NBA Eastern Conference: Weakness in Numbers

by Kurt Bullard

It seems like there’s never a time in the NBA season without critics of the league calling to improve the fairness of the league.

Last season, it was all about tanking. Several teams – such as the 76ers – may or may not have run Riggin’ for Wiggins campaigns – leading to a large discussion centered around tanking and the restructuring of the weighted draft lottery that aimed to eliminate the motivation for throwing games when it was introduced in 1990.

This year, it’s all about the talent disparity between conferences. As of now, the Pelicans and Thunder would fail to make the playoffs in the West, but would easily slide into the Eastern Conference playoffs in front of the projected seven and eight seed Hornets and Heat, who are both at least seven games under .500. There have been calls for the playoff format to be changed to include six division winners and 10 wild card teams instead of the tradition eight teams from each conference. If the Durant- and Westbrook-led Thunder fail to make the playoffs while the hapless Nets sneak their way in, this discussion is sure to be moved to the forefront of the NBA’s agenda.

The talent disparity became clear around the announcement of the All-Star teams. When Boogie Cousins and Damian Lillard failed to make the all-star team for the Western Conference, the immediate reaction was that either of them could have easily skated onto the Eastern Conference team. Eventually, they both made their way onto the team, but that has not ended the talks about the problem that the gap in performance between conferences could cause.

So, how bad is the Eastern Conference?

There isn’t a perfect way to look at the question, so I’ll take several routes to evaluate the issue. One way is to simply look at the results of games between teams of the two conferences.

West 191-138 

The difference is pretty stark, but it’s only halfway through the season and could possibly be due to simple variation that’s expected over the course of a season. However, treating each game as an individual Bernoulli trial with a 50/50 chance of each team winning, it soon becomes apparent that the West domination is not a random fluctuation. If both conferences were equal, this result would only be expected to happen randomly 0.2% of the time.

Of course, this is not a perfect measure; even if conferences were relatively even in talent, we would expect some variation within a conference, meaning that we wouldn’t expect each team to have a 50/50 shot in every game.

Another way to look at this is to look at the distribution of the association’s top talent across conferences. Using Basketball-Reference’s Box Score Plus-Minus (BPM) as a measure of performance, I looked at the distribution of the top 24 players in the league at this moment (Enough to field two “All-Star” teams). The West had 15 of the top 24 players of the league, a phenomenon that would be expected to happen about 15% of the time, which, if we were running a statistical test, is not enough evidence to reject the belief that the conferences are even in top talent.

However, it’s readily apparent that five of the Eastern Conference’s eight players are ranked 20-24 on the list. If we instead looked at the top 20 players in the league, the top 15 come from the West. This disparity is statistically significant, as we would expect this to happen only 2% of the time. It gets worse for the East the further you narrow the pool down. If the league were to form an All-NBA team of the top 12 players this season, only one – LeBron James – would come from the East. Sending only one player in this scenario would be expected to happen .3% of the time.

It’s clear that the East hasn’t had great success on the year, but it’s very difficult to say from this one season that the playoffs need restructuring. Although I would much prefer to watch KD, Westbrook and Anthony Davis over Joe Johnson in the playoffs, restructuring the playoffs after one anomalous season may be rash. With free agency and the current lottery system, balance should eventually be restored.

The good news about the lackluster East? The Celtics are only two games out of the eight seed. It’s all about Banner 18.

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