Location, Location, Location

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.

This leaves us with two Eastern Conference teams ‐ three, max — that we can say with confidence would still have a winning record if they played in the West: Boston, Detroit, and maybe Orlando.

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.

Filed Under Chris Paul, East vs. West, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, MVP | 12 Comments

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12 Comments so far
  1. Linkage - Feb 14 : AltRaps Blogs says...February 14, 2008 6:40 am

    [...] – RespectKobe [...]

  2. Happydaze says...February 15, 2008 12:08 pm

    Thanks for this article. I get so tired of comparisons between players like Duncan/Howard, Nash/Kidd, and of course the one I hate most, Kobe/James.

    Regarding the constant comparisons between Kobe and LeBron…and yes I acknowledge James as a great, great player.
    That said, James plays in the EAST! Do we honestly still take stats in that conference seriously? Out west, when Kobe drives to the hoop, he first has to get by his man — often a perimeter defensive specialist along the lines of Bruce Bowen or Raja Bell — and then meets Duncan, or Camby, or Yao, or Chandler, or any other of the numerous Western Conference big men who are so adept at blocking/altering shots from the weak side. Beyond Garnett, Wallace, and Howard, who in JV land is stopping James in the paint? Emeka Okefor? Dalembert? Shaq 0.0? Nenad Krstic? Not to mention the fact that there are far less good perimeter defenders out east to stop penetration in the first place. You’ve got to be kidding me. The Cavs wouldn’t have even made it out of the first round last year if it hadn’t been for the Wiz missing 2 of its big 3. Kobe plays a far greater proportion of his games against superior competition (20 more games in the West than James, which means 20 less games against the LEast), yet even before Bynum the Lakers had a better overall winning percentage than the Cavs, and the Cavs don’t have to deal with Kwame “Stone Hands” Brown.
    Anyways, sorry for such a long rant. Been wanting to get that off my chest for a while and I just found this site. Have a good one.

    Happydaze

  3. The Apologist says...February 15, 2008 2:33 pm

    @Happydaze,

    You’re welcome, thanks for reading!

    You know, I honestly wish I didn’t have to spend so much time on the Kobe vs. LeBron debates — especially because I think LeBron is incredible, and don’t much enjoy arguing against him. It’s just that Kobe is better, much better, and will be for a while to come, still. So I guess I see it more as arguing for Kobe, rather than against LeBron.

    On taking stars in the Eastern Conference seriously: I don’t want to not take them seriously, but I think I know what you mean. Those guys you mentioned are leading their teams to very solid accomplishments in the super-stacked West. So, if their Eastern counterparts were on their level, they’d be doing even greater things in the ultra-weak East. (I mean, I think we can all be done with the Kobe/Wade debate by now, right?) So, because they’re playing in the East, those guys can’t be said to be on the same level as their Western counterparts until they start leading their teams to even better records, achieving even bigger accomplishments, than those guys in the West. (Seriously — it’s not just about matching efforts. If the two conferences were equal, I’d say they’d need to accomplish the same things. But because the East is so weak, they need to accomplish more to be considered on the same level.)

    I found your comments regarding big men in the East vs. West very interesting. I went through the depth charts and rosters of every team in the league, and realized you are completely right. The only strong defensive big men in the East are Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett. In the West, on the other hand, you have Bynum, Chandler, Yao, Duncan, Camby, and Boozer. Beyond that, the East has two or three good defensive teams (teams that could clog the lane more with team defense and rotations than with a big body), while the West has at least 7 or 8 good defensive teams. So, all in all, I think you make a great point.

    Another point I’d like to make is actually to reference something recently said about Dwyane Wade, but which I think applies to James as well. In the Miami Herald (certainly not a source from which one would expect a pro-Kobe, anti-Wade bias), Israel Gutierrez said the following:

    [Dwyane Wade] will have to be the efficient scorer who can fill it up in a variety of ways, rather than relying on a handful of pet moves that defenses come to expect.

    How very accurate. Kobe can score from anywhere. Check that — Kobe does score from anywhere. From everywhere. In virtually every possible way. Wade doesn’t.

