What Happened to the NBA’s Western Conference?
Wednesday, January 06, 2016
In recent years, the NBA’s Eastern Conference has been labeled a laughing stock. At the culmination of the 2014-15 season, three playoff teams in the East finished at or below .500. That prompted some discussion that the best 16 teams in the league should make the playoffs, regardless of what conference they play in.
Fast-forward to 2015-16, however, and the plot has flipped 180 degrees. Now, instead of the Eastern Conference bringing up the rear, the Western Conference is the weaker collective entity – and it’s not particularly close in terms of win/loss records.
So what happened to the West's dominance? PointAfter dove into the numbers to uncover why we're seeing such a dramatic shift.
Note: All stats referenced are accurate as of Jan. 4, prior to games played.
Eighty-two represents the total amount of games below .500 the conference’s nine sub-.500 teams are through late December. By comparison, only five teams are below the .500 mark in the East.
The Los Angeles Lakers lag far behind at the caboose (a whopping 19 games under .500). The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, have experienced an absolute freefall. They’ve lost nine straight games, including losses to the lowly Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, as well as suffering a 23-point loss to the Sacramento Kings (in which Phoenix allowed 142 points in regulation). The implosion prompted owner Robert Sarver to blame the team’s woes on “millennial culture.”
Even the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz – two teams currently in the playoff picture – have not won as many games as they’ve lost.
In the East, on the other hand, both the Charlotte Hornets (17-16) and Detroit Pistons (18-16) sit outside the top eight in the conference despite sporting winning records. It’s a narrative basketball fans have seen before, just not in the wild West.
Part of the reason for the balance of power evolving in the West is the brute strength atop the standings. The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have combined for a 53-6 conference record. These three juggernauts routinely bully Western Conference foes.
There’s been far less parity out West because the top three teams in the conference continue to be so dominant. Seven teams in the Western Conference finished with 50 wins or more a season ago. It appears increasingly less likely that we’ll see more than three (maybe four) win that many this time around.
The Portland Trail Blazers lost four starters from a year ago, so it’s understandable that they’d regress. Utah and New Orleans have both been hit by waves of injuries to explain their woes, but it’s still remarkable how much change we’ve seen in just a matter of months.
The No. 6, 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference currently are the Memphis Grizzlies, Jazz and Rockets, respectively. That trio combines for an average point differential of -5.1 points per game.
For some added perspective, not a single team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture has a negative point differential right now. At the end of last season, only the No. 8 seed Brooklyn Nets in the East had a negative scoring differential out of all the squads that made it to the postseason.
Teams out West have channeled the stink of the East from a season ago, and perhaps no team is more confounding than the Rockets.
After making a run to the Western Conference Finals a season ago behind MVP-caliber play from James Harden and impressive team defense, Houston has been an enigma. Head coach Kevin McHale was fired after a 4-7 start, and interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff hasn’t exactly been the savior – leading the Rockets to a 12-12 mark.
The Rockets’ offensive numbers are actually quite similar to a season ago. It’s the defense that’s caused problems.
For a wide array of reasons, multiple Western Conference teams are facing identity crises. The Warriors, Spurs and Thunder pose lethal threats to opponents, but now the East has taken over as the most competitive conference top to bottom.
Heck, even the Philadelphia 76ers’ lone three victories occurred against Western Conference foes (Lakers, Suns and Kings).
It just goes to show how volatile the league can be. One of last year’s biggest story lines has been turned on its head, and it’s been truly bizarre to behold.
Note: This article originally appeared on SI.com through PointAfter's partnership with Sports Illustrated.
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