Since 2000, 25 NBA teams have missed the playoffs despite holding a better record than a playoff team in the opposite conference.
Of those 25 slighted teams, 24 have been in the Western Conference.
Expect that list of shorted West teams to grow this season. There are 12 Western Conference teams in our power rankings before the eighth Eastern Conference team.
Conference imbalance is usually measured two ways – by teams at the top of each conference and by teams near the No. 8 seed.
The overwhelming 2019 title favorite is the Warriors, who play in the West. If they threepeat, they’d give the West 15 of 21 championships since Michael Jordan retired.
But zoom out just a little further, and the placement of contenders looks more balanced. In fact, three of the top five teams in our power rankings – Warriors, Celtics, Rockets, 76ers, Raptors – are in the East.
Yet, look near the playoff line, and the West dominates. If the season plays out according to our power rankings, the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Mavericks and Grizzlies would all miss the playoffs despite being better than the Pistons, the No. 8 team in the East. Of course, the season won’t match our preseason power rankings, but the difference in conferences at this point in the standings looks stark.
Last year, the West tied a record with 10 winning teams. That’s hard to pull off, but several losing Western Conference teams last year – Lakers, Grizzlies and Mavericks – should be far more competitive this year. None of the 10 winning teams are locks to fall off.
That will likely leave at least one Western Conference team joining the list of teams that missed the playoffs despite holding a better record than a team in the other conference. Those teams since 2000:
- 2018 Nuggets (46-36)
- 2016 Bulls (42-40)
- 2015 Thunder (45-37)
- 2015 Suns (39-43)
- 2014 Suns (48-34)
- 2014 Timberwolves (40-42)
- 2013 Jazz (43-39)
- 2013 Mavericks (41-41)
- 2011 Rockets (43-39)
- 2011 Suns (40-42)
- 2011 Jazz (39-43)
- 2010 Rockets (42-40)
- 2009 Suns (46-36)
- 2008 Warriors (48-34)
- 2008 Trail Blazers (41-41)
- 2008 Kings (38-44)
- 2006 Jazz (41-41)
- 2005 Timberwolves (44-38)
- 2004 Jazz (42-40)
- 2004 Trail Blazers (41-41)
- 2004 Warriors (37-35)
- 2004 SuperSonics (37-45)
- 2003 Rockets (43-39)
- 2001 Rockets (45-37)
- 2001 SuperSonics (44-38)
In a more holistic view, the West appears poised to dominate the East once again.
Based on each team’s over-under,* East teams project to win just 44% of their games against their West counterparts. That’d be a greater conference disparity than the last few years but in line with this era.
*The over-unders give teams 10 extra wins across the league. So, I subtracted a third of a win from all 30 teams for this projection.
Here is the East’s annual winning percentage against the West, actual results in blue and this season’s projection in orange:
Of course, Eastern Conference teams will have an opportunity to show they can hang. I expect the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers to be quite competitive. The Bucks and Pacers could make noise. I wouldn’t even rule out a team like the Wizards, Heat, Pistons or Hornets rising.
But the safe bets are the Western Conference Warriors winning the title, the competition being much more fierce to make the playoffs in the West and the West holding a decided overall advantage.