NBA West Dominates East, Except on the Balance Sheet: Data Viz (2024)

Remember when the 2004 Boston Celtics made the playoffs despite going 36-46? Me neither. Led by Paul Pierce, their second and third leading scorers were Mark Blount and Jiří Welsch. The Celtics would have finished with the third-worst record in the Western Conference, but they got a postseason bid in the East and were promptly swept in the first round.

For Gen Z NBA fans, this situation is the norm. The eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference has only had a better record than its Western counterpart three times since 1999. West teams have won 17 of the 25 available championships during that timespan, and there have been more players from the West selected for All-NBA in every single season.

Between the 1999-00 and 2020-21 seasons, the East had a better record than the West in intra-conference matchups just once, when the East eked it out in 2008-09 by winning 51.3%.

In the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, there was a glimmer of hope for the East, which edged out the West in the head-to-head twice. It wasn’t a complete reversal, however. A West team won the title both seasons, and the majority of All-NBA players in both years played in the West.

After two years in flux, the balance of power has shifted back toward the Pacific Ocean. This season, West teams have won 55.9% of intra-conference games, and the other aforementioned historical trends are projected to continue as well. In a recent straw poll of MVP voters, four of the top five candidates were West players. With regard to the eventual champion, five of the seven teams with 20-to-1 odds or better to win the title on DraftKings are from the West.

Some of these trends could be statistical anomalies—Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Steph Curry all happened to land in the same conference as rookies, and they were collectively involved in 14 of the West’s recent 17 titles. Looking back exactly 25 years also conveniently excludes Michael Jordan’s days with the Chicago Bulls, during which the East generally reigned supreme. The All-NBA pattern is a little more difficult to dismiss as randomness, though, given its consistency over an entire quarter of a century.

The imbalance in terms of star power and on-court performance has, interestingly, not led to a financial disparity. In Sportico’s 2023 NBA valuations, we pegged the median West team, the Denver Nuggets, at $3.4 billion while valuing the median East team, the Atlanta Hawks, just a smidge lower at $3.35 billion. This equality has persisted over time. Twenty years ago, Forbes valued the median West team at $256 million and the median East team at $258 million.

East teams are doing just fine in terms of cash flow, as well. Last season, the East brought in only 4% less revenue collectively than the West, despite the Golden State Warriors’ outlier $764 million haul padding the latter’s total.

One advantage for the East: fewer small markets. Of the 29 NBA teams that play in the United States, 23 of them play in designated media areas that rank in the country’s top 25, according to Nielsen. Five of the remaining six are West teams, including Salt Lake City (#27), San Antonio (#31), Oklahoma City (#47), Memphis (#50) and New Orleans (#51). The lone “small market” Eastern Conference team by this basic definition is the Milwaukee Bucks (#38).

In a sense, life is easier for the average East team. They have managed to keep pace on the business side throughout the 21st century despite employing fewer superstars, winning fewer games and hosting fewer championship parades.

East teams also enjoy an easier path to the playoffs, because teams play more games against their own conference than against the other one. For instance, the New York Knicks are on pace to secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs this season while the Dallas Mavericks are currently in Play-In Tournament position. This is despite the Mavs having a better winning percentage against Eastern Conference teams and a better winning percentage against Western Conference teams than the Knicks.

The inevitable expansion of the NBA to 32 teams could alter the status quo, although in which direction is unclear. Western cities Las Vegas and Seattle are the frontrunners to field teams, which would necessitate moving a Western Conference team to the East to balance the numbers. The likely candidates are the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, none of whom have ever made an NBA Finals. Thus, the East could be further diluted from a historical success perspective.

On the other hand, new expansion teams tend to lose a lot of games, as the expansion draft contains a limited pool of players, and the teams are subject to a salary cap that’s a third smaller than the rest of the league in their first season. Therefore, the West would probably be adding two weak teams, at least initially.

Until then, another run of on-court dominance for the West could be on the horizon. The West’s worst team, the San Antonio Spurs, who are 4-22 against the East this season, have 20-year-old Victor Wembanyama. As a rookie, Wemby is already averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game and ranks in the top 25 among all players in the advanced metric Estimated Plus Minus (EPM).

The only three players under the age of 25 who rank higher than Wemby in EPM are also in the West: Luka Dončić (24 years old), Anthony Edwards (22) and Chet Holmgren (21). The third-worst team in the West, the Grizzlies, are going to get 24-year-old Ja Morant back after he played just nine games this season. The West is already the more formidable conference, and should only get better.

The NFC won 13 straight Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s, and eventually the pendulum swung back. While the NBA’s Eastern Conference teams wait for that swing to happen here, they can enjoy softer schedules and equal financial success.

NBA West Dominates East, Except on the Balance Sheet: Data Viz (2024)
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