In This Article…
It’s no secret that the Eastern Conference is widely considered to be weaker than the Western Conference. And not by just a little — the difference is night and day. What’s often overlooked, however, is just how significant that fact is.
Specifically, a team’s location can play an important role in its playoff chances, any evaluation of its current strength, how its current win/loss record should be viewed… and its star player’s MVP chances.
East vs. West
Currently, there are 10 teams in the West over .500. Meanwhile, there are only 5 teams in the East over .500. This is the case even though these 10 Western Conference teams have played twice as many games against teams over .500. For some of the few winning East teams (“winning” being defined as being at or over .500), it’s possible that they would not be over .500 were they located in the West and playing ten more games against winning teams. In fact, it’s likely that only two or three of the five Eastern Conference teams over .500 would still be over .500 if playing in the Western Conference.
Let’s do the math on this. There are 10 teams over .500 in the West, and 5 teams over .500 in the East. Western Conference teams play each West team 4 times, and each Eastern Conference team 2 times (and vice versa for Eastern Conference teams). Therefore, a West team will play 40 games against the teams over .500 in the West (10 teams over .500, four times each), and 10 games against teams over .500 in the East (five teams, two times each), for a total of 50 out of 82 games against teams over .500.
Eastern Conference teams, on the other hand, will play 20 games against the teams over .500 in the East (five teams, four times each), and 20 games against the teams over .500 in the West (10 teams, two times each), for a total of 40 games out of 82 against teams over .500.
That means that Western Conference teams play 61% of their games against teams over .500, while Eastern Conference teams play only 48% of their games against teams over .500. That’s a pretty large difference.
Given this, it is that much more impressive that so many Western Conference teams have managed a winning record, despite a much more difficult schedule that includes more games against winning teams. Conversely, it becomes even more disturbing that, despite a much easier schedule that includes fewer games against winning teams, so few Eastern Conference teams are managing winning records.
East Is Least
The situation in the Eastern Conference appears even more bleak when considering how a winning team might fare if it played in the Western Conference. Toronto, for example, is only 5 games over .500. But if their schedule included 10 fewer games against losing teams, and 10 more games against winning teams, they might easily have three more losses (and, therefore, three fewer wins), resulting in a sub-.500 record of 24-26 — or worse, since 7-3 is very optimistic against ten winning teams.
The same could be said of Cleveland. If four of their wins had been losses instead, they would be just under .500 at 24-25. And that’s not much of a stretch to imagine — if the Cavs went 6-4 against ten winning teams, we’d consider that a significant accomplishment. In fact, their 14-10 (.583) record against the West would seem to indicate that 6-4 would be a likely number.
Even Orlando, despite its solid 32-21 record, could easily have a losing record in the West. They’re currently 11-12 (.478) against the Western Conference, so if they played 10 more games against the best of the West, it’s conceivable that they could lose 6 of them — which would give them a 26-27 record.
Why It Matters
The first thing that comes to mind when discussing the disparity between the two Conferences is competitiveness. Specifically, many have complained that the NBA Finals are uninteresting because they are not competitive, and that the “real” NBA Finals is actually the Western Conference Finals. Some have even gone so far as to petition for a change to the current Playoffs seeding method, suggesting alternative Playoffs formats that might be more competitive.
While this is all true, there are several other ways in which the disparity between the Conferences can be a serious factor.
One of these is in evaluating a team, with regards to both its past performance and its future outlook. When looking at a team’s record, for example, it’s important to take into account the stregth of the team’s schedule. For instance, Portland Trailblazer fans and New Orleans Hornets fans have every reason to be very excited. Not only do their teams have better records than anyone thought they would, but they’re doing it in the stacked Western Conference. In the Eastern Conference, they would likely be in the top four teams.
On the other hand, Cleveland Cavaliers fans and Toronto Raptors fans should take their clubs’ winning records with a grain of salt. While these two teams have moderate winning records, their decent performance this season has to be seen as slightly above mediocre, at best, when seen in the context of the weak Eastern Conference in which they play.
Similarly, a team’s location should also be taken into strong consideration when evaluating a team’s future outlook. When “Power Ranking” teams, therefore, teams that are doing well and are expected to continue or even improve in the West should receive more attention than those that are doing the same in the East.
Therefore, the Lakers — who have won 7 of their last 10, could soon be in the top three in the West, and still have the further integration of Pau Gasol and the return of Andrew Bynum to look forward to — should be heavily favored in terms of future potential. While Boston is in a similar situation — 7-3 in the last 10 and missing Kevin Garnett — the edge should go to the Lakers because they are doing the same thing in a much tougher context.
NOTE: On the other hand, Boston may be the only team exempt from this line of thinking, since they have won ALL of their games against the West.
Similarly, the Utah Jazz — which have won 11 out of 12 and 17 out of 20, and are on an absolute tear — should receive the nod over Detroit, despite the Pistons current 9-game winning streak.
The MVP Debate
The MVP debate is one area in which the Conference in which an MVP candidate plays rarely seems to be taken into consideration. However, I would suggest that location should be very important in weighing candidates.
Aside from being “most valuable,” there is only one other stipulation added to the criteria for MVP candidates: They must come from a team that wins at least 50 games in a season. (And often, the voters are looking more towards 55 wins and up.) However, as we have already seen above, not all games are equal, and neither are all schedules.
There are currently two MVP candidates from the East (Kevin Garnett, LeBron James), and two from the West (Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant). Of these four, three of them are on track for 50+ wins this season. Only LeBron’s Cavs do not meet that criteria, being on track for 46 wins this season.
But LeBron’s candidacy should be even further qualified by the Conference in which he plays. His Cavs are 14-10 against the West. Therefore, it is likely that if they played 10 more games against Western Conference teams with winning records, they would lose at least 4 of them. Therefore, the Cavs’ current 46-win pace in the East is equivalent to a 42-win pace in the West.
Garnett’s Celtics have a perfect 16-0 record against the West. However, of those 16 games, only 6 have been against Playoffs-bound teams, and only 8 have been against winning teams. Meanwhile, Western teams should have played approximately 31 games against other Western teams over .500 by now. Given that, it’s safe to say that the Celtics have been tested minimally, at most.
Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and Chris Paul’s Hornets are one and a half games apart and two games back in the race for the best record in the West. Both teams have won 7 of their last 10 games. Based on the grueling schedules of Dallas and Phoenix, potential integraton issues with Shaq and the Suns, a soft schedule for L.A., and the impending return of Andrew Bynum, it’s possible that these two teams could soon have the two best records in the West.
Unlike Cleveland, these two teams are on track for more than enough wins to qualify their respective leaders for MVP consideration. The Hornets are on pace for 57 wins and show no sign of slowing; the Lakers are on pace for 55 wins, and could increase that pace once Bynum returns.
Unlike Boston, which is simply meeting expectations, neither of these teams was expected to be even half this good before the season started — a fact which makes their success even more impressive, especially in the West.
And unlike both Boston and Cleveland, these two teams have had to do it in the West — and have risen to the occasion.
While there may be other considerations that separate one from the other in terms of MVP contention, the main emphasis here is location, and the effect that location has on strength of schedule, so those other points can be discussed at a later date.
One thing, however, must be clear at this point: Assuming things continue as they are — as they have all season long — there are two clear candidates. Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant, both of whose teams have surprised everyone and are on track for 55+ wins in the ultra-dominant Western Conference, are the only reasonable options for MVP at this point.