For decades, a stream of talent with big aspirations has been migrating west across the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. History, mystique and the nation's most hallowed institutions still reside on the Eastern Seaboard and in the old industrial Midwest, but for big upside and a high ceiling, go west.
The phenomenon of highly skilled labor leaving one region for another is what economists call human capital flight or "brain drain." Over the past 20 years, the NBA has experienced a game drain as the league's biggest stars have disproportionately landed in the Western Conference.
When the Indiana Pacers shipped Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder on June 30, the current outflow of talent from East to West swelled to a tsunami. Thirteen of the top 14 players in ESPN's November 2016 installment of #NBArank will open the 2017-18 season in the Western Conference. The only holdout is LeBron James, who is reportedly contemplating a move to Los Angeles next summer, when his contract expires in Cleveland.
It naturally follows that an outsized share of the league's best teams play in the Western Conference. The West has beaten the East head-to-head in 16 of the past 17 seasons. In adjusted net rating, which weights a team's overall efficiency for strength of opponent, the top five teams in the league last season all reside in the West. Of the top five teams in adjusted net rating over each of the past five seasons, only four of those 25 hail from the Eastern Conference. For all the dominance the West has displayed over the East, it's most pronounced at the very top.
Powerful forces in the NBA have brought us to this point -- among them superior management, higher expectations and plain ol' luck. But it's an even mightier force, the motives of star players, as demonstrated this month by Gordon Hayward, that can help the NBA rediscover parity between West and East.
Is the West superior by luck or design?
The basic laws of probability dictate that in a league composed of 30 teams in two conferences there will be periods when one dominates the other. And because league rosters are relatively stable from season to season, once a conference gains an edge, it can sustain it over time through inertia. For instance, the East enjoyed an advantage during the entire span of the 1980s, when Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and later Detroit consistently racked up 50-plus-win seasons.
The West's reign of today has an air of permanence about it, as if its superiority can't be accounted for by simple chance. But if the disparity is more than that, then what is it?
Regarding conference imbalance, Occam's razor would suggest that better teams are simply better managed. Good players don't stumble their way onto rosters by accident. Their talents are identified and their rights are acquired. They develop their skills in a specific environment, one shared by teammates, coaches, management, medical and performance experts and all kinds of support staff.
The better the operation, the more successful the team. Over time, elite organizations tend to retain the best players and/or find new blood, even if the process requires a couple of lean seasons while the place is being renovated. All of that starts at the top.
"There are good owners in both conferences, but collectively there are better owners in the West," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey says. "Players are getting wise to owners being an important selection criteria."
In his statement following the announcement of his new four-year, $170 million extension on Saturday, James Harden said, "[Owner Leslie Alexander] has shown he is fully committed to winning, and my teammates and I are going to keep putting in the work to get better and compete for the title."
The East certainly boasts some standout owners -- Micky Arison in Miami, Wyc Grousbeck in Boston, to name a couple. But from the Texas triumvirate to the steady Miller family in Utah, the depth chart of the West's owners, just like its superstars, is more impressive.
Smart ownership yields smart management, and the most innovative, competent -- and stable -- front offices have been concentrated in the West for a while now. Continuity is the mother's milk of the NBA, and the regimes in San Antonio and Dallas (ranked first and second in wins since 2000) have been in place for eons. Two big winners this offseason, Sam Presti in Oklahoma City and Morey in Houston (the Rockets and Thunder rank fifth and sixth in wins since 2000) are both a decade into their tenures. Third and fourth place go to the Lakers (Mitch Kupchak presided from 2000 until 2017), and Miami (Pat Riley has ruled since the first term of the Clinton administration).
The suggestion here is that if an organization wants to reap a long, bountiful era of milk and honey, and all the rest of it, it should install competent managers in the executive suites and provide them with a long runway. But is longevity for a front office the catalyst for winning, or is this the halo effect at work? Do elite teams win big because owners provide management teams decades of job security, or do those front offices get 10, 15, 20 years of trust because their teams are successful?
The Warriors and the broken window theory
The Golden State Warriors have set the entire NBA on edge, particularly those franchises that have been deliberately constructing their teams to contend during the latter half of this decade. The Dubs have sent a message: If you want to contend in the West -- hell, if you just want a chance to host a playoff game in May -- you better load up.
That's exactly what the Rockets did in acquiring Chris Paul, bolstering their vulnerable defense with PJ Tucker and feverishly managing their spreadsheet to add even more. The Spurs, determined not to squander Kawhi Leonard's prime, added Rudy Gay and brought back key contributors instead of retreating into a soft rebuild to ready themselves for a time after the dissolution of the Holy Warriors Empire. Oklahoma City saw a chance to add a second top-10 player and pounced.
Meanwhile, back East, 41 wins will likely land you a spot in the playoffs, as it did last season for Chicago (though not Miami).
"When a conference is weak, teams in that conference don't have to invest as much to succeed," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said via email last week. "Nor is there as much pressure to succeed. That impacts the decision-making process."
Call it the Soft Drudgery of Low Expectations or even the Broken Conference Theory, whereby a conference that falls into disrepair is more likely to continue its slide into oblivion. In an environment in which a sub-.500 record could net a team two home playoff dates, and a 45-win season practically pencils a team into the conference semis, it's not surprising to see a whole bunch of teams behave like the regular season is a pass-fail course. This effect leads the East to function as a warehouse store for treadmills of mediocrity, where a .500 record buys you a bargain.
