The West Might Be Better, But Adam Silver Doesn’t Care

The NBA’s conference imbalance is pronounced, but not in a way the NBA cares about. Critics point to the growing talent gap between the East and West, but Commissioner Adam Silver says a solution to such a problem is no longer “at the top of the agenda.” The message is clear. The NBA is a business, a money-making enterprise. As long as teams are profitable, all is well. Talent dispersion aside, in terms of valuations the conferences are very balanced indeed.

Table 1. Conference Value
Year West East
2017 $20.2 Billion $20.4 Billion
2016 $18.3 Billion $19.0 Billion
2015 $16.2 Billion $17.0 Billion
2014 $9.5 Billion $9.5 Billion
2013 $7.6 Billion $7.6 Billion

The East/West talent disparity stretches back nearly three decades. Since the 90-91 season, only three Eastern Conference teams (03-04 Pistons, 05-06 Heat, 07-08 Celtics) have won a NBA Championship without a direct link to Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

The conference talent imbalance didn’t happen overnight and if the NBA really saw it as a problem, it would’ve been fixed long ago.

The real concern is that the East has no incentive to approve any proposed solutions that would necessitate improvement. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban puts it bluntly.

“Seven of the 10 smallest NBA markets are in the West. I really believe Eastern teams know they can get by doing less and [in some cases] make the playoffs. Because they are larger markets, they will sell tickets and advertising, and get viewers. They get the best of both worlds.”

And therein, lies the real problem. The NBA’s economic model doesn’t reward domination. Instead, it protects ineptitude and/or lack of effort, or at least tries. The draft is a great example.

Dating back to 2000, an Eastern team has held 34 of 54 top three picks. However, drafting the likes of Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic, Adam Morrison and Anthony Bennett, to name a few, doesn’t really improve odds for long-term success. Guess it’s a good thing the Cavs had three number one picks in four years. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

Meanwhile, the West keeps churning out talent with far less in the way of picks. Recent second round steals include Nikola Jokic, Draymond Green and Isaiah Thomas. The Spurs built a perennial contender by turning later picks into Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. In addition to Draymond Green, the Warriors snagged Steph Curry at seven and Klay Thompson at eleven. At one point, the Thunder had a core four of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka all thanks to their adept drafting.

No East team comes close to any of these examples. The Sixers think they have something, and if they do, even that won’t compare considering they grabbed four top three picks in four years by tanking. Performing poorly on purpose in order to choose the obvious is a strategy, just not a comparatively impressive one.

And what about intelligent salary cap allocation? Using Forbes *wins-to-player cost ratio as a model for efficient spending, it is obvious there is a significant Western Conference advantage four of the past five years. *(According to Forbes, player-to-cost ratio compares the number of wins per player payroll relative to the rest of the NBA. Playoff wins count twice as much as regular season wins. A score of 120 means that the team achieved 20% more victories per dollar of payroll compared with the league average.)

Table 2.  Wins to Player Cost Ratio
Year West East
2017 98.5 101.5
2016 105.1 94.9
2015 111.7 88.3
2014 107.7 92.3
2013 103.5 96.5

It appears the West wins the game most often, but both conferences always win the game within the game. In former Commissioner David Stern’s words, “It’s just business.” Maybe this is why the East rarely complains and when they do, action never follows.

In 2004, the excuse for the East/West disparity was the East didn’t have enough quality big men to compete. Fast forward to 2017 and basketball has evolved into a space and pace, “position-less” game predicated on the three-point shot. Funny thing, West domination never really skipped a beat.

Moving forward, the East might do well to heed some simple advice: Be Better. Problem is, they don’t need to be.


photo via llananba