Is the NBA's Eastern Conference Finally Catching Up to the West?
Less than a calendar month into the 2015-16 NBA season, the hierarchy of the "Association" has pretty much been established, and it looks exactly as it did at the end of last season. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, last year's NBA Finals participants have both picked up exactly where they left off in their sheer dominance of their opponents on the court.
The Warriors find themselves in the history books this week after beating the Denver Nuggets Sunday night to take their record to 15-0, the best starting record to a season for a defending NBA champion. One of the narratives heading into the season regarding the Warriors title run was if they would be able to navigate through what could only be described as a "gauntlet" of elite competition in the Western Conference.
Parity among Eastern Conference teams has reached a level that not only sees them improving in terms of overall depth in the conference, but also in the pecking order of the elite teams in the entire league. One of the movements among the NBA community over the last few seasons has been to see the NBA totally negate the conferences altogether in an attempt to have the best 16 teams make the playoffs. Well if the season were to end today, 11 of the best 16 teams in the NBA reside in the Eastern Conference.
I know what you're thinking, Western Conference apologist, "Just a bunch of top-heavy Eastern conference teams beating up on a few weak links in the bottom of the barrel and inflating some teams to look better than they really are." Well that opinion is simply untrue in this instance.
The Eastern conference is actually 37-32 against the West this year for a winning percentage of .536. Last year the West went 263-187 versus the East (.585 winning percentage) and the year before that it was even more lopsided than that with the West routing the East 284-166 (.631). If this current percentage were to be sustained for the entire season, it would be the first time since 2009 and only the second time since 1999 that the Eastern Conference had a better record than the West.
Two times in a 15-year span isn't just lopsided -- it's pure dominance. Is the parity in the Eastern Conference really legit, or will some of these teams eventually tail off and allow the Western Conference to re-establish themselves as the better half?
Let's fire up our numberFire metrics to analyze what these teams have already done, and what they are projected to do going forward.
The NBA According to nERD
Not only are 11 of the top 16 teams according to NBA standings in the East, but so are 11 of the top 16 teams according to our nERD metric, which is based on a team's efficiency and is meant to be predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage.
Five of the top eight teams in our nERD team power rankings are Eastern Conference teams (Cleveland (72.2), Miami (70.2), Boston (61.8), Toronto (61.4), and Charlotte (61.3)).
According to our projections, only seven Western Conference teams are projected to finish with a record above the .500 winning percentage threshold of 41 wins, while 10 Eastern Conference teams are projected to finish with a record of .500 or better. That would be a drastic change from what the NBA is used to seeing in terms of disparity between the conferences.
The teams that have shown the biggest signs of improvement in the Eastern Conference are the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, and the Detroit Pistons, all of whom missed the playoffs last season but are now projected to win at least 10 games better in the standings this year than where they finished last year.
That kind of improvement doesn't usually happen overnight, but we can look to a few extenuating circumstances that have led us to our current situation.
The Knicks basically tanked away the second half of last season by shutting down All-Star Carmelo Anthony, which in turn ensured them of receiving a high draft pick. And boy did they ever capitalize on that by drafting Kristaps Porzingis, who has the second highest nERD (4.2) in the rookie class, only behind Karl-Anthony Towns (6.2).
The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers both improved by adding players in-house who returned from injury in Chris Bosh and Paul George, respectively. Bosh and George are both having successful bounce back campaigns with Bosh putting up a nERD of 13.2 and George trailing not too far behind him at 12.1, both ranked in the top 10 among all NBA players.
The Detroit Pistons might be the one anomaly here because they did not add a significant piece through the draft, free-agency, or returning from injury. In fact, the Pistons actually lost an asset in forward/center Greg Monroe. Instead, they have just improved naturally thanks to good coaching from Stan Van Gundy and the supernatural growth of Andre Drummond as a force in the middle.
What this information tells us is that, small sample or not, the conference as a whole to look a lot more competent and competitive going forward.
The road to the championship may have gotten more difficult in the East, but at the end of the day, the road to the Larry O'Brien trophy is still being paved out West with the Golden State Warriors maintaining a commanding 33.7% chance of repeating as NBA champions.