We’re more than a month into the 2013-14 NBA season and the Eastern Conference is about as top heavy as it gets. Aside from Indiana (16-2), Miami (14-3) and the Wiz (9-9), no team is at .500 or above. Consequently, 12 teams in the West are at .500 or better and the ‘Wolves are just one game back at 9-10. So why the discrepancy?
A couple big outlets have called attention to this unusually decisive disparity between the conferences.
USA Today’s estimable duo Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt both spoke with retired GM and player and current TNT commentator, Steve Kerr, and former coach and current ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy. The latter sums up the cringe-worthy games between the East and West so far this year:
“The Eastern Conference this year, it won’t end up as bad, because they’ll play each other more. But man, some of those games right now, it’s embarrassing,” ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
The former cites the Knicks, Nets and Bulls as the reason for the increased winning percentage in the Western Conference:
“The biggest problem is the Knicks, Nets and Bulls,” TNT analyst and former Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr said. “Those were teams who were supposed to be pretty good. In fact, I thought Miami was going to be challenged in every round of the playoffs coming in because of the Nets, Knicks, Pacers and Bulls. Now, all of a sudden, Derrick Rose is injured. The Knicks are a complete mess. Brooklyn’s injured. It’s like, ‘Let’s just get to the conference finals already with Indiana and Miami.’”
Just look at this disparity between conferences:
ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh attempted to figure out why the divide is so stark this year, and landed on two different reasons, only one of which is quantifiable.
First, he appears to draw a line between the ownership and management in the Western Conference in comparison to the Eastern Conference. Think Mikhail Prokhorov, James Dolan and Michael Jordan in the East, and smart meddle-free owners in the West, like San Antonio’s Peter Holt — who generally leaves all the decisions to R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich. This is unfair though, since Donald Sterling (Clippers), Jim Buss (Lakers), Clayton Bennett (Thunder) and others could rightfully be criticized for some of their decisions (we won’t get into their personal peccadilloes).
Then Haberstroh mentions the influx of international talent in the west, and how that’s given them an advantage over the homegrown players in the East. After using All-Star appearances to differentiate the foreign talent in each conference, (Zydrunas Illgauskas is the only foreign-born Eastern Conference All-Star over the last decade, and most people can’t even remember that), Haberstroh uses WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) to make his case:
We can look at this objectively rather than looking purely at All-Star appearances. According to research presented in the 2012-13 Basketball Prospectus, international players contributed 101.6 wins over replacement player (WARP) to Western Conference teams in the 2011-12 season. How about out East? Just 29 WARP. The gap widens over time. In the past decade, we’ve seen 949.4 wins contributed by international players to the West efforts compared to just 267.1 WARP from the East. The trend continues to this day
But it’s not as simple as Haberstroh makes it seem when he writes, “The West has Dirk Nowitzki and the East has Andrea Bargnani.” Haberstroh’s second reason in the piece, injuries, acts as the real culprit for the gulf between conferences.