While the Western Conference has long been the NBA’s marquee conference, could the East be quickly catching up?
For the past several seasons, conventional wisdom has been that the Western Conference was far superior to an East Conference filled with a middling collection of squads providing fodder for whatever LeBron James-led team was going to the Finals that year. However, the Eastern Conference, almost a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season, has been surprisingly strong, perhaps even better than the West. This statement is truly noteworthy considering the talent that departed the East last offseason: All-Star names like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Carmelo Anthony.
By the numbers, the East is 63-61 (as of 11/27) against the West; yes, the “lesser conference” actually holds a winning record against the powerhouse West that boasts teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Perhaps one of the largest reasons for the East’s resurgence is the near-invincible play of the East’s top two seeds (the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons) against the West; they are a combined 12-1 against non-Eastern rivals. But the East’s early success is primarily due to the overachieving of a number of teams, from which little was expected.
In Philadelphia, the Process™ that Sam Hinkie started all those many years ago appears to finally be coming to fruition, and ahead of schedule. After years of losing and gambling on high draft picks, the 76ers have finally found their franchise superstars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and their stellar play has staked Philly to an 11-8 record. Simmons has drawn comparisons to LeBron James, and is currently averaging a gaudy near triple-double with 18.1 points, 7.4 assists, and 9.1 rebounds while chipping in 2.1 steals per game. Embiid has shown his potential averaging a double-double with 22.8 points and 11.2 rebounds, trailing just New York’s Enes Kanter with the 17th best PER in the league at 23.74.
Another early Eastern surprise has been the New York Knicks who stand at 10-10, although they are currently regressing to the mean following consecutive dispiriting losses to the lowly Hawks and blowouts to the Rockets and Trail Blazers. The Knicks have remained competitive thanks (primarily) to three factors: Kristaps Porzingis, Jeff Hornacek, and Madison Square Garden. Porzingis you know about: All-Star (almost certainly) averaging 27.0 points per game, 7.2 rebounds, and currently leading the league in average blocks (2.2) and total blocks (40). Free from the triangle offense, Hornacek (and veteran floor general Jarrett Jack) has rejuvenated the Knick offense, currently 10th in the league in field goal percentage, eighth in assists, and fifth in offensive rebounding (which results in NYK ranking second in the league with 15.4 second-chance points per game). They also love their home cooking, as they are fantastic at MSG (9-4) and putrid on the road (1-6).
By far, the most surprising stat regarding these up-and-coming, overachieving teams is their strength of schedule (SOS) thus far. Although this stat is measured differently by different statisticians and is up for interpretation, John Hollinger’s (of ESPN) calculation of SOS reveals that many of these overachievers have played some of the hardest schedules thus far. The 76ers have had the hardest schedule (.536 SOS), followed by the Pacers (.529), Detroit (.525) and New York (.524), according to Hollinger’s calculations. Despite these uphill battles, all these teams are at or above .500.
On the other hand, the conferences are so comparable right now thanks to several underachieving teams in the West, most notably the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder. The LA Clippers also fit this label, although their problems can be summarized as being hit by injuries and the inability to replace Chris Paul’s contributions. Oklahoma City’s struggles are also easily explained away: they are accommodating two stars who have played as the number one options on their former teams in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, now learning a new way to play. They rank in the cellar of the league in many categories, FG% (27th), 3P% (25th), amongst others, as a result of constraining Russell Westbrook’s individual dominance to a three-star system, like 2011-12 OKC.
Photo: Sue Ogrocki-AP Photo
As for the Grizzlies, who recently fired head coach David Fizdale, their problems occur on the offensive end, as they rank 20th in field goal percentage, 29th in 3-point percentage and 28th in averaged points scored. The remnants of the grit-and-grind defense remain, as they rank towards the tops in many defensive categories like field goal percentage (fifth). With a lot of returning personnel, and evidenced by Fizdale’s ousting, perhaps Memphis’ struggles could be a matter of motivation.
Beyond just the ‘surprises,’ some advanced stats also illustrate the differences between the conferences. Four of the top five defensive teams (via defensive rating) are from the West: OKC, Trail Blazers, Spurs, and Warriors, yet the best in the NBA are the Boston Celtics. The top five offensive squads include the Warriors and Rockets (thanks to their 3-point barrages), but the next three are from the East: Toronto, Cleveland, and Indiana.
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While it is far too early to draw any meaningful conclusions from this sample size, the East seems more offensively focused, while the West appears to be a defensive powerhouse; this is a bit of an inversion from the conferences’ stereotypical roles. While there are no clear answers to which conference is better, the East/West debate is not the one-sided non-argument that many thought. Thanks to early surprises and the dominance of the East elites, the conference certainly maintains the ‘parity’ that many fans long for, with the second-seeded Pistons and 10th-seeded Bucks separated by just 3.5 games. While both have their respective doormats (the Bulls and Mavericks, primarily), the East has more teams top-to-bottom hanging around the .500 mark.
Perhaps scariest of all, many of these up-and-coming Eastern teams are led by youngsters, looking to create a new conference hierarchy for years to come; the East has Kyrie Irving (25 years old), Giannis Antetokounmpo (22), Porzingis (22), Embiid (23), and Simmons (21), all of whom could very well see their careers end with the Eastern Conference as the true powerhouse of the NBA. For now, many still consider the West the better conference (and will most likely win the NBA championship again this season), but the East is not as far behind as some pundits predicted during the preseason. The East’s success is far ahead of schedule, and it may be here to stay.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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