For the past several seasons, there’s never been any question about which conference is superior in the NBA. The Western Conference produces a handful or more teams with 50-plus wins each, and every season the Eastern Conference produces playoff clubs with records well below .500. It’s so bad that some want to realign the conferences to help solve the imbalance of power within the league. There are also discussions of completely getting rid of the current playoff structure and just seeding the top 16 teams regardless of conference. The East’s distinction of being the weaker conference for the past several seasons earned it a catchy nickname, the “Leastern Conference.”
There is really no arguing the fact that the West has clearly been better than the East for a long time. However, is the East finally catching up this season? Looking at the current standings, that very well could be the case. Right now, the Eastern Conference runs deep, as 10 clubs currently own records above .500. The West? That conference only has six clubs that make this claim so far. All of this begs the question: Has the East caught up and even potentially passed the West as the superior conference?
When you look solely at the top of both NBA conferences, the debate over which conference is better isn’t even fair. Right now, the West has three teams at the top that are all serious title contenders. First, you have the Golden State Warriors and their measly, single loss, putting their record at an impressive 24-1. Right behind the Warriors are the San Antonio Spurs with a very good record as well, 21-5.
After the Spurs are the Oklahoma City Thunder at 17-8, who are starting to hit their stride with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (the Thunder are currently riding an NBA high six-game win streak). In the entire league, these might be the top title contenders and they all play in the same conference.
The top three in the East are solid, but nowhere near the level of the West’s trio of great teams. Of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers are also a top flight title contender with LeBron James and company. They have a record of 16-7 to top the conference at the moment and should only get better once Kyrie Irving returns to the fold. After the Cavs are the Chicago Bulls at a solid 15-8 record.
In third in the East, currently, is the Indiana Pacers, who benefit from a great start by their now-healthy superstar, Paul George. Again, these solid teams are threatening, but they simply don’t match the West. After these top teams in each conference, however, things get much more interesting when analyzing which conference is better from top to bottom this season.
The East’s 4-10 teams all look strong early in the new season. The Miami Heat, currently fourth in the conference, sit with a record of 15-9 and a great roster led by Dwyane Wade and the rising Hassan Whiteside. After Miami is the Toronto Raptors at 16-10, then the Charlotte Hornets not far behind with the same number of losses. The Orlando Magic and the Detroit Pistons round out the current top eight in the East, both with records that are three games over .500.
Two teams on the outside of the top eight also hold winning records, those teams being the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks (last season’s No. 1 seed in the conference). In the West, you have the Los Angeles Clippers in fourth place with a record of 15-10. They will probably be a contender, too, in the conference with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on hand, but teams 5-10 in the West leave much to be desired.
Currently, the Dallas Mavericks are in fifth and the Memphis Grizzlies are in sixth, both winning teams that usually make the postseason. After that though, you have the Houston Rockets (currently two games under .500) and the Denver Nuggets (three games below the mark) filling out the top eight in the conference. If these standings feel like a role reversal, it’s true. The East has (for whatever reason) gotten stronger from top to bottom, and the West is suffering. But why?
For now, it’s probably too early to claim that the Eastern Conference is better than the Western Conference, despite what the standings might indicate. Most teams have only played about 25 games, meaning there is still a ton of season left. The struggling teams in the West will probably start playing better, and those that are playing so well in the East could fall off.
To bring perspective to the West’s struggles though, you have to understand that those top teams are very good, making those lower teams look much worse than they actually are. The Warriors had that historic 24-0 start, the Spurs are talented, and the Thunder are catching fire. Naturally, that type of success will cause the other teams in the conference to struggle. In the East, while there are some good teams, the discrepancy in talent from team No. 1 to team No. 10 is much lower than the West’s.
While the East may not be stronger at the top, their top-to-bottom strength has vastly improved, surpassing the West. This is because Eastern Conference teams have collected top talent in the draft for several seasons now, allowing them to improve this season. That’s why we see the Magic and Pistons the finding some success so far. Funny enough, the East might be even deeper than 10 solid teams, as the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards have yet to find their groove this season.
So, yes, it seems like the East has caught up to and even passed the mighty West in the NBA. It’s really about time and it should provide for a more thrilling playoff season once April rolls around.