Perhaps there's an evolutionary component to this idea. College coaches routinely point to scheduling challenging out-of-conference games as a means to strengthen their teams for postseason play. For Western Conference squads that can hardly go a week without seeing a Warriors, Spurs, Rockets or another .600 West foe on the docket, their merciless schedule demands constant playoff-quality execution. All the while, Eastern Conference teams get to scheme against the confederation of the middling.
Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Memphis and Oklahoma City rank as the NBA's only metro areas shy of 1.5 million people, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. But that hasn't stopped the Jazz, Grizzlies and Thunder from, season after season, turning out a consistent product in a league in which market size has huge implications for local broadcast revenue and free-agent recruitment. Spend 10 minutes with top team business execs such as the Jazz's Steve Starks and the Grizzlies' Jason Wexler, and one thing is clear: There's an organizational imperative to scratch, claw and do whatever it takes to maintain relevance, even if it means bowing out with dignity in the conference semifinals to a juggernaut like Golden State.
It's also easy to forget that San Antonio qualifies as a bottom-10 NBA market in size (the nation's No. 31 Nielsen market, just behind Hartford, Connecticut), because the Spurs long ago stopped behaving like a have-not. Portland, the league's No. 23 television market, might not have enough high-end hotel rooms to host an All-Star Game, but the Trail Blazers have compiled a .564 winning percentage since Paul Allen bought the team in 1988.
For all the hand-wringing over the precarious state of small-market NBA franchises against the big-market bullies, the gap between big and small isn't a fraction of the chasm between West and East. The question is: Why is the disparity so hard to undo?
The Matthew Effect
For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.
This verse from the Book of Matthew inspired a well-known aphorism: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Sociologist Robert K. Merton gave it a name: the Matthew Effect. If the past several years are any indication, the Matthew Effect has found a sturdy vessel in the NBA.
Ostensibly, the NBA doesn't try to perpetuate inequality between teams or conferences. With the draft, the NBA employs an incentive structure that hands the best incoming talent to terrible teams. If those teams are disproportionately located in the Eastern Conference -- or, for that matter, wear blue as their primary color or play in cities whose names start with letters in the first half of the alphabet -- the draft system is, in practice, supposed to make the poor richer. For whatever reason, these remedies aren't having their intended effect.
In 2010, a new variable changed the equation when the Big Three joined forces in Miami -- a somewhat ironic turn given that the Heat play in the East, as did the three stars who joined forces, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Theoretically, the salary-cap structure is one of the NBA's mechanisms for discouraging a concentration of power, but James exerted his self-determination as the talent who drives the talent of the league. He wanted to play with two hand-picked All-Stars, and aided by the spreadsheet jiu-jitsu of Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg in Miami's front office, that's exactly what happened. In the seven years since, James' contemporaries have adopted the same strategy.
"Today, for players where the money is equal between destinations, 'Which superstar am I playing with?' are Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in selection criteria," Morey says. "Only after that comes owners, management, coach and city."
If the brightest stars are magnets that attract other superstars, then the more talented conference will effectively compound its advantage. Kevin Durant joins Steph Curry in Oakland, while Chris Paul partners with James Harden in Houston. Paul George might not stay in Oklahoma City, but the presence of Russell Westbrook means that, if things work out this season, both guys can re-up for top deals and assure they'll be playing with a fellow superstar.
Try as the league might to declare the terms for competition, superstars are now running the show -- and they want to play in tandems and trios.
Superstars can fix this
As the gap between the West and East widens, calls for eliminating conferences altogether grow louder. Sensible proposals have been made and Adam Silver said in 2015 the league would "take a hard look" at a playoff system that accepts the top 16 teams overall, regardless of conference standings.
Such a system could burden teams with brutal travel. The lower seed in a seven-game series between Portland and Miami would log 16,200 miles in six cross-continental flights over two weeks. For Boston-Los Angeles, it's 15,600. That volume of travel isn't conducive to world-class basketball when the games matter most, nor to good health.
Time might be a cure, as Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee are poised to be very competitive for a very long time. At the same time, Minnesota, Denver and the Lakers figure to rejoin the living in the West over the next few seasons. If LeBron makes good on reports that he's eyeing Los Angeles, the entire enterprise might capsize.
Stars like LeBron hold the key, and they might be the best corrective for conference imbalance. According to multiple sources close to the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes, a key pitch point in the recruitment process from Boston -- and to a lesser extent Miami -- was a shorter line to compete for a conference title and beyond.
Around Hayward, Utah built an exemplary culture with classy ownership, standout management and a dedicated coach. Yet the Jazz were up against an impossible structural challenge -- they couldn't offer him the fast track Boston could. In the East, Hayward is an even-money bet to snag one of the three starting frontcourt spots in the 2018 All-Star Game; in the West, he's a cautionary tale.
However much Hayward was drawn to Brad Stevens or the Celtics mystique, Boston's trump card was opportunity. "Where can I win?" is a question inextricably linked with "Which superstar am I playing with?" At what point do other top-20 players entertaining those questions examine the landscape, spot the market inefficiency and make the same call?
When they do, this conversation is over.