It’s weird how much energy goes into debating which conference is the NBA’s best. It makes sense in college football because schools can’t play all 100-plus teams each year, and strength of schedule determines playoff spots. But in basketball, with all 30 organizations facing each other at least twice, it’s not that big of a deal.
LeBron James’ detractors will scream that it was easy for him to make the finals every season, which is partially valid. Yet I’d say he has the appropriate number of titles. The winner of the finals very rarely is lower than a three seed, so arguing Western or Eastern conference depth is a waste of breath.
This is sports though, and a large part of what we do is argue about trivial topics. So, despite my preamble, I’m here to let you know that after a year in which it looked like the East might usurp the West for superiority, we’re back to normal. There are two, maybe three competent franchises in the East, and the rest are a bunch of toothless, middling teams vying for the fourth spot so they don’t go out in the first round.
Only a year removed from boasting four 50-win teams and six more with 40-plus wins, nobody four through 11 in the East is more than two games over, or three games below, .500. Atlanta, Indiana, Philly, New York, Washington, Miami, Brooklyn, and Toronto all have serious flaws.
Trae Young and Nate McMillan pretend to tolerate each like a married couple a few months away from a divorce. Indiana is too young, even though it looks like they hit on Bennedict Mathurin. No one is going to trust Doc Rivers, James Harden, and the underachieving 76ers to win anything of note until they do. Tyler Herro always seems to be on the brink of taking the reins from Jimmy Butler, who always seems to be nursing an ailment. (It’s called old age at this point.) Tom Thibodeau is still playing his guys heavy minutes but no longer getting the most out of them. The Wizards are paying their best player the max for a feel-good story. Kevin Durant should always be taken seriously unless paired with Kyrie Irving. And as much as we all love Toronto, good coaching and above-average talent will only get you so far, and in this case, it’s maybe the second round if they can avoid Milwaukee or Boston, or catch Cleveland regressing.
Out West, the Suns and Grizzlies appear to have picked up where they left off last season. Currently fully healthy, the Nuggets and Pelicans look like dark horses. The Warriors are 13-12, and no one will be surprised when they creep back into the top four. The Clippers, Lakers, and Mavericks are all kind of sad, but at least they have high-ceiling talent or a recent history of success to comfort skeptics. Even Blazers’ and Kings’ fanbases are optimistic.
Having said all that, no franchise four through 13 in the West is more than four games over, or three games below, .500. The difference between the two factions is perception. Out of the seven teams I mentioned in the East, which organization’s next five years would you want the most? Philly has Joel Embiid, but he’ll be a 33-year-old in a 50-year-old’s body in five years. Scottie Barnes projects as a sidekick on a title team, and Pascal Siakam is showing him how to get there. I’m not even going to address the Hawks because they’ve had more head-scratching years than happy ones with Trae. I guess it’s Indiana, who’s in the beginning stages of repeating the same cycle.
Shit, Charlotte went from up-and-coming to praying for Victor Wembanyama in two years. Sure, Miles Bridges being a horrible person was bad luck. It’s just that bad luck seems to befall Eastern Conference teams more often than their West counterparts.
Chicago had a core for at least the next three seasons before Lonzo Ball’s knee imploded, or exploded — I don’t think the Bulls even know. The Pacers rebound from injury-ravaged stars as well as anyone, which is good because they’re constantly having to rebuild from Danny Granger or Paul George or Victor Oladipo.
Brooklyn is constantly a quick-fix shit show, which they learned from watching the Knicks. Bradley Beal openly admitted on a recent podcast that the Wizards weren’t bidding against anybody in free agency and decided to sink their cap anyway.
The Process fucking worked. The Sixers got an MVP candidate/franchise player, these are his supposed peak years, and he looks like he’s closer to a breakdown than breaking through to the finals. The Cavaliers have been one of the East’s best franchises for the past decade, and they spent a healthy portion of it in the lottery.
The East is never that far away from being as competitive as the West in the standings. In the minds of NBA fans, though, the gap is considerably harder to close.