Is the NBA's Western Conference Significantly Weaker Than It Was Last Year?
To say the NBA's Western Conference was tough in 2014-2015 would be a major understatement.
It was an 11-team gauntlet that saw the Oklahoma City Thunder miss the playoffs despite notching 45 wins. The Thunder weren’t the only team that suffered, as the San Antonio Spurs won 55 games and all they got was the 6 seed.
The Dallas Mavericks went 50-32 and were rewarded with a 7 seed and a first-round playoff matchup with the Houston Rockets.
The bottom line was that it felt like -- outside of Cleveland -- all of the league’s elite teams were in the West.
But through nearly a quarter of the 2015-16 season, early indications are that the West will take a large step back in terms of dominance.
Factors Leading up to Last Season
First, let’s touch on the primary factors leading to recent Western Conference dominance (these have been somewhat well documented). Since the turn of the century, the draft and free agency have benefited the West significantly more than the East.
There also hasn’t been much action in terms of big names coming eastward to do big things. Carmelo Anthony's 2011 move from Denver to New York looked awesome at first, but Amar'e Stoudemire seemed to start aging in dog years and that situation declined quickly. The Deron Williams trade from Utah failed pretty miserably for the Nets as well.
The NBA Draft hasn’t come up roses for the East in recent years either. For example, two franchise-changing superstars narrowly missed playing in the East. Kevin Durant was selected second overall in the 2007 draft, while the Atlanta Hawks settled for Al Horford with the third pick. Horford is a very productive player, but he’s no Durant.
Another example is Anthony Davis, who could have easily ended up in Charlotte with different bounces of the ping pong balls.
So while the East should be improving based on drafting from better spots, the Western Conference teams have plain and simply been drafting better.
Last Season to This Season
While a solid case can still be made for the West being the stronger conference this season, the gap between the two appears to be narrowing rapidly. According to our algorithm-driven power rankings, only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs project to eclipse the 50-win mark.
The Warriors (59.8 projected wins) are playing on another planet right now and may challenge the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ mark of 72 victories by the time the season concludes. That pace does snatch up a few more wins and limits opportunities for their competitors.
Some things in the West have gone as expected. The Spurs (53.7 projected wins) are seemingly are their normal juggernaut selves, and Oklahoma City (48.8 projected wins) will improve on last season assuming Durant stays healthy.
The Nuggets (33.4 projected wins) and the Lakers (28.6 projected wins) are clearly rebuilding and were expected to struggle. Phoenix (39.6 projected wins) is on par with where they were a year ago, but they could get hot and get themselves right into the playoff mix.
Outside of these teams, there’s been some clear regression in the conference. Some of this is happening naturally as a result of some Eastern Conference teams improving (Charlotte, Indiana, Boston for example), but clearly some of it is due to injuries, attrition and poor play.
The Dallas Mavericks are projected to win 45 games, which isn’t bad considering that they were left hanging by DeAndre Jordan and that Chandler Parsons hasn’t yet recovered from a knee injury. Memphis (43 projected wins) wasn’t affected by turnover, but they’ve struggled to stay healthy, and Marc Gasol hasn’t been as productive this year.
The Clippers' big three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan have been playing fine, but they really seem to miss Matt Barnes, who spaced the floor and hit the corner three effectively. It also hurts that Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson are giving them minimal production off the bench.
The Rockets (40.0 projected wins) will struggle to make the playoffs with James Harden and Howard struggling mightily.
The Pelicans’ (34.9 projected wins) struggles are largely due to the injuries. In addition to Davis being banged up, Tyreke Evans has missed every game this season because of a knee surgery. Norris Cole and Quincy Pondexter have missed time with injuries as well.
While some teams have regressed, a few have improved. The Jazz (42.4 projected wins), buoyed by rim protectors Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, could easily challenge for a playoff bid. The Minnesota Timberwolves (34.6 projected wins) are another team on the rise, parlaying the impressive play of Karl-Anthony Towns to some frisky road victories early on.
All in all, the regression of some of the top teams in addition to the improvement of teams like Minnesota and Utah should make for a compelling playoff race. 45 wins might end up getting a team the 4 seed, while 39 or 40 wins could leave you out of the playoffs. That’s great news for Houston and New Orleans, who have already put themselves in a tough spot. Because ultimately in 2015-16 Western Conference, there isn’t much room for error when it comes to injuries and cold streaks.