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White: Don’t Sleep on the East

After years of imbalance between conferences and cries of a reworked playoff structure the NBA is finally, naturally righting the ship.  The Eastern conference has been the butt of many jokes in recent years as the West has dominated the league.  The cause of this power imbalance is rooted in The Decision and injuries.  LeBron, Wade and Bosh teaming up in Miami left the Cavs and Raptors to fend for themselves without star players and fall off and place last in their divisions.  Injuries to key players such as Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard left former contenders struggling. Boston’s decline came from its aging core and its (smart) decision to blow it up sooner rather than later.  Dwight’s injury led to locker room problems and the ‘Dwightmare’ which eventually sent him to the Lakers and sent Orlando back to the drawing board. Both New York teams suffered injuries as well which sent them from possible conference finals hopes all the way down the standings.  The weaker East teams, including playoff bound teams, were getting bodied. Meanwhile the West was filled with budding stars, Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Curry and Chris Paul and future hall of famers still playing well Duncan, Dirk and Kobe.  Even non-playoff teams in the West were competitive, at one point the 13th seed in the West would’ve qualified for the 8th seed in the East. Coaching is another possible reason for the divide.  During this era of dominance the Western coaches were tenured for longer on average than Eastern coaches.  It’s hard to say if this is a cause or effect.

This year has a different vibe as the East seems to be playing a lot better than the West and the playoff race is more competitive with 2-7 being separated by half a game.  Overall, as of 12/16 before gametime, the West is up by one game in interconference play 73/72(.503).  This is including the Warriors’ historically great year boosting the West and the Sixers’ historically bad year bringing the East down.  For arguments sake removing Golden State and Philly propels the East ahead to 55/70(.440) meaning the East in general is far more competitive currently.  In recent years the disparity has been far greater.  This time in ’14 the West was up 89/45(.664), ’13 was 83/33(.710), ’12 was 88/62(.587).

The changing of the tides between conferences can be explained by several reasons.  The higher draft picks the East enjoyed over this time period are finally coming into their own. Although the Wizards are struggling this year John Wall has become a top five point guard and Bradley Beal is showing early signs of stardom.  Detroit has made strides under Stan Van Gundy with the emergence of Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson finally running his own team.  Despite injuries to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson the Hornets have been competitive thanks to Kemba Walker and Nic Batum.  Oladipo and Vucevic have come into their own and have given Orlando its best start since losing Dwight.  Chicago has Jimmy Butler playing at an allstar level and a revitalized Pau Gasol leading the way.  The Celtics, under Brad Stevens, have made their young core into a competitive team and are a superstar away from breaking into contention.  A similar team is the Hawks who have a great coach in Mike Budenholzer.  LeBron returning to Cleveland revived Cleveland and freed up cap space for Miami to reorganize and not fall off.  Paul George is back from injury and having MVP aspirations.  The West is having locker room and chemistry troubles amongst their powerhouses including Houston, LA Clippers and Memphis.  Portland became defunct through free agency losses which helped many other teams including San Antonio, Dallas, Charlotte and the Knicks.  Teams that were looking to fight for the 8th seed are struggling including Utah, Sacramento and New Orleans.  Rudy Gobert is out without a time table, Boogie Cousins has missed several games and New Orleans has had players out and are learning under their new coach.

All of this adds up to a more competitive and at parity league which is what fans have wanted for years now.  It makes the Association more exciting as there is almost always a must watch game on every night.  Other than Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland being dominant and Philly, LA Lakers, Brooklyn and New Orleans being bottom feeders weekly power rankings can swing drastically.  Teams five through fifteen are seemingly equal in talent.  A quarter of the way through the season and it has already been amongst the most interesting.


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