It has been a long-standing theme in the NBA, that the Eastern Conference plays little brother to the Western Conference. For several seasons the West has been clearly superior to the East. The East’s distinction of being the weaker conference earned it a catchy nickname, the “Leastern Conference.” Through games played on Nov. 27, the East is 63-61 against the West, which is very surprising. But will this continue, is the East finally catching up this season?
Teams have played opponents from the opposite conference twice per season since 1979 (once at home and once on the road). The regular season outcome from the inter-conference games provides a good general indicator of conference balance. Technically, whichever conference has better teams should win more of the inter-conference games.
In head-to-head matchups, the West was 42 games over .500 against the East last season, compared to 2015-16, when the separation was much closer (14 games over .500). The East has not been consistently competitive with the West since Michael Jordan retired after the 1997-98 season. Western Conference clearly dominates since 2000-01, with Eastern Conference winning more inter-conference games only once (in 2008-09). Furthermore, the difference in wins was close only twice, in 2008-09 and 2014-15.
Here’s a breakdown of the head-to-head records for regular season games, plus a number of games above .500 in the cross-conference rivalry.
Overall, since the start of the 1998-99 season, the West has had a better record against the East in 17 out of 19 seasons. The West, similarly, has dominated the championships, though not by as wide a margin. Since 1999, the West has won 13 titles and the East six.
Looking at the current standings, the Eastern Conference runs deep, as only five clubs currently own records under .500. The West has eight clubs under. For now, it’s probably too early to claim that the Eastern Conference will finally beat the Western Conference, despite what the standings might indicate. Most teams have only played about 20 games, meaning there is still a ton of season left. The struggling teams in the West will probably start playing better, and those that are playing so well in the East could fall off.
We don’t know how the season will play out. But considering past offseason, we shouldn’t expect much from the Eastern Conference in the near future. There has been a flood of Eastern Conference talent leaving to play in the West. Former Eastern Conference All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Millsap, Brook Lopez, and Jeff Teague all either left their Eastern teams via free agency or were traded to a team in the West. Nearly every star player, not named Gordon Hayward, ended up in the Western Conference.
There has been plenty of talk in recent weeks that LeBron James, who will be a free agent in 2018, would consider heading West to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. The league can only cross its fingers and hope he doesn’t decide to join the party out west. If he does, the conference imbalance will be even greater.