For most of this millennium, the West has ruled the NBA with zero debate, boasting a long list of superstar players, including Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, to name just a few. Meanwhile, in the East, there has been LeBron James — and 14 teams that each year served essentially as LeBron James cannon fodder. The NBA’s lopsided conference balance seemed to grow even more drastic this summer, when we saw a migration of top NBA talent from the East to the West. As we detailed at the time, 22 of the league’s 30 best players started the 2017-18 season out West — the largest such number for one conference since the 1970s — after the likes of Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap were all either traded to or signed with Western teams.
But about a month into the season, something odd is happening: The East is flipping the script.
When the Celtics beat Golden State on Thursday, they cemented themselves (not LeBron’s Cavaliers — who have been mediocre so far) as the hottest team in the NBA right now.1 And Boston isn’t the only Eastern Conference team off to a good start this season. So far, the East has a 54-48 record against the West in interconference games — a stunning development after an offseason spent fretting about how the West would dominate to an unprecedented degree.
Conference disparity has long been an NBA talking point — in the 2015 playoffs, the No. 8 seed in the West would have been the No. 6 seed in the East, and just a year earlier, the West’s eighth seed had a better record than the East’s third seed. It’s an issue that was a hot topic around the league before the most recent exodus — and one that commissioner Adam Silver has publicly stated will continue to be looked at. Since 1999, there’s been only one season (2008-09) in which teams in the East have finished with a winning percentage above .500 against teams in the West. The player inequality of this offseason appeared to only pile on to the league’s growing problem.
But as Silver and his team were mulling possible solutions, the league started playing games — and somehow the East began to hold its own (and then some). Through the opening month of the season, the East has won 53 percent of its games against the West, talent exodus be damned. And it’s not as if the best in the East has just been beating up on the worst in the West: According to our Elo model, Eastern Conference underdogs are 31-30 in cross-conference games so far this season — about 12 games better than the Elo ratings said they “should” be.
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This isn’t by any means enough of a sample size to conclude that the conference imbalance is over, but you can already say that the East has far exceeded any preseason predictions. Before the season, Elo predicted that certain teams at the top of the East would have enough talent to jostle with the top teams in the West — and sure enough, Boston and Toronto have stood out so far. But others — we’re looking at you, Cleveland — haven’t. Instead, it’s been the likes of the Pistons, the Knicks and the Sixers, whose win totals FiveThirtyEight projected to be in the lower half of the league, that have beaten our projections most and outperformed their counterparts in the West. The dregs of the East simply aren’t the pushovers we’re used to them being in recent seasons.
A wild start to the season may have helped as well. So far in 2017-18, Elo favorites have won only 60 percent of their games, which — if it holds up — would shatter the 2001-02 season’s mark (64 percent) for the lowest winning percentage by favorites since the 1976 ABA-NBA merger. This topsy-turvy NBA season has been ripe for conference balance to be flipped on its head.
Either way, there’s plenty of basketball left to be played — and reason to think things will even out before season’s end. First and foremost, the talent disparity favoring the West hasn’t really gone anywhere; even though some East players are performing above expectations, all the players who departed the East for the West should start asserting themselves eventually. Another sign the balance may tip back into the West’s favor: The West is still outscoring the East by an average of 0.3 points per game in cross-conference games, despite its sub-.500 record. And we’ve been here before — at this stage of the 2015-16 season, the East was also above water, and it ended up getting humbled over the rest of the schedule.
So the East still may not actually be better than the West. But it will only need to finish the season at a .492 clip (roughly 40 wins in an 82-game season) to end with a .500 record against its counterpart. Given all the factors working against it going into the year, that might be the single most astonishing thing that happens during the entire 2017-18 NBA season.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.