We are nearing the halfway point in the NBA season and certain things are abundantly clear. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA. The 76ers are still terrible. Oh and don’t try shooting near Hassan Whiteside. Those were pretty much expected coming into the season, but we have seen an interesting flip between the Eastern and Western conferences.
In years past, the East has been top heavy while the West has been a gauntlet. You could say with almost certainty which teams from the East would be in the conference final while the West was a toss up. This year has been a bit backwards. The teams in the Eastern Conference are all clumped together while the West is very spread out. Every team in a playoff spot for the East has a winning record, but the seventh and eighth seeds in the West are below .500.
The Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic are currently tied for the final spot in the Eastern conference playoffs. They sit just 5.5 games behind the Cavaliers, who are on top of the conference. The Utah Jazz have a losing record but hold the last spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. They sit 16.5 games behind the first place Warriors.
To further the point, the Oklahoma City Thunder missed the playoffs last season with a record of 45-37. That record would have made them the sixth seed in the East. The seventh-seeded Mavericks in the West had the same record as the third-seeded Bulls in the East. The Spurs were the sixth seed in the West but would’ve been second in the East. It was clear that the West was the much stronger of the conferences.
Sure it isn’t realistic to compare finishing spots across conferences, but they didn’t have inflated records because the bottom of the West was just that bad. The bottom of the East was actually worse.
The question now is why was there a switch. There weren’t too many big name free agents who left the West. The biggest ones were probably Aaron Afflalo, Robin Lopez and Monta Ellis. None of them are future Hall of Famers or even All-Stars for that matter.
The draft has seemed to produce a couple of talented players. Kristaps Porzingis for the Knicks, Jahlil Okafor for the 76ers and Karl-Anthony Towns for the Timberwolves. None of those teams are even in the playoff picture though, so that doesn’t seem to explain it either.
Could it be that some trade deadline movements are finally starting to make an impact? Gorgan Dragic moved from Phoenix to Miami. Reggie Jackson also joined the Pistons from the Thunder. Thaddeus Young left Minnesota for Brooklyn. Boston landed Isiah Thomas in a deal with Phoenix. Thomas, Dragic and Jackson have all become very valuable pieces on their new teams.
There is no definite answer right now. The East has suddenly just turned itself around and become the more competitive of the two conferences. My best guess is that some combination of trades, draft picks and free agent signings combined have had some impact on the change. I really don’t think that explains it all.
It is still early enough that we could see the tables turn and the West could have a strong second half. To this point though, the East seems to be reigning supreme.