Will the East finally overtake the West in the 2021-22 NBA season?

NBA, NBA Season Preview

Western Conference teams have posted a winning record against Eastern Conference teams in 12 straight seasons. Will that change in 2021-22?

Between the rise of small-ball and the proliferation of 3-point shooting, the NBA has undergone seismic changes over the past decade. Throughout it all, Western Conference teams have consistently dominated their Eastern Conference counterparts in the regular season.

Though the West and the East have split the last 12 NBA titles at six apiece, the regular season is a different story. The East hasn’t had a winning interconference record against the West since the 2008-09 season.

Thanks to some offseason overhauls, Eastern Conference teams finally might snap that trend in 2021-22.

Over the past 12 years, East teams have gone a combined 2,267-3,111 against West teams in the regular season. They’ve won fewer than 45 percent of their overall regular-season meetings in seven of those 12 years, including a comically low 36.9 percent (166-284) in 2013-14.

While the East’s top-tier teams typically hold their own against the West, the cellar-dwellers tend to bring the whole conference down.

The Miami Heat finished an East-best 25-5 against West teams in 2012-13, but they couldn’t make up for the then-Charlotte Bobcats’ 3-27 interconference record. The following year, the Heat were the only East team to win at least 20 games against West teams, while the Milwaukee Bucks (3-27), Boston Celtics (4-26), Philadelphia 76ers (5-25), Orlando Magic (6-24) and Detroit Pistons (6-24) all got annihilated on most nights.

That conference imbalance had major ramifications for the playoffs.

In 2008-09, the 46-36 Phoenix Suns were the West’s No. 9 seed, while the 39-43 Pistons finished eighth in the East. Two years later, the 37-45 Indiana Pacers made the playoffs in the East, while the 43-39 Houston Rockets missed out in the West. In 2013-14, the 38-44 Atlanta Hawks finished eighth in the East, while the 48-34 Suns were ninth in the West.

The East has started to narrow the gap in recent years. While East teams went five straight seasons winning no more than 42.2 percent of their games against West foes in the first half of the decade, they’ve won at least 44 percent in five of the past six. The lone exception was the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, during which 61 interconference games got wiped out amidst the abrupt suspension in March.

That hasn’t stopped calls for the NBA to overhaul its postseason format, though.

The fairest change would be awarding playoff spots to the 16 teams with the best records, regardless of conference, and seeding them 1-16. However, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has expressed concern in the past about how much additional cross-country travel that would require, and whether it would lead to an uptick in fatigue and/or injuries.

Rather than tear apart the NBA’s tried-and-true playoff formula, Silver may instead be hoping for the cyclical nature of the league to render such ideas irrelevant. He might finally get his wish in 2021-22.

After a wild offseason, the NBA’s Eastern Conference may be ready to take control

After adding DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, the Chicago Bulls appear ready to snap their four-year playoff drought. The Washington Wizards are also much deeper after sign-and-trading for Spencer Dinwiddie and sending Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers for a package including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma.

The Bulls and Wizards weren’t the only East teams to get better on paper, either.

The Miami Heat sign-and-traded for Kyle Lowry, signed P.J. Tucker and re-signed Duncan Robinson. The Celtics added Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Dennis Schroder. The New York Knicks signed both Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. All three should be in the playoff mix again.

Injuries could prevent the Pacers (T.J. Warren, Caris LeVert) and Toronto Raptors (Pascal Siakam) from challenging for a top-six seed, but both should contend for a spot in the play-in tournament at worst. The Charlotte Hornets lost Devonte’ Graham in free agency, but internal improvement from LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and their other young players could more than make up for it.

The East also boasts two of this year’s top title threats in the Brooklyn Nets and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. The Hawks lost no one of consequence after their surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and they only got deeper with the additions of rookies Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper. The Sixers are in Ben Simmons limbo for now, but they could also be a title contender depending on how they resolve that messy situation.

The Pistons and Magic are the only two East teams that enter the 2021-22 season without realistic aspirations of at least challenging for a spot in the play-in tournament. The Cleveland Cavaliers will likely finish in the lottery again as well, but the addition of No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley and the sign-and-trade for Lauri Markkanen only further bolstered their already intriguing young core.

The West boasts the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers, and the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz should both finish as top-six seeds barring catastrophic injuries. Beyond that, the playoff picture gets muddled quickly.

The Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers would be title contenders with a healthy Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, but it’s unclear when (or if) either player will return this season. The Golden State Warriors are a wild card depending on the development of second-year center James Wiseman and how Klay Thompson looks following his two-year injury layoff.

If the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers don’t finish with a top-six seed, they should at least make the play-in tournament. But after that, the West’s playoff picture is a mess.

Will the Memphis Grizzlies take a step back after swapping out Jonas Valanciunas for Steven Adams? Are the New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings or Minnesota Timberwolves ready to contend for a playoff berth? Where do the San Antonio Spurs fit into this mix after losing DeRozan, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay this offseason?

The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are clearly rebuilding, and the Spurs may be as well. Beyond that, the Pelicans-Timberwolves-Kings-Grizzlies tier out West appears weaker on paper than the Hornets-Wizards-Pacers-Raptors tier in the East.

The top few teams in the West should run roughshod over the East’s weaker teams. However, the Clippers, Nuggets, Blazers and Mavericks could all feasibly finish around or below .500 against the East.

If that happens, this might finally be the year in which the East’s No. 9 seed is stronger than the West’s, not vice versa.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

LeBron James fined for ‘obscene gesture’ in first game back from suspension
5 NBA legends you forgot played for the Boston Celtics
LeBron James, Isaiah Stewart handed suspensions for near Lakers-Pistons melee
Kemba Walker is losing his spot in the Knicks’ rotation
The Whiteboard: Power ranking the NBA’s best teams

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *