As you may have heard, there are some pretty good teams with pretty good players at the top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference. There are as many or more title-contending teams in the East than the West for the first time in recent memory, and that somehow happened with the biggest free agent who switched conferences, Amare Stoudemire, going to a team that doesn’t rank among the championship favorites.
In no particular order, teams that have the most realistic shot at a title have to be the Lakers, Heat, Celtics, Magic, Bulls, Mavericks and Thunder. Throw in the Spurs if you’re feeling generous. And aside from the Thunder, the contending teams in the West have players on the downward slope of their careers, while only the Celtics seem to be in danger of the window closing soon in the East.
The prospect of Carmelo Anthony and/or Chris Paul heading East at some point would only further tilt the balance. Don’t forget whispers about Deron Williams over the summer either, although there aren’t specific reports of interest in or from East Coast cities as with the other two.
So is the West really weaker than the East, or could it be soon? And does it matter for the Thunder? The idea that the West could suffer a slight power drain could almost be considered optimistic in Oklahoma City. An aging Lakers team bequeathing the top spot to the Thunder, perhaps the only team positioned to take advantage, doesn’t seem a far-fetched daydream.
But if the Thunder benefits from this scenario at all, it most likely won’t happen this season. It might be asking a lot for Oklahoma City to seize even the No. 2 spot in the West, because there are still a number of proud teams with good coaches and good players. The West’s demise may be a bit exaggerated — for now. A Western Conference schedule still features plenty of teams good enough to beat anybody, especially in their own arenas.
So which conference is better, as of now? Top to bottom it’s probably still the West. In an attempt to settle the debate and hopefully start a couple of fights, let’s pair teams from each conference against each other, one by one, and pretend they’re playing a playoff series on a neutral court. For the sake of ranking the conference’s teams and determining the matchups, we’ll use Marc Stein’s bias in the form of his power rankings to guide the selections. Then we’ll use my bias to decide who wins.
1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat
In Season One of the whatever-you-want-to-call-thems in Miami, I don’t think they build the chemistry and figure out how to dole out important shots just yet. Although Kobe’s bum knee scares me one minute … and leaves me thinking the next that he’s just whining and trying to create milk a “warrior” legacy. If you’re healthy enough to play, shut up and play. If you’re not, sit out.
Winner: Lakers. West 1, East 0.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Boston Celtics
With this year’s Boston team, I hesitate slightly because I don’t know how the O’Neals are going to figure in. And Kendrick Perkins’ health, and attitude, are unknowns. But there’s still at least one more season where I think the overall championship pedigree and playoff reps of the Celtics edge out the Thunder. They don’t have anyone like Ron Artest who could shut down Kevin Durant the way the Lakers did last season, but the Celtics’ role players have made big plays in May and June and the Thunder’s haven’t. Yet.
Winner: Celtics. West 1, East 1.
3) San Antonio Spurs vs. Orlando Magic
In fairness I don’t think the Spurs are the third-best team in the West. But I think the Magic could beat whoever is. This would be an easier decision if I trusted Dwight Howard more, but I don’t think Tim Duncan can handle someone like him in a long series at this point in his career. I love watching Duncan play, but the Spurs don’t have what it takes to win the title anymore, and it starts with him being older.
Winner: Magic. West 1, East 2.
4) Dallas Mavericks vs. Chicago Bulls
This is a tough decision because we know exactly who the Mavericks are, but we don’t really know what the Bulls are going to be. They were anointed a few paragraphs ago and by legions of others as title contenders, but we still haven’t seen this new team play. That’s why I have to go with what I know. Dirk Nowitzki can still score and score late. The Bulls have a new coaching staff and new players to fit in.
Winner: Mavericks. West 2, East 2.
5) Utah Jazz vs. Milwaukee Bucks
The Jazz have one of the 10 best players in the NBA in Deron Williams. The Bucks don’t have anyone like that. End of story.
Winner: Jazz. West 3, East 2.
6) Portland Trail Blazers vs. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks just laid down one of the biggest playoff stinkers I can remember and rewarded their best player with a bank-busting contract. The Blazers, uh, didn’t. End of story.
Winner: Blazers. West 4, East 2.
7) Phoenix Suns vs. New York Knicks
Fun! The Needless Apostrophes (Mike D’Antoni and Amare’ Stoudemire … get it, GET IT?!) get to face their old team together before the season even starts in our mythical matchup. But you can’t take the Knicks over last year’s Western Conference runners-up for at least another season in my mind. How good is Stoudemire going to look without Steve Nash? Not as good as whoever the Suns have playing with him this year when they get their wing player logjam sorted out.
Winner: Suns. West 5, East 2.
8) Houston Rockets vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Yao or no Yao, there’s no debate. They made a nice run to the playoffs two years ago, but the 76ers suck until proven otherwise.
Winner: Rockets. West 6, East 2.
9) Denver Nuggets vs. Charlotte Bobcats
You can probably throw this one out the window, because the Bobcats could very well prevail depending on what the Nuggets look like after a Carmelo Anthony trade if one ever materializes. But with Anthony, the Nuggets take this one easily.
Winner: Nuggets. West 7, East 2.
10) New Orleans Hornets vs. Washington Wizards
This is one that could change once the basketballs start bouncing for real — and also if Chris Paul ever really gets traded. If Gilbert Arenas comes back anywhere close to resembling his form of a few seasons ago and John Wall plays like a Rookie of the Year candidate, I could see them knocking off a discombobulated Hornets team adjusting to a new coaching and front office staff. But right now, you’d be crazy to pick the Wizards after last year’s debacle.
Winner: Hornets. West 8, East 2.
11) Memphis Grizzlies vs. Indiana Pacers
The wins are really starting to pile up for the West. Memphis has a group of young players who managed to tread water in a tough Western Conference last year, although they still don’t seem to have an elite star and whiffed with Hasheem Thabeet. But who scares you on the Pacers after Danny Granger?
Winner: Grizzlies. West 9, East 2.
12) Los Angeles Clippers vs. New Jersey Nets
The Clippers have to fight against the whole Clippers thing. The Nets are coming off one of the worst seasons ever. But the Nets, sans-Carmelo, don’t have a roster that stacks up man-for-man with the Clippers right now.
Winner: Clippers. West 10, East 2.
13) Golden State Warriors vs. Detroit Pistons
The Warriors have Stephen Curry but … man, who cares about this one. Extra boring. Let’s just give it to the Pistons to stop the bleeding for the East and give them the benefit of the doubt that somebody could step up and beat their Western counterpart.
Winner: Pistons. West 10, East 3.
14) Sacramento Kings vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Um … even though I like the Kings here, let’s throw Cleveland a bone, shall we? We like us some Byron Scott in Oklahoma City.
Winner: Cavs. West 10, East 4.
15) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Toronto Raptors
How can you really go with the team that already admitted to its fans that it has no shot to compete for a title this year? You can’t.
Winner: Raptors. Final score: West 10, East 5.
So my super-scientific analysis shows that not only is the West still the better and deeper conference overall, it’s not even close even when being generous near the end. Especially this season, pre-trading deadline.
The lesson in this for the Thunder is not to forget the frightening almost-parity in the West. If the East is top-heavy, the West is middle-heavy. In a season when the difference between 53 wins and 49 wins could be having the second seed and being out of the playoffs, that matters.