game and will be treated to the Rockets visiting Boston on Thursday at the same time as the Timberwolves visit Milwaukee and the 76ers invade Portland.
Hopefully, Chris Paul is healthy enough to team up with James Harden against Wall and Beal to set up a battle of elite backcourts on Friday in D.C. The Greek Freak leads the Bucks into Oklahoma City that night. Saturday, Porzingis faces fellow unicorn Anthony Davis and New Orleans while Embiid meets Denver’s Nikola Jokic in a battle of elite young big men.
Suddenly, none of these East-West matchups appear to be mismatches. It’s going to take time to overcome the stigma that nearly two decades of inferiority has correctly established, but we could start seeing a lot more parity in interleague play, which is something we may be able to take advantage of before books adjust.