Coaches aren’t eager to discuss it. Players on either side recognize it, but can’t explain it.
Ask anyone who reads the standings or watches the NBA, and the gap between the Eastern and Western Conferences is becoming less of a rift and more of a canyon.
The divide is marked not only by the records, but the fact it has hardly ever ebbed and flowed. The Western Conference’s nearly 14-year trend of beating up on its Eastern Conference brethren is just about the closest thing the league has to permanence.
There’s no easy answer to the disparity. When various entities around the league — owners, general managers, coaches, players and media — were asked what to ascribe the long-standing gap to, there were a variety of answers but mostly curiosity as to why it exists in the first place.
Many of these same sources offer a range of solutions to bridge the divide, including scrapping divisions entirely, trading out franchises across conference lines and balancing the schedule.
With the Pelicans embarking on a nine-day, five-game road trip to face Eastern Conference opponents, widely viewed as the team’s best opportunity to string wins together and finally leap over its two-month morass in mediocrity, the topic has emerged in New Orleans.
When asked about the difference between the two sides, Pelicans’ coach Monty Williams is quick to point out that the East features quality teams in its upper echelon like Chicago, Atlanta, Washington and Toronto. Even the world’s most famous player, LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, reside in the East.
New Orleans has lost its previous four games against the opposing conference, sporting a 4-7 record against the supposedly inferior side this year. The Pelicans are the only team among the Western Conference’s 10 playoff contenders saddled with a losing record against East opponents.
And unless this road trip helps flip the Pelicans’ record around, they could be looking at a difficult climb into the playoff race, which will likely require 50 wins just to snag the No. 8 seed in the West.
While the divide is exaggerated this year, it’s nothing new.
Over the past decade, the West’s No. 8 seed has averaged nearly seven more wins than the East’s No. 8 seed. At least one lottery team from the West has finished with a better record than an Eastern Conference playoff team during that span.
In fact, the ninth-place team in the West has outperformed 2.5 East playoff teams, on average.
Since 2000, only once has the East won more than 50 percent of its games (2008-09 when it won 50.5 percent) against the West. It’s not as if the differences lie within the margin of error, either.
The West won greater than 55 percent of the head-to-head matchups in 12 of the past 14 years, surpassing 60 percent twice. Entering Sunday, the West had already compiled a 135-81 record this season (63 percent).
The road to the postseason is undoubtedly harder on one side of the bracket. And no matter what data is unearthed, the question that always rises is: What separates the two leagues?
In an email exchange with The Advocate, outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban pointed to this as the key issue when asked if he could simply define why there’s so much teeth-gnashing and quiet conversations in the league office about balancing out the discrepancy between the two sides of the league.
It’s not about market size. See: New York Knicks (5-35)
It’s not about financial security. See: Brooklyn Nets (14-20)
It’s not about basketball-rich history: See: Boston Celtics (12-22)
The key, according to most NBA experts is the long-term planning necessary to build a contender through the draft and scouting in a way that large sums of money and chunks of salary cap aren’t gobbled up by the wrong players. Clearly, the Eastern Conference has had more franchises fail to execute this model over 15-year period.
None of the East’s coaches or even general managers remain from the 1999-2000 season, so the only consistent direction coming out of the franchises sits in the owner’s box.
“If you don’t have a good owner, who gets what’s important, it just kills the franchise,” ESPN NBA expert Zach Lowe said on a recent podcast. “That’s a part of this people rarely look at but may be the most important piece to success.”
2. Style of play
Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday spent the first four years of his career with the Philadelphia 76ers, earning a trip to the All-Star Game and leading his team to the second round of the playoffs. So he knows all about life on the other coast.
“It’s physical,” Holiday said. “You may not have some of the speed that they have out here, but there’s something about most of those teams. It’s not about scoring 100 points or more most of the time in the East, and it’s something you have to adjust to. I think over here, it’s more of an up-and-down game; and over there, it’s more of a bruising game.”
That, on its own, may be enough to explain some of struggles the East has experienced since its last heyday in the 1990s. New defensive rules that draw quick whistles favor driving guards, allowing more floor spacing for open shooters around the perimeter and in the midrange.
Twelve of the league’s 15 slowest-paced teams (measured by possessions per game) reside in the East, helping establish a reputation for a hulking, plodding and stagnant style that the NBA’s rules and abundant offensive talent has largely diminished over the past 15 years.
3. Stability in the NBA
Since 1980, only eight franchises have been crowned champion. Winning the NBA Finals in the modern era is a more-exclusive club than a championship in any other American professional sport.
There are numerous theories for this, but the most obvious is the role one or two players have on the team’s ability as a whole. Michael Jordan and LeBron James immediately turned pretenders into contenders, and their exits immediately brought their collective franchises back to earth.
With the litany of superstars pairing up in the Western Conference, it’s easy to see why long-term stability is the key to its long run of dominance. All eight of last year’s playoff teams won at least 49 games, and each of those teams is on pace to exceed that record again.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons, who began the season 5-22 and jettisoned the highly paid Josh Smith, are within three games of reaching the No. 8 seed in the East.
“I just don’t see anybody who is getting worse in the West,” Grantland.com editor in chief Bill Simmons said on his podcast. “It is absolutely ridiculous, and these teams keep trading to make their teams better and more prepared for the playoffs. I’m not sure the gap has ever been this wide between the two sides.”
4. Race to the bottom
As the game-to-game competition among 10 teams in the Western Conference has never been hotter, the race in the East is less about how shots bounce off the rim and more about how ping-pong balls bounce in a Secaucus, New Jersey, office tower.
With so many teams in rebuilding mode, their hope hinges on the NBA draft lottery to provide selections near the top of the board, allowing heaps talent to come through but requiring an abundance of patience with it. Franchises admittedly choosing to stop competing now in search of better days ahead has softened the playoff race in the East.
Many have concluded the best way to alleviate the problem is to remove the barriers and simply accept the 16 best records in the league and proceed with the playoffs, ignoring geographical divides.
However, despite his repeated claims to shake up the structure, Cuban said he’s not in favor of scrapping the divisions, because there’s value driven by familiarity and competition.
“Division rivalries matter,” Cuban wrote. “Mavs fans pay more attention to the Pelicans because they are in our division, and they know we have to win the division if at all possible.”
However, it’s also helped lump many of the most competitive and successful franchises together in the Southwest Division, forcing them to duke it out with each other four times per year. The Spurs, Grizzlies, Mavericks and Rockets have all made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and are on track to return again this year.
Four of the division’s five teams made a move to improve their roster in the past month, adding veteran pieces to boost their rotations and depth.
It has only exacerbated the chasm between the two conferences, which doesn’t appear to be going away soon. Commissioner Adam Silver has discussed the problem, but has yet to publicly propose a solution.
“It needs to be looked at,” Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver told ESPN. “I’m getting closer to the point where I just think there needs to be a change. It is on the league’s radar screen now.”