WASHINGTON — Over the past two decades, since around the time that Michael Jordan guy retired, the NBA's Western Conference has dominated the Eastern Conference.
Every year but one since 1999, the West has won more inter-conference games than the East, often by substantial margins. Many times, Western teams with great records have not made the eight-team playoffs, while teams with losing records in the East have qualified for the playoffs.
Most of the time, the West has had better top teams. In the last 19 years, since Chicago beat the Utah Jazz in the Finals for the second straight year, the West has won 13 NBA titles. From the Los Angeles Lakers to the San Antonio Spurs to the Golden State Warriors, who have been the dominant NBA team the last three years, the West has usually had the top team in the league.
The West has usually had more than its share of superstars as the better teams, and all-NBA teams, as well, were being dominated by players from the West like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant.
It seemed like it would get even more lopsided this year when some of the East’s biggest stars such as Paul George (Oklahoma City), Jimmy Butler (Minnesota) and Paul Millsap (Denver) joined Western Conference teams. The only Western All-Star who went east was Utah’s Gordon Hayward and we all know what happened to him in the opening game of the season.
However, this year the Eastern Conference has the edge when it comes to inter-conference games, by a 123-116 margin after Sunday’s games, which included a 103-102 win by Miami of the East over Utah of the West.
And nobody seems to know why.
Don’t ask Utah coach Quin Snyder why the East is suddenly better. When asked the question on the weekend he answered, “No thoughts,” before expounding more about it.
“We just play who’s on our schedule,” he said. “You can talk about it, you guys can write about it, but I have no control over it. I don’t think we say, we’re playing a team in the East and it will be an easier game. That’s never the case. There’s a lot of variables. It’s a debate that’s obviously ongoing and like anything, you can look at a sample size over the years.”
Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko played his entire career for Eastern Conference teams before being signed by the Jazz in the offseason. He says he never paid any attention to the fact that the West was always better and doesn’t have any theories on why.
“It’s just the NBA, it’s the best players in the world,” he said. “So I don’t really notice the difference — East Coast and West Coast. It’s just different cities. Arenas I used to go to one time a year, now I go two or three and that’s about it.”
The only time this century that the East had a better inter-conference record than the West was in 2008-09 when the East won 231 games to the West’s 219. As recently as 2013-14, the West won a whopping 118 more games, 284-166, against the East. That year, the West’s No. 8 seed had a good enough record that it would have been the No. 3 seed in the West.
Since then the East has been closing the gap until taking the edge this year.
Part of the reason for the Eastern advantage could be the schedule as a lot of Western teams play Eastern opponents on the road earlier in the season. For instance, the Jazz play only one road game in the East after January but have five Eastern teams at home after January.
Perhaps Eastern teams are playing better team ball this year with balanced lineups like Miami's, although it does have its share of upcoming stars such as Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, New York’s Kristaps Porzingis and Philadephia's Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
For now we can say it’s a mystery why the East has done so well this season. And the Jazz aren’t going to worry about it.
“We’re in the West,” said Snyder. “Unless they move Salt Lake City east of the Mississippi we’ll worry about it then.”