Since the 2000 season, the Western Conference of the NBA has been responsible for 12-of-17 championships. As of right now, 14 of the top 15 players from last season all play for Western Conference teams. In the past eight years, an Eastern Conference team has had the number one draft pick six times. In fact, Eastern Conference teams have had 24 top five picks since the 2010 draft compared to the Western Conference’s 16 top five picks. So this begs the question: why is the Eastern Conference so bad? I have a couple of theories as to why the Eastern Conference has been so atrocious in recent history.
The first reason I think the Eastern Conference has been bad for as long as it has is due to the marketing demographics of the league. The Eastern Conference is home to many large market cities such as New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Toronto. Sure the Western Conference has Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, but there aren’t any ‘large market’ cities that can compete with the top three cities in the Eastern Conference. Case and point: the top four cities in the Eastern Conference combined for 15.5 million people whereas in the Western Conference the top four cities garner only 9.2 million people. This means that teams in the Eastern Conference have a much larger target audience to purchase their merchandise.
The advantage of having such a larger population in the Eastern Conference? More revenue. This means that even though the New York Knicks went 31-51 this past season, they still generated an NBA record $141 million in profits for the league according to Forbes. On the flip side, the Western Conference features teams like the New Orleans Pelicans, who generated $16 million in profits, and the San Antonio Spurs, who only netted $18.4 million. Perhaps the most shocking number is from the Oklahoma City Thunder, which actually LOST the league $8.4 million.
In summation of this point, the Eastern Conference is perennially the weaker conference because the it is home to the largest markets in the NBA. Having such a large market and making a lot of money weakens the incentives for Eastern Conference teams to win since they can have a terrible season and still set profit records. On the other hand, the Western Conference is the stronger conference year after year because teams have smaller markets, and therefore, need to be able to be competitive in order to be affordable for the NBA to have.
Another reason as to why the Eastern Conference has been so bad as of late is because of LeBron James. LeBron has led his team to seven straight NBA Finals appearances and has been the league’s most dominant player for years. All of the success he has had has created a ripple effect in the league. This ripple is teams in the Eastern Conference know they can’t beat LeBron James ,so they have been idly waiting and acquiring assets (i.e. Boston Celtics) and Western Conference teams are trading and signing star players to form super teams to try to compete in the West to meet LeBron James in the Finals (i.e. Houston Rockets).
Conclusion: The combination of having the biggest, and most profitable, markets has allowed for Eastern Conference to worry less about winning, but still make money regardless. Additionally, LeBron James has served as the deodorant for teams to use as an excuse for teams, like the Philadelphia 76ers, to tank. As a result, the small market teams of the Western Conference have been forced to compete and win in order to stay financially relevant. Western Conference teams are constantly signing/trading for star players so they can compete for the chance to play against LeBron James in the NBA Finals. As a result, the past five seasons in the NBA Playoffs have featured six different Eastern Conference teams with records of .500 or lower while the Western Conference has featured only two in that same time span.