On April 20, 2016

The return of the East

In case you hate basketball enough to have ignored the NBA so completely as to have missed this, in which case you probably shouldn’t actually read this particular column—the big storyline in the NBA this season was the Golden State Warriors, who broke the all-time regular-season record for wins with 73, eclipsing Michael Jordan’s Bulls of ’95-’96. This feat was made possible by the chillingly spectacular play of point guard Stephen Curry, whose unreal, unstoppable long-range shooting has shattered long-held beliefs about what is possible on a basketball court like nothing else in recent history.

In any normal NBA season, the big story would have been the San Antonio Spurs, whose 67-15 regular-season record has tied them for the seventh-best mark of all time. The Spurs also became the first team to match the famous home-court prowess of the ’85-’86 Celtics, who lost only a single game at the Boston Garden that season; the Spurs, similarly, went 40-1 at the AT&T Center—undefeated until their second-to-last home game, when they fell to the aforementioned Warriors.

Meanwhile, the best team in the Eastern Conference was the respectable Cleveland Cavaliers at 57-25. Given the excellence of the Warriors and the Spurs, the Cavs, according to conventional wisdom (which I definitely don’t know enough about the NBA to try to refute), wouldn’t stand much of chance in the finals. For this reason, it’s easy, at first glance, to view the ’15-’16 NBA season as another standard example of the Western Conference’s post-Jordan dominance, which, given that 18 years have now passed since MJ left Chicago, is starting to get a little embarrassing. Since Jordan’s second retirement, the West has won 12 championships, compared to the East’s five; pretty soon, it’ll likely be 13.

But what has gotten lost this year, amid all the (rightful) oohing and ahhing over Golden State and San Antonio, was that, collectively, the Eastern Conference actually had its best season in recent memory, and the Western Conference its worst. For at least a decade, getting into the playoffs in the East has not been about being a good team; it’s been about being a slightly less horrible team than the other horrible teams in the conference. But look at the playoff bracket today: the weakest Eastern team still in the hunt is the Detroit Pistons at 44-38—not bad at all.

In fact, ’15-’16 marks the first season since ’04-’05 where the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference has boasted a record better than .500. It also marks the first season since ’98-’99 where the eighth seed in the Western Conference has failed to surpass .500. (In the lockout-shortened season before the new millennium, the Minnesota Timberwolves went 25-25, just qualifying for the playoffs in a tiebreaker against the Seattle Supersonics, following a year in which the Houston Rockets easily made the cut at 41-41.)

The ’15-’16 season is also the first since ’08-’09 where the Eastern Conference, as a whole, has won more than 600 games. The total number of games played in an NBA season is 1230. The West still held a small advantage this year with 622 wins against the East’s 608, but it’s worth noting that, as recently as ’13-’14, the East managed only 556 wins for the season, compared to the West’s 674—in two years, the gap has narrowed from 118 to 14.

The West, of course, is still better, but that superiority now rests at the top and at the bottom, not in the middle—which is to say that, in ’15-’16, teams in the Western Conference averaged slightly more wins than those in the Eastern Conference, but these averages were skewed by two uncommonly awesome teams leading the West and one uncommonly awful team dragging down the East (the Philadelphia 76ers, who, with just 10 wins, came within a single game of tying the 42-year-old record for the fewest victories in an 82-game season). In ’09-’10, eight teams in the West finished the season with 50 or more wins. Now that number is down to four, and the middle-of-the-road teams of the East (the Pacers, the Pistons, the Bulls, and the Wizards—the last of whom finished tenth in the conference with a 41-41 record) have outpaced their Western counterparts.

To what extent is any of this meaningful? Fans of Eastern Conference basketball don’t have the luxury of ignoring any glimmer of hope, no matter how small, but it doesn’t necessarily show that our future is bright: LeBron is getting old, and the league’s next big superstar appears to be Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota. But we can hope, and in the meantime, we can enjoy some higher-quality basketball than we’re used to.

It’s also possible, however, to view the relative deterioration of the Western Conference as an underrated determinant within the Warriors’ historic 73-9 campaign. “Strength of schedule” isn’t something you hear about in basketball as much as you do in football, but it’s still a real factor: since each NBA team faces opponents within its own conference twice as often as it faces non-conference opponents, playing in a weaker conference is a huge leg up. Would the Golden State Warriors of ’15-’16 have managed to pull off 73 wins within the superior Western Conference of ’13-’14, where there were very few easy victories to be had? We’ll never know, but I sort of doubt it.

When the Bulls won their 72 games in ’95-’96, their conference, too, was a little weaker than it would be in the following two seasons (619 wins, next to 647 and 648), when the Bulls would claim only 69 and then 62 victories en route to another pair of titles. Of course, Jordan and Pippen and Rodman were all getting older, too; but in a small way, looking at the surrounding teams shows how seemingly transcendent feats of greatness are actually enabled by the mundane conditions from which they arise—greatness exists only because others are not so great.

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