In the NBA, the Western Conference is no longer superior to the Eastern Conference.
The Eastern Conference is Finally Equal to the West in the NBA
Once upon a time, there was a large disparity between the quality of the teams in the East when compared to their Western Conference counterparts. Perhaps the most glaring example of this can be seen when taking a look at the 2003 season. The San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks boasted the best two regular-season records in the league, each winning 60 games that season. Meanwhile, the top two seeds in the East belonged to the Detroit Pistons and the New Jersey Nets, winners of 50 games and 49 games respectively. In each province, the top two seeds would reach the Conference Finals. Although it would take the Spurs six games to dispatch the Nets in the Finals, the Mavericks were clearly a tougher matchup for them. The balance of power clearly belonged in the West.
In recent years, this line of thinking has been parroted by many NBA pundits and even casual fans. However, over time it has become less accurate with each passing year. It is time to recognize that basketball in the Eastern Conference is on par with the West; there is no longer a superior realm in the Association. From individual performers to championship contenders, the two sides are evenly matched across the board. The narrative that the eventual champion is determined in the Western Conference Finals is not only outdated, it’s incorrect.
As we inch closer to the trade deadline, fan predictions about playoff seedings and outcomes intensify with each passing day. While the play-in-tournament adds a layer of unpredictability, the top four teams in each conference have provided a large enough sample size to prove they are the elite. Let’s take a closer look at why this season is a great example of the parity that now exists in the modern NBA.
Reigning NBA Champions
Any conversation about contenders for this year’s Larry O’Brien trophy should start with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. After finally getting over the hump last season, they look poised to make another serious run at the crown this year. Reigning Finals MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo has inserted himself into the regular season MVP conversation with his play as of late. Jrue Holiday is playing like an All-Star, and Khris Middleton silenced critics who questioned his ability to play on the big stage during last year’s playoffs.
The Bucks were able to beat a very good Phoenix Suns team in last year’s Finals even though they did not have homecourt advantage. Neither team suffered any series-altering injuries; the matchup was fair and the best team won. Anyone who looks to discredit Milwaukee’s run to the title is exposing themselves as a “hater.” The reigning champions deserve their respect and they are once again a threat to win it all. Their very presence is evidence of the strength of the Eastern Conference.
If you were to name the top ten players in the NBA right now, who would they be? Furthermore, let’s assume that the top ten players in the league would make up the All-NBA first and second teams respectively. For the sake of argument, I’ll provide my All-NBA picks this season, if my vote were cast today:
- First Team
G- Steph Curry
G- Donovan Mitchell
F- Kevin Durant
F- Giannis Antetokounmpo
C- Nikola Jokić
- Second Team
G- Bradley Beal
G- Devin Booker
F- DeMar DeRozan
F- LeBron James
C- Joel Embiid
As you can see from those selections, there are five players from each conference who I feel are deserving of first or second-team All-NBA honors. Years ago, LeBron James may have been the only first-team All-NBA performer from the Eastern Conference as a member of the Miami Heat. The other slots may have gone to Western Conference mainstays like Curry, James Harden, Durant, and DeAndre Jordan. However, after years of player movement through trades and free agent signings, the landscape of the league looks much different. Neither conference boasts more talent than the other. The East is no longer “little brother” to the West.
Unpredictable Playoff Landscape
Barring an impactful trade before the upcoming deadline, it is hard for me to imagine the top four contenders in the league changing from this point forward. While the Chicago Bulls have been a nice surprise and a great storyline this season, it is hard for me to imagine them beating the Brooklyn Nets or the Milwaukee Bucks in a series. Those two teams will battle for supremacy in the Eastern Conference for the remainder of the season. In all likelihood, they will be forced to resolve the matter in a best-of-seven series once again.
In the Western Conference, the Christmas day headliner served as a preview of what is sure to be a classic playoff series this spring. The Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns are both well-coached teams led by veteran point guards who have been through the post-season grind before. Home court advantage will not matter when these two teams meet in the playoffs; this series will be decided by grit and late-game execution. Which team wins is anybody’s guess.
Regardless of which two of the league’s top four teams ultimately emerge, this year’s Finals will be a classic. All four teams feature players who have proven they perform well under pressure and they are all very well-coached. We are almost halfway through the season, and the best four teams have separated themselves from the pack. Furthermore, two of them are from the West and two of them are from the East. The parity in the conferences couldn’t possibly be any more evident.
Gone are the days when the Eastern Conference, was the “also-ran” of the NBA. Today’s basketball landscape features tough terrain no matter where in the league you find yourself. Talented players, first-class organizations, and championship contenders are spread out all over the map. The Eastern Conference is finally on par with the West. As a basketball lifer, it is fun to watch and good to see. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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