Last night saw the conclusion of a pair of first round series and the continuation of another pair. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it was two Eastern battles that wrapped and a couple of Western showdowns that lived on. While all four first round series in the Western Conference remain hotly contested, just one remains incomplete on the Eastern side.
It’s possible that this simply represents an odd coincidence or that the top Western powers (Lakers, Mavs, Suns and Nuggets) aren’t as strong as the East’s ‘big four’ (the Cavs, Magic, Hawks and Celtics).
However, a closer look highlights the inherent discrepancy in the depth of the two Conferences.
Coming out of the regular season, the teams going head-to-head in the first round of the four Eastern Conference series were separated by an average of 11.0 games, compared to the 4.0 games separating the West’s first round foes. Oklahoma City’s 50 regular season wins earned them a No. 8 seed in the West, whereas they would have found themselves in the No. 5 spot in the East.
The regular season contrasts between the conferences have carried over into the postseason. Even without looking into the numbers and simply watching the games, it’s clear where the competition lies. The Celtics have had their fair share of issues this season, but looked positively dominant against a Heat team that clearly had little to offer beyond Dwyane Wade’s 33.8 points per game (Mario Chalmers was second on the team, averaging just 10.8 points).
Meanwhile, neither Chicago nor Charlotte could take advantage of spotty performances from their respective opponents, Cleveland and Orlando.
Compare that to the West, where the Thunder rebounded from a 2-0 deficit and have held Kobe Bryant in check over the course of what has been an entertaining series that is headed to at least a sixth game. Even the No. 7 Spurs leading the No. 2 Mavs 3-2 can hardly be considered surprising, given San Antonio’s four titles and appearances in each of the past 13 seasons.
Even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who you’d figure to see on the ledge of a building at the prospect of a Mavs’ first round exit, offered a reasoned, thoughtful and, perhaps, resigned perspective on the wide open nature of the wild West.
“Like I said long before the playoffs started, anybody can kick anybody’s ass,” Cuban said. “Nobody’s afraid of anybody and that’s the way it’s played out. One shot here, one shot there, a ball rolls in or a ball rolls out and everybody’s looking at this different.”
The stark contrast is sufficiently jarring so as to raise the question of what has led to such a discrepancy. It seems as though teams out West have found a successful formula whereupon they can find a star and surround him with complementary players who do not disrupt the chemistry balance but contribute in a meaningful way.
Among the bottom four Western playoff squads, Utah boasts Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, but also has Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Millsap. In Portland, Brandon Roy is the alpha dog, but Marcus Camby and Andre Miller play major roles. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has made a career out of surrounding Tim Duncan with players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli who help create space in the low post. Even the young Thunder are well on their way to implementing the model, with NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant complemented by Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green.
Comparing that to the lower end of the Eastern playoff picture, it’s clear that the star power is there (Wade, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, Charlotte’s Gerald Wallace and Chicago’s Derrick Rose), but they don’t have much help. Michael Beasley has yet to emerge as the Robin to Wade’s Batman in Miami, the Bucks’ duo of Jennings and Andrew Bogut is promising but unproven, the Bobcats need pieces beyond Wallace and Stephen Jackson in order to contend and the Bulls seem to still be a player or two away.
It’s possible that the balance of power could shift slightly during an off-season that you have already heard far too much about, but it’s interesting to note that the elite 2010 free agents (LeBron James, Wade, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson) all come from Eastern teams. So while Chicago could find Rose a high profile running mate via free agency, that signing would likely do little to boost the conference as a whole.
Instead, narrowing the divide between West and East will require a few years of smart drafting, solid team management and the gradual aging of some of the Western elite as Bryant, Duncan, Nowitzki and Nash can’t hang around forever.