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January 10, 2009
East vs. West
The Gap is Closing

by Bradford Doolittle


Last season, rumblings that the NBA needed to revamp its playoff format were growing louder. The Golden State Warriors were left out of the Western Conference bracket despite a 48-34 record. Meanwhile, in the East, two teams (Philadelphia and Atlanta) made the postseason despite finishing under .500. It was, many argued, time to stop seeding the teams by conference.

The disparity could be traced to the West's superiority in interconference games. For the five seasons prior to this one, here are how the conferences stacked up:

Year   E   W  Pct
2004 154 266 .367
2005 194 256 .431
2006 198 252 .440
2007 193 257 .429
2008 192 258 .427

In an Unfiltered post earlier this season, I noted that the preseason predictions by analysts like John Hollinger that the East was closing the gap seemed to be coming true. At the time, the East held a 31-13 advantage against the West. It seemed unwise to draw conclusions from 44 games of results. However, now that we're nearing the season's halfway point, it's time to look at the issue again.

Since that Unfiltered post, the two conferences have played to a stalemate, going 74-74 in interconference play. So has the East caught up to the West?

Yes...and not quite.

Clearly there has been a shift. After winning 43 percent or fewer against the West for five straight seasons, the East has upped its success rate to 55 percent. The East is 62-36 in home games against the West and 43-51 on the road. Case closed, right?

Well, it's not quite that simple. Much of the East's dominance has come at the expense of the bottom sector of the alarmingly stratified Western Conference. The division between the haves (the top nine teams) and the have nots (the bottom six) in the West is stark enough that in another time and place it would have caught the attention of Leon Trotsky when he was at his most militant.

The top eight teams in the East are 67-38 (.638) in non-con play. The top eight in the West are at 64-33 (.660). Then it gets really ugly. The bottom seven in the East are 38-49 (.437), while the scrubs in the West are 23-72 (.242).

So from top to bottom, the East hasn't grown stronger so much as the bottom six teams in the West have descended into major rebuilding mode.

In games between the current top eight in the East versus the top eight in the West, the West has a 28-24 advantage. That's still better then recent seasons, but at the moment, the best in the West is still a tad better than the best in the East.

Nevertheless, you have to conclude that the balance has shifted towards the East this season. Why?

Let's answer that by first looking at where the wins are coming from. The conventional wisdom on the perceived East-West shift is that the West is simply getting old. There is a kernel of truth in that, but it's only part of the story. Here's a breakdown of wins produced so far this season by age:

Age   East   West
20     1.1    1.2
21     8.8    8.8
22     8.6    8.7
23    26.0   13.9
24    17.5   36.9
25    30.9   20.8
26    23.4    9.5
27    30.2   18.4
28    21.1    9.3
29    23.8   36.3
30    19.8   18.9
31    17.4   15.4
32    13.7   16.9
33    11.1   14.0
34    13.4    8.7
35     7.0    8.3
36     0.5    5.1
37     0.0    5.4
38     0.3    2.1

TOTAL  275    259

For the East, 70% of wins produced have come from players under the age of 30. The same figure for the West is 63%. More interesting is to drill down on players age 26 to 28, which should represent a group of players at or near their collective career peak. The East has gotten 38.5% of its wins produced from this group versus 22.4% for the West. The East is getting a little more success from young players but A LOT more production from players that have moved into their prime.

Another telling way to group players might be to look at who moved from one conference to another, who stayed put and who is new to the league. So let's do that:

Group             WP   %Tot
East_East      229.0    43%
West_West      211.8    40%
West_rookies    29.0     5%
East_rookies    27.8     5%
West_to_East    17.9     3%
East_to_West    17.8     3%
Total          533.3   100%

There has been no wave of player movement that can account for the East's surge. The West is actually getting more out of its rookie class, though the difference is insignificant. As for players who have moved from one conference to another since the end of last season, it's basically a wash.

There doesn't appear to be an easy explanation for why the East has seemingly caught up with the West after a half-decade of getting batted around like a cat toy. Over time, the East seems to have collected more quality young talent and after an extended gestation period, this group of talent has matured and evened the playing field with the West. That's the way it happens in professional sports--in slow, methodical cycles. That's also why knee-jerk reactions to temporary conditions, like removing conference distinctions when seeding for the playoffs, are never a good idea.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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Around the Rim (01/09)
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Still Perfect (01/12)

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2009-01-27 - : Week of January 26, 2009
2009-01-19 - : Week of January 19, 2009
2009-01-12 - : January 12, 2009
2009-01-10 - East vs. West: The Gap is Closing
2009-01-04 - : Week of January 2, 2009
2008-12-29 - : December 26, 2008
2008-12-21 - : December 20, 2008

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