The West is a deep conference, while the East…isn’t. For the past 10 years, this has become a cyclic problem. The key example of this problem is the Cavs vs. the Thunder. The Thunder were able to use the 2nd, 4th, and 3rd picks to get Durant, Westbrook, and Harden in consecutive years. The Cavs used the 1st, 10th, and 25th picks to get Lebron James, Luke Jackson, and Shannon Brown in consecutive years.
There is some luck involved here, but this is indicative of a larger principle–it is much harder to improve through the draft in the East than the West. Conference disparity leads to lottery disparity. Lebron made the Cavs so good that they couldn’t draft another star. The Durant-led OKC didn’t make the playoffs until they had drafted 3 young stars.
The only way Lebron could get two other stars was through free agency. Durant got them through the draft.
This is happening over and over in the league. Let’s look at the breakdown:
The East Is Terrible…And Misses Out In the Draft?
This has been a known fact for some time. The Eastern Conference–while keeping up with championship totals the past 10 years, have been a far inferior conference than the Western Conference. The Pistons, Heat, and Celtics have won 5 titles in the past 10, while the Spurs, Lakers, and Mavs have won 5 as well. (That cuts out the Lakers/Spurs early 2000’s dominance, but to include them would be to leave out Jordan’s Bulls. The past 10 years reflects 10 non-dynasty winners.)
Even with the championships at a dead heat, the West has been deeper. You need a plus .500 record (41-41) to even be considered a playoff contender in the West. In the East, any win total above 35 is reason to hope.
To whit: in the NBA last year, the 38-44 Bucks made the playoffs in the East. That would have been 11th in the West! In 2008, every Western Conference playoff team won 50+ games! Only 3 teams in the East hit that mark! The past 10 years, 8th in the East has averaged between 10th and 11th in the West.
Now that may not seem like a big deal–two or three Western conference teams would be playoff teams in the East every year. But it is! The actual placement of 8th in the East is 10.65 in the West (the past decade). This means 2.65 Western conference teams get the lottery picks that 2.65 Eastern conference teams should be getting every year. For the past 10 years, 26 or 27 lottery picks (2.65 x 10) have landed on Western conference teams good enough to make the Eastern conference playoffs. The flip side of that is 2.65 Eastern conference teams who need help in the draft lottery every year don’t get it.
Again: this means when a bad Eastern conference team makes the playoffs, it doesn’t enter the draft lottery. However when a good Western conference team misses the playoffs, it does enter the draft lottery. In ten years almost 30 potential stars have gone to the better Western conference teams.
So the good get better and the bad get worse. The draft is supposed to help bad teams by getting them better players than the good teams get. But conference disparity has landed many Eastern teams in the puzzling predicament of being bad, but not being helped by the draft.
The Bucks and Raptors feel this weight the most–they are on a treadmill of mediocrity.The weak East is locking them out of good picks they should be getting.
Good teams get better picks and bad teams get worse picks? That’s backwards!
Not Staying In the Lottery Long Enough
Of the 30 teams in the NBA, more bad teams are in the East every year. Since “playoff team” is the cut for the draft lottery, many teams 6-12 in the East revolve around each other. The systemic cycle is:
1.) Miss the playoffs
2.) Get help in the draft
3.) Make the playoffs with one good prospect buoying your team
4). Watch other teams below you improve
Eastern Conference teams can’t draft stars in consecutive years because one good star makes you a playoff team/playoff contender (Lebron in Cleveland, for example).
In the West, it works like this:
1.) Miss the playoffs
2.) Get help in the draft
3.) Miss the playoffs again, even with a great draft pick
4.) Get more help in the draft
5.) Narrowly miss the playoffs
6.) Get more help in the draft
7.) Make the playoff as a contender with 3 stars that you have drafted.
The OKC Thunder followed this to perfection. They picked 2nd, 4th, and 3rd in consecutive years to acquire Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Any Eastern conference team could not have stuck around in the lottery that long, but would have likely been bumped to the playoffs with just Durant (again, see Cleveland and Lebron/Jackson/Brown).
This year, “lottery” teams in the West–New Orleans and Sacramento–will have a ping-pong ball chance of getting great draft picks (A third team, Dallas/Portland is in there as well). If they were in the East, they would be Washington or Cleveland: young intriguing teams that will likely make the playoffs. This summer, the Pellies and Kings will receive the picks that the Wiz and Cavs should. The Cavs and Wiz will then have a lower future ceiling than the Pellies and Kings.
The Pellies future championship story may be drafting Anthony Davis and __________ within two years of each other. In the East, Anthony Davis would push a team out of lottery range, robbing them of a championship level team and locking a star on a bad team (Hello, LEBRON IN CLEVELAND!)
NBA–we need your help! Let’s re-align some things. Scrap West vs. East, let’s go with the already existing divisions. 6 division winners get playoff spots 1-6. The next 10 teams (from any division) make the playoffs as wild cards. If that’s too open, the first 2 teams from each division could get spots 1-12, with spots 13-16 being wildcard.
This would even out the draft lottery, ensuring that the teams that do need help get it–and aren’t punished by their weak conference.
The ball’s in your court, Adam Silver. Make it happen.
Tyler Dykstra is a contributor for TrendingHoops.com
Stats from NBA.com and Basketball-reference.com
Pictures © CC from wikimedia commons via users Keith Allison (Durant, Lebron, and Westbrook pics), Justin Smith / Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0 (Harden), Bridget Samuels (Shannon Brown). Luke Jackson pic public domain.