    The same is true with LeBron. LeBron fans like to dismiss Kobe’s far superior jumpshot, and their favorite thing to do is marvel at how LeBron is “so strong” and “can just go through people.” The problem is that, especially in the playoffs where a team has a chance to really tailor their defense to their opponent, teams can adjust to that (Spurs, anyone?). That’s why Kobe is so much more dangerous than James. When teams take away James’ driving, what has he got? Not much of a jumpshot, that’s for sure. When teams try and take away Kobe’s driving? He shoots the lights out. When they play up on him to make him miss jumpshots? He goes straight to the rim.

    That’s what Kobe’s unparalleled versatility does. You can’t defend him; all you can do is cross your fingers and pray that he has a bad night, which is rare. But LeBron and Wade have much less versatile games, and you can develop an effective defensive scheme against them. That’s where your point comes in: In the East, there isn’t enough defensive strength or size to do so with any consistency. But the West has the size, strength, and defensive ability to do just that. And until his jumpshot is a killer, the Western team will beat him every time he gets to the Finals. They’ll just take away his ability to drive, and he won’t have anything to fall back on.

    Anyhow… good points, Happydaze. Come around for a rant any time you feel the need.

  4. Happydaze says...February 15, 2008 5:12 pm

    Thanks a bunch. Yeah, I don’t like to pick on James, as he in an incredible player, I just get tired of the free pass he gets.
    Really true about Kobe’s scoring range btw. I hadn’t even touched on how the reason the Cavs had no chance in the Finals was because James finally went against a team with the bodies to clog the lane. I always think it’s funny when slashers like Wade and James come out West on road trips and their fg% drops as they drive less and less while WC slashers like Kobe, CP3, Gino, have career highs in the east because all of a sudden they can drive and not get crushed at the rim.
    Also, I have a question. I don’t think Kobe would have stood a chance in the 3-point Shootout, because its hard for him to shoot without someone in his face. Seriously, I don’t know that he can shoot without pressure on him. Maybe he would have had a chance with someone chest bumping him on his shot. Anyways, how do you think he would have done?

  5. The Apologist says...February 20, 2008 9:24 am

    @Happydaze,

    Also, I have a question. I don’t think Kobe would have stood a chance in the 3-point Shootout, because its hard for him to shoot without someone in his face. Seriously, I don’t know that he can shoot without pressure on him. Maybe he would have had a chance with someone chest bumping him on his shot. Anyways, how do you think he would have done?

    Actually, I see it a bit differently. What you’re getting at is the fact that Kobe can — and will — hit those shots, especially those 3-pointers, with defenders draped all over him, in a way that probably no other player ever has. However, the way I see it, it’s not that the presence of the defender is the key. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

    I think the presence of the defender is absolutely and completely irrelevant to Kobe. That’s why he shoots so well even when he’s so well defended — because to him, it’s as though he weren’t defended. It doesn’t matter. The defense is irrelevant; it might as well not be there.

    The result is the same; the reason is vastly different.

    And remember, we really only know one thing: We know Kobe can shoot, and make those shots, with defenders draped all over him. We really have almost no in-game experience of how Kobe shoots unguarded. Why? Because he’s always guarded. In fact, he’s usually double teamed. But I don’t think he makes those shots because he’s so thoroughly guarded; I think he makes them in spite of that.

    So how do I think he would have done in the 3-Point Shootout? Well, let’s talk pre-injury here. (And by pre-injury, I’m talking pre-New Jersey, where he originally injured it.) I think that with a health shooting hand, he had as good a chance as any of those three-point specialists out there of winning it. After the injury, somewhat reduced chances. And after the re-injury, no chance.

    See, here’s the thing to keep in mind: In practice, these guys hit virtually all their shots. These 3-point marksmen? They’re not missing those shots in practice. Period. Kobe? I don’t think he misses very much of anything, from anywhere, in practice.

    But it’s different in games, when they’re well defended and playing under more pressure. And it’s also different on a national stage, when they pressure is on. And that’s one reason why I think Kobe would have as good a chance as any of them. Because he has an unparalleled ability to block everything else out and exist in a completely separate and uninterrupted universe.

    All that said… I’m glad Kobe made the smart decision, the one that was best for the Lakers, and played a couple uneventful minutes in the All-Star Game and then sat out, and withdrew from the shootout.

