The Western Conference was going to take a step backwards this season, one way or another. The Mavericks retooled with injury cases and lost out on their first-choice free agent in the great emoji war of 2015. The Blazers dumped 80 percent of their starting lineup and stocked their roster with developmental pieces. The nuclei of teams that were already kinda old—Dallas, San Antonio, Memphis—got a year older, and Memphis, for their part, forgot to add any free agents that move the needle for their grinding offense. It would not have been unreasonable, at the start of the season, to predict that the West’s middle class would swell at the expense of its upper class.
The West’s middle class has swollen, but not exactly as anyone might have expected. Houston has spent the first month or so of the season zombie-walking through games and today look nothing like a contender. Utah’s failure to launch can probably be traced to a season ending injury to Dante Exum. The Clippers are imploding. New Orleans has been crushed flat by injuries—Ish Smith is currently fourth on the team in total minutes. Ish Smith.
The result of all this is a conference that, frankly, is sucking the fun right out of the NBA’s nightly late game schedule on League Pass. Do we tune in to see if DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo can do impressive things for a going-nowhere, wholly dysfunctional Kings squad? Maybe catch the Clippers moping their way through another listless performance? Watch the Lakers set the game of basketball back a couple decades?
All the fun in the NBA right now (outside of Golden State’s nightly cakewalk, which is quickly losing its charm) is, believe it or not, in the Eastern Conference. Check it out: 11 Eastern Conference teams sit at or above .500 today. The next two teams down—Milwaukee and Orlando—have intriguing young players and smart head coaches, and both are expected to lurk near the playoff picture. The East is 37-32 against the West. Every Eastern Conference team has a roster whose average age is below 30.
The tankbot Sixers are in the East, of course, as are the old, expensive, and horrible Nets. Those are two of the worst teams in the NBA, for sure. The West, though, runs out the Lakers, who are like a create-a-team in 2K made expressly for the purpose of losing to your A-team. They’ve got the Pelicans, who, again, Ish fucking Smith. They’ve got the Kings, who are too depressing and irrelevant to even make for good hate-watching. Three of the NBA’s worst teams are out West. The West’s muddy middle class has grown, and so has its bottom.
So, long-suffering paper-bag-wearing fans of Leastern Conference teams, rejoice! Today, right now, the East is younger, stronger, and deeper than the West.
It might stay this way, too! As long as the Western Conference has been the stronger conference, it has also been the case that a lottery draft pick was more valuable over there. Why? Every year at least one very good team, further along in its developmental arc, would be pushed into the lottery by the NBA’s playoff format, which divides the 16 playoff teams evenly between the two conferences. Solid young teams that might have been dangerous in the East were doormats out West. So those lottery pick were generally used to put exciting young players onto good teams, while high picks in the East were going to either dysfunctional hellholes, like New York, or full-blown tank projects, like the ones in Philadelphia and Orlando. Those players weren’t moving the needle in terms of wins and losses (sometimes by design), and they also weren’t bloating already-talented rosters with valuable assets.
Now, consider the Eastern Conference. Only the Nets are far behind the curve in terms of stocking talent—even the lowly Sixers have foundational pieces in place and another one stashed away overseas. The Knicks, for crying out loud, are two games over .500 and have the Zinger, who every day looks more and more like the Rookie of the Year. The Celtics have a stash of accrued high picks from previous deals. A deep field of solid teams is gonna push a couple of talented, young East teams into the lottery. Maybe the Bucks, who have the Greek Freak already in place? Maybe the Celtics, who have the best young coach in the NBA and a dynamic front office? Maybe the Wizards, who have a killer perimeter trio and an in with the biggest free agent prize since The Decision? Some number of feisty, talented Eastern Conference teams will have a crack at the upcoming draft’s elite talent, and those picks will have more value than one that sends some poor young kid to the DOA Lakers, or an aging team entering its death cycle after years of contention.
The season is still young, and some of the mess out West will clean itself up as things progress. The Rockets are probably too talented to stay down for long. Utah’s ho-hum record doesn’t reflect their top-10 net rating. The Clippers will go on a run. It may yet wind up being the case that as many as four of the NBA’s top five teams will come out of the West. And the Warriors are far and away the best team in the League, by such a dramatic margin that their victories, as aesthetically pleasing as they can sometimes be, often seem perfunctory, spoiled without even the possibility of spoilers. The best teams in the West are still monsters.
But this may also wind up being the rare season when it’s fans from the East who are bitching about the conference imbalance come playoff time. What a crazy-ass turn of events.