Shifting Conference Tectonics as 2016 Begins

Welcome to 2016, loyal DotB readers!

The first two months of the season are in the books and I’m here to kick off 2016 with a deep dive into the two conferences, followed by a Power Rankings level-set. I will examine where I was right at the start of the season and eat a large plate of crow for all the teams I guessed wrong on. Each year teams surprise us with out of nowhere starts and unexpected falls from grace but this year is especially filled with upheaval. It’s part of what makes the league fun to follow and keeps us on our toes. To wit, I am in a four-man win total “fantasy” league and I thought I staged a coup with my draft picks in the preseason. Those picks were OKC, Houston, Washington, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and Utah. Yikes. Thanks to the Rockets, Wiz, Bucks and Jazz I am in dead last as we start 2016.

Perhaps the biggest story of the first two months for me is the shifting balance of power in the conferences. For years I’ve been fascinated with the West’s consistent dominance and curious as to how one conference can stay in power for so long. However, though the top three teams in the NBA all reside out West, the bottom falls out quickly in that usually loaded conference. It’s likely that this season the West will have two playoff teams under .500, a dubious feat that the East had cornered the market on in recent years. You have to go back to 1996-97 for the last time the West fielded a below-.500 playoff participant (there were actually three that year!). Last season’s 8-seed (New Orleans) had 45 wins and the year before that Dallas finished eighth with 49.

So it begs the questions: is this just a down year that the West was long overdue for, a blip on the radar that will right itself quickly? Or is this a sign of a changing of the power structure in the NBA? I’ll look at it through a few prisms – Superstar Arms Race, Second-tier Stars and Randomness.

The easiest way – outside of win/loss records – to determine prowess in the NBA is star power. The way that teams acquire stars (mostly) is through the Draft. So I decided to look at recent Drafts to see if any patterns emerged that have hurt the West and empowered the East.

By and large, after the year LeBron, Bosh and Wade entered the league (2003-04) up until 2009, the West did a better job of getting superstars through the draft, which is a key reason behind its continued big brother status. Here are a few names you may be familiar with: Chris Paul (’05, New Orleans), Blake Griffin (’09, Clippers), Kevin Durant (’07, Sonics/OKC), Russell Westbrook (’08, Sonics/OKC), Steph Curry (’09, Warriors), James Harden (’09, OKC), Lamarcus Aldridge (’06, Blazers via trade).

Since the 2010 Draft, the West has continue to add bona fide and/or potential superstars like Demarcus Cousins (’10, Kings), Klay Thompson (’11, Warriors), Kawhi Leonard (’11 Spurs via trade), Damian Lillard (2012), Anthony Davis (2012), Draymond Green (2012), Andrew Wiggins (2014) and Karl Anthony-Towns (2015).

Here’s how the East has done since 2010:

’10 – John Wall, Paul George

’11 – Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler

’12 – Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond

’13 – Giannis Antetokounmpo

’14 – Jabari Parker

’15 – Kristaps Porzingis, Jahlil Okafor

I’d take Boogie, Klay, Kawhi, Dame and AD in a heartbeat over the East’s top five drafted stars since 2010 (with Draymond off the bench – wow). So even though the East done a better job in the last five years through the Draft, it still lost ground in the Superstar Arms Race with the West. This would seem to point to 2015-16 being an aberration, rather than the beginning of a decline for the West. It’s a superstar-driven league.

The East did, however, seem to add more Second-tier Stars (guys like Beal, Walker, Giannis) since 2010. That may be a function of continually bagging more high lottery picks. Each conference sends seven teams to the lottery each year, but the teams with the worst records have a better chance at picking high in the top 10. Since 2008, the East had 44 top 10 picks, to the West’s 36. That has to impact overall roster depth in due time. I combed through the players picked in those draft since ’08 and – admittedly somewhat subjectively – tallied up how many of those lottery picks are impactful NBA players in 2016. Thirty-six impact players from the last eight drafts reside in the East, while just 28 play in the West. This would tend to suggest that the East has gotten deeper if not necessarily more star-studded in recent years. This line of thinking seems to fit teams like Boston, Charlotte, Orlando, Atlanta, Detroit and Toronto – all playoff-contending, over-.500 East teams for much of this season that don’t boast many huge names on their rosters. Meanwhile, such star-led teams in the West like Houston (Harden, Dwight Howard), New Orleans (Davis), Sacramento (Cousins), L.A. Lakers (Kobe) and Portland (Dame) have struggled at least in part due to lack of quality depth. My verdict here – the Second-tier Stars factor is real, and could continue to tip the scales East-ward. The current 2-10 seeds in the East may not be title contenders but they are tough on a nightly basis thanks to deep rotations and can all finish with winning records.

The last, by definition impossible to quantify measure, is randomness. Here are some random, quirky things that have made the East better in 2015-16 and/or the West worse…

  • Conglomeration of talent at the top of the West. Aldridge went to San Antonio in the offseason, effectively creating a super team in the Spurs and turning a 50-win Blazers team into Lottery fodder. The Warriors kept their loaded roster intact after a historic season. The return of the KD-Russ-Ibaka trio at full health has made OKC a powerhouse again. The Clippers have struggled some but still have one of the top starting 5’s in the NBA talent-wise.
  • Houston forgetting that it was basketball season. They’ve gotten a coach fired, had many on-court bickering matches and sport some of the worst (laziest) transition defense in the league. After a conference finals appearance, the Rockets are the most disappointing team in the league, yet will make the playoffs by default. Slated for 55 or so wins, they will be lucky to finish .500. Can’t wait for them to sleep through a Round 1 loss.
  • The Plague hitting New Orleans. A supposed shoo-in to build upon last season’s 45-win playoff team, they barely have enough NBA players most nights thanks to a rash of injuries.
  • Memphis got old, Phoenix imploded and the Kings, Nuggets and Blazers aren’t ready for primetime.
  • Injuries have disproportionately hit the West. Eric Bledsoe is lost for the year, the Nuggets and Pelicans are decimated, Mike Conley and Lillard have missed time. Even the 32-2 Warriors have been hit by injuries, not that it’s hurt them much.
  • Unlike most recent years, the East only has two doormats in Philly and Brooklyn. The Magic, Hornets, Pistons, Knicks and Pacers have graduated up a level or two thanks to improved coaching (Magic, Hornets, Pistons), a healthy Paul George (Pacers) and an influx of respectable talent (Knicks). As bad as Washington and Milwaukee have been compared to expectations, they can be tough on any given night.
  • Coaching performances. Stan Van Gundy, Frank Vogel, Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer, David Blatt, Scott Skiles, Steve Clifford, Eric Spoelstra and Dwayne Casey have done great jobs this year. They all coach teams in the East.

After considering these factors – a combination of great coaching, an uptick in roster depth and random cataclysm striking the West – I tend to conclude that the shifting in conference tectonics this year has been more a blip than a new world order. When it comes to the NBA I will always side with the Superstars, and there are just more of them out West. Besides, Golden State and San Antonio are miles ahead of anyone else in the league and OKC edges out Cleveland for No. 3 in my Power Rankings. So chances are the West will still wear the crown that matters when the season ends. The regular season crown is a good start for the East though as it fights for respectability, and I’m excited to see a much more balanced NBA going forward.

Here’s to a great new year of pro basketball, and my inaugural 2016 Power Rankings will be right up!

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