  6. Happydaze says...February 20, 2008 1:07 pm

    All that said… I’m glad Kobe made the smart decision, the one that was best for the Lakers, and played a couple uneventful minutes in the All-Star Game and then sat out, and withdrew from the shootout.

    Agreed. Was really looking forward to seeing how he would do, though. Good points, and probably right.

    Happydaze

  7. The Apologist says...February 20, 2008 2:32 pm

    @Happydaze,

    Was really looking forward to seeing how he would do, though.

    Hmmm, indeed. I know what you mean. For example, I’m fairly certain the West wouldn’t have lost. I also know that there is no other All-Star that takes the game as seriously as Kobe does when he plays, simply because no one else is as competitive and serious about winning as Kobe is, regardless of who and when he’s playing. So I feel you on that, for sure. And I was really intrigued to see him take part in the 3-Point Shootout. Maybe next year. I just know the Lakers really need him, and yet can’t afford to see him get re-injured, right now.

  8. Kobe Bryant: MVP : Respect Kobe says...February 21, 2008 8:27 am

    [...] the Western Conference is far, far superior to the Eastern Conference. Therefore, a player’s accomplishments in the West should be weighted more heavily than similar accomplishments in the [...]

  9. What Is My Issue With LeBron? : Respect Kobe says...March 4, 2008 8:37 am

    [...] over the past two years) are worth more than LeBron’s this year, because of the respective strength and weakness of their conferences. Finally, I made the case for Kobe Bryant as MVP, and in so doing revisited why LeBron should not [...]

  10. xrism says...March 29, 2008 8:38 pm

    Another fact that should be examined in this Lebron/Kobe MVP debate is the fact that Lebron plays with THREE other All Stars, one of which is a 4 time Defensive Player of the Year. Those THREE other All Stars have combined for 7 All Star appearances in the past 6 years. There is also the defensive aspect, which seems to go out the window with a lot of MVP voters. As far as I remember, defense is still one of the most important fundamentals a player can have. Players that have Lebron guarding them are averaging .50% shooting which means you DO want Lebron to guard you.

    Kobe, on the other hand plays with ONE, One Time All Star Pau Gasol.

    Gasol is having his career best season field goal percentage (.581) playing with Kobe. Same thing goes for Odom (.515). 5 Lakers are having career seasons with Kobe as their leader. Kobe’s defense is FAR superior to Lebrons. Players that have Kobe guarding them are averaging .44% shooting which means you dont want Kobe guarding you.

  11. Josh Tucker (The Apologist) says...April 2, 2008 8:15 am

    @xrism,

    Very interesting points that are worth exploring. I’ve certainly made the point that LeBron’s team is not great, but not nearly as bad as the Lakers were in the last couple years, especially 2 years ago.

    The defensive statistics are interesting, and definitely a start. However, you have to account for position, as well. Now, small forwards should not be shooting .500 against a good defender. However, if they were shooting .460 or .470, I wouldn’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that Kobe’s opponents shoowing .440 is better, since Kobe guards guys that play farther out and take more jumpshots.

    Also, team defense has to factor into this as well. This is where it gets really difficult to evaluate defense. How do you evaluate a player’s team defense? It’s not always about man-to-man defense. There are some newer statistical models that attempt to measure a player’s defensive efficiency, even taking into consideration team defense. I haven’t really had the opportunity to dive deeply into those types of statistics yet, but I’m sure at some point we’ll get there.

    Your point about Kobe’s teammates always improving is a great one. I have yet to do the full, in depth research on this topic. But from my preliminary impressions, I seem to be seeing a general trend that shows good players getting worse when they play with LeBron, and decent players getting better when they play with Kobe. Again, I don’t want to jump to that conclusion. We really need to evaluate this completely, and in context, and I insist on reserving judgment until I have done the research. But it’s an interesting first impression, and if it holds true under the microscope, then it’s a very telling fact, indeed.

    Thanks for your insights. Great ideas, and I’ll have to investigate some of this stuff further.

  12. [...] the key to a Hornets team that has surprised everyone this year, boasting the best record in the ultra-competitive West. With his Hornets on pace for a 58-win season after having won only 39 games last season with [...]


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