The Western Conference is clearly better as a whole than the Eastern Conference. No one in their right mind would dispute that fact. The West has 10 of the top 13 teams in our NBA power rankings. They also have many of the league’s best players - out of the top-20 players per our nERD rankings, 16 of them are from the Western Conference.
Although the Toronto Raptors have taken over the Atlantic Division and the Brooklyn Nets have shown signs of life, it still looks like the Eastern Conference Finals will come down to the Heat and Pacers. It might not be close until that point either. Last year, the Heat swept the Bucks and then took care of the Bulls 4-1 before taking on the Pacers in the East Finals. Indiana beat both Atlanta and New York 4-2 and the series weren’t even that close. They are on a crash course, and it’s going to be devastatingly awesome.
However, the huge competitive disparity between the two conferences begs the question: Are Miami and Indiana at a significant advantage by playing in the Eastern Conference? If they sweep their first two rounds while the Western Conference goes to six or seven in almost every series, will the East winner be more rested in the finals and thus have a better chance of winning a grueling series?
In order to see what sort of effect minutes, games, and rest had on playoff teams, I looked back on the data (thanks to basketball-reference.com) from the past 20 seasons. The following table, starting with the 1993-1994 season, breaks down how many games the Eastern and Western Conference champ played in the preceding series before the finals. The next columns are respectively the number difference of games between the two teams, the finals champion, the finals series result, and whether the "rested" team won.
|GP, ECF Champ||GP, WCF Champ||Difference||Finals Champ||Finals Series||"Rested" Team Win?|
As you can see, there were nine times that the more-rested team won in the championship, seven times where the less-rested team won, and four times where they were evenly rested. Further, the average difference in the number of games for the rested teams was almost identical to the average difference for the non-rested teams at 2.3 and 2.4, respectively.
Although I only went back 20 years, the data should lead us to see a trend in which rest is generally a non-factor in the NBA finals. Or, if it is a factor, it's equally not a factor in almost half the years of our data set.
In the 2001 playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers played in the championship against the Philadelphia 76ers. They came into the series having played seven less games than their counterparts, which is a pretty drastic difference. Obviously, the 76ers had the equivalent of an entire grueling seven-game series more of recent wear-and-tear than the Lakers. Although they ended up losing the series 4-1, they stole Game 1 on the road just three days after going 7 games with the Milwaukee Bucks.
You could point to that exact example if you want to argue that rest and number of games played does matter in the finals. However, you would also have to equally accept that it didn't matter in the 2008 playoffs when the Boston Celtics played five more games than the Lakers prior to the finals, yet won that series 4-2 for their first NBA title in over 20 years.
Did rest and games played matter in that 2001 series but not the 2008 series? Perhaps, but the data is way too even to argue definitively that being more rested makes a difference. Possible? Yes. Statistically proven? Not at all.
What It Means in 2014
The Western Conference playoffs is setting up to be a truly brutal slugfest. As of today, here are the first-round matchups:
1. San Antonio Spurs vs 8. Phoenix Suns
2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs 7. Dallas Mavericks
3. Portland Trail Blazers vs 6. Golden State Warriors
4. Los Angeles Clippers vs 5. Houston Rockets
Would you be surprised by any of those series going seven? I definitely wouldn't.
As history has shown us (at least in the past 20 years), rest is not an indicative factor of who will win the title. Even if the Spurs go to seven games in all of their first three series, while Miami goes 4-0, 4-0, 4-2 en route to the championship, statistics say that the series will be just as even as if the opposite had occurred.
Matchups have proven to be a much more important factor in playoff series and rest can affect that. A key starter being able to get rest, playing more in the next series to exploit matchups - that's where rest can come into play in a tangible way.
The Western Conference has been much more competitive than the East for years. If the top-16 teams made the playoffs regardless of conference or division, 10 of the 16 would be from the West. That number will likely be even bigger by seasons end due to injuries and trades with the Bulls and Hawks. Despite all this, the top-four teams left at the end of the year will all be pretty evenly matched, if the season so far has been a fair indicator of that.
Every series is a new series. There is no proof out there that any factor (except an injury) from a previous series effects a future one. When the teams and players are this good, everything can come down to one play - a ridiculous fade-away corner three from Ray Allen perhaps. There will likely be many nail-biters come May and June. While the players may not need their rest, I'm sure I will.