Only three teams in the Eastern Conference have a .500 record or better compared to 12 teams out West. Why is the East struggling so badly? Our 5-on-5 team weighs in.
1. What's the worst thing about the East?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Aside from the weather, the absence of star power once you get past Miami and Indiana. Most of the teams out East are engaged in teardowns and compensating for deep flaws. We're not watching exhibitions of elite NBA ball; we're watching a disaster relief effort.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: It doesn't look like this will change in a meaningful way. With Derrick Rose gone for the season, the only team that has the talent to make a series against the Pacers or Heat interesting is the Nets. And the Nets look like a disaster.
Danny Nowell, TrueHoop Network: The bitter disappointment. Many of these teams fancied themselves contenders, and what a bummer that's turned out to be. Everywhere you look, you see the wreckage of misplaced hope: Andrew Bynum and Cleveland's depressing season, the high-priced calamities in New York ... the list could go on.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: The fact that even the teams that loaded up this summer to try to win haven't been able to do so. For all the talk of tanking, the bottom four teams in the East, including both New York squads, were teams that expected to make the playoffs or better.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: For me it's the fact we've been calling it the Leastern Conference since Michael Jordan won his last title with the Bulls. It's not a good enough line to use for 15 years straight, but the East has continued to be considerably thinner/weaker/pick-your-adjective than the West in virtually every season since MJ left the Bulls in the summer of 1998. Simply astounding. You'd think we'd see some good 6-7-8 seeds in the Least just by accident. But we pretty much never do.
2. What's the worst thing about the East-West disparity?
Arnovitz: For neat freaks, it upsets our tidy sense of order. In a perfect world, the surf break between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds in the respective conferences would be in close proximity. On the other hand, a concentration of teams in one conference means more matchups on a nightly basis between two very good to exceptional teams. League Passers can eat dinner like civilized people or hit the gym between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET because they aren't going to miss a thing.
Herbert: The worst thing is that the playoffs will feel unimportant in the East until the conference finals. The second-worst thing is that a few solid Western Conference teams will miss the postseason despite playing a tougher schedule and posting better records than several Eastern playoff teams.
Nowell: The way it hampers gamely rebuilding West teams. A team like the Phoenix Suns may compete harder and better than many teams in the East and still get stuck in purgatory, too bad to snag a low playoff seed and too good to get a higher pick than the actually atrocious Eastern teams. That's tough to overcome.
Pelton: I'm torn between saying the number of quality West teams who will be sitting at home in May and the prospect of two lopsided semifinals in the East. At this point it seems unlikely that anyone can challenge Indiana and Miami until they face each other.
Stein: I think we're all annoyed by now about the playoff races, year after year after year, that see legitimately decent teams out West get squeezed out of the postseason because there are always 12 teams competing for eight playoff spots on the left side of the conference divide. I'm sure all five respondents today will have something snide to say about the Atlantic Division and the "pace" those teams are setting en route to the East's No. 4 seed. Just sad.
3. Is the East-West disparity fair to Western Conference teams?
Arnovitz: It's not fair, but there are greater injustices in the world. If you're the seventh, eighth, ninth or 10th best team in the West, you don't have a legitimately rightful claim as a contender. That the 11th best team in the NBA may miss the playoffs isn't a crime against basketball.
Herbert: It doesn't feel fair right now, does it? If the season ended today and I was the Suns or the Timberwolves on the outside of the playoff picture, I sure as heck wouldn't be tuning in to watch the Pistons play postseason basketball.
Nowell: No. About the only possible benefit to Western teams is that they are more accustomed to elite competition come the postseason, but that's flimsy indeed considering just how spectacularly unfair the rift is otherwise.
Pelton: No, but they were never promised fairness. Everyone knew the rules going in, and the fact the West had a surplus of teams at the bottom of the playoff race isn't a huge surprise. It's just that the race is to 45 wins instead of, say, 42.
Stein: Of course not. But the only way to fix it -- until more teams in the East start making smarter trades, signings and draft picks -- is to abolish the two conferences and have all 30 teams play each other an equal number of times home and away using a truly balanced schedule like we see in the Premier League in English soccer. And the only way that could happen is if the NBA regular season is shortened, because doing away with conferences would increase the travel demands on each team to deeply unfair levels if you keep the 82-game template. Portland isn't all that easy to get to even from where I live in centrally located Dallas. You can't impose 82-game travel demands on a team like the Blazers unless you keep conferences.
4. Is the East-West disparity an aberration, a problem, both or neither?
Arnovitz: It's an aberration, as these things tend to be cyclical over time. Five of the seven teams that play in the five largest television markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto) are in the East, so if you want to bank on market size, this phenomenon will likely correct itself, so long as the New Yorkers can get their act together. The money is there, even if ownership and management isn't.
Herbert: Somewhere between an aberration and a problem. It's not new that the West is better and deeper, but the disparity hasn't been quite like this. We're looking at the perfect storm of Eastern Conference misery.
Nowell: A problem. Any organization not at the very top or bottom end of the league is going to be vulnerable to variables like strength of schedule, and it seems needless to strand the Western middle class in the late lottery desert while dismal teams back East can slouch into the playoffs.
Pelton: More the former than the latter. This level of imbalance between the two conferences can't possibly persist, but it's the culmination of a decade and a half of West dominance, which is hard to write off as a fluke but also difficult to explain on a systematic level.
Stein: Most definitely not an aberration when the trend is old enough to be a sophomore in high school. And most definitely a legit problem. A problem, though, without obvious solutions, or else we would have seen one by now given how much time league officials have had to ponder these issues.
5. What would you do about the East-West disparity?
Arnovitz: Nothing. If anything, eliminating the conferences and going with a balanced schedule would give the West an even greater edge because Western teams would have the privilege of beating up on the East more frequently. Also, the NBA should do everything in its power to cut down on miles traveled, not increase them.
Herbert: Leave the regular-season alignment alone, but re-imagine the playoff race. If you finish the season below .500, you should not be entitled to a playoff spot over .500-or-better teams in the other conference.
Nowell: Abolish conferences. This is pretty much a non-starter, I know, since it would require shortening the season and lengthening the gaps between games, but you can get from the NBA's farthest flung city -- Portland -- to the East Coast in five hours. I'd like to see the league play fewer games, space them out better and eliminate the need for conferences while reaping the benefits of additional rest for the players.
Pelton: Nothing. Eliminating conferences is unrealistic in terms of travel, even during the playoffs. Charters are great, but they can't make the East Coast and West Coast any closer to each other. If someone wants to use this as a reason to put a weak expansion team in Seattle, however, I wouldn't complain.
Stein: You could probably sell me on the balanced-scheduled route with no conferences and a 30-team, Premier League-style table ... albeit with no relegation. But I'm also realistic enough to know there's no way it's ever going to happen. Franchises are not about to embrace the idea of dropping down from 41 to 29 home dates because of all the lost revenue. And players, who might initially love suggestions of a shorter regular season and what that might mean health-wise, would certainly have their own reservations if the league said it was going to reduce the schedule from 82 games to 58-ish ... but also slice annual salaries to compensate for the revenue losses. Here's hoping someone smarter than me thinks of something, because I'm more than ready to give up the Leastern Conference cracks. Got more mileage out of 'em than they ever deserved.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz, Kevin Pelton and Marc Stein cover the NBA for ESPN.com. James Herbert and Danny Nowell contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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