It seems like ever since Michael Jordan retired, we have consistently watched the Western Conference be the dominant conference in the NBA. Yes, the East has won titles since 1999, eight to be exact, and had one dynasty, but it has mostly been the junior conference. The West has seen two dynasties, three depending on your Spurs’ feelings, as well as multiple years with only 50+ win playoff teams. Teams with mid to high 40s in wins consistently missed the playoffs in the West. The East regularly saw sub .500 teams in the playoffs.
It has been creeping closer and closer to true balance between the conferences, which only makes for more fun intra-conferences matchups. Yes, the Finals will almost always pit elite teams against each other (sorry to our Hoops Department Head about 2018), but depth is also fun. Even last year, the East was lacking with the final three play-in teams compared to the West, but that changes in 2021-22. The East will rival the West for both elite teams and depth.
The Title Contenders
A quick look at the top of the title odds, and we see the Brooklyn Nets are the clear title favorites at +250. Following them are the Lakers at +375, then the Bucks and Warriors both at +900. Knowing the oddsmakers will lower odds if a team is getting heavy action, it’s safe to say that is the case for the Warriors. Their dynasty days in the last decade made them a public team, and with Klay Thompson back at some point, it makes sense fans are throwing money there. Don’t follow, they are a fraudulent third favorite as presently constructed. This means two of the three clear favorites are from the East.
The Fringe Contenders
However, remember this is more about depth than solely elite teams. Out West, two of the expected title contenders are faced with long-term injury concerns. Jamal Murray of the Nuggets and Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers are out for, at least, most of the season. These are huge holes to fill, even if both teams played admirably in the playoffs in their absence. Over 82 games, these losses become tougher to fill. Pencil these teams in for low 50s/high 40s win totals.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, and Philadelphia 76ers boast All-NBA players and deep teams that can go toe to toe with any of the conference finals contenders in the West. Teams like Utah and the two mentioned above have also shown consistent flaws that don’t make them a slam dunk to win more than one playoff series. In fact, each of these three teams from the East have had the same type of playoff success as their Western counterparts. Especially for the Hawks and the Heat, you can point to internal growth and the addition of Kyle Lowry as reasons why they could be better than the Nuggets and Clippers for this season.
Now you might have noticed the Suns haven’t popped up yet in this discussion. They project to be in a tier of their own when it comes to the playoffs. Not quite strong title contenders, but definitely better than any of the teams in the aforementioned paragraph. They are also being disrespected by having their odds at +1500 compared to the Warriors +900. But again, the odds reflect the betting public as much as the oddsmakers’ true belief. The Suns could show themselves to be top tier, but I don’t see it.
Solid Playoff Teams
Moving down the list, you run into a jumble in both conferences, but a jumble that belongs together, unlike the past two decades. The Warriors, Mavericks, Celtics, Blazers, Bulls, and Knicks will all be fighting for the same thing. Missing the play-in games and hoping for a good matchup in the first round. Honestly, we could throw the Clippers sans Kawhi here too. They all have flaws that would require a miracle run to reach the conference title series. The fact there looks to be little separation with these teams should make NBA fans giddy. You can look forward to good playoff races, not just close ones, and solid to good playoff matchups.
Battling for the Play-In
The final grouping to care about, the low-tier play-in contenders are lead by star power in the West, but it’s tough to see a discernable difference between the teams. We should get Ja Morant and Zion battling for a shot to play into the playoffs, that will be very fun and should help the NBA market new stars. Out East, you can look forward to a rising team (Charlotte), a bounceback team (Toronto), and two solid fringe playoff teams (Washington and Indiana). All six of the teams would be thrilled if they hit 45 wins and can probably expect 37-43 wins.
The Young Bucks
The rest of the eight teams in the NBA just don’t matter, at least when it comes to competitive basketball. And for the sake of this article, it should be noted that the West has five teams in this category, including possibly the two worst teams. For the fateful eight, basketball fans should hope for the growth of the young players, including some possible perennial All-Stars. However, no one will fault you for skipping out on most or all of the games these teams play.
This promises to be a fun year, with one clear title favorite, though nothing like the KD-Steph Warriors, and a bunch of teams ranging from good to really good. The fact that both conferences can now make this claim only enhances the intrigue of what should be a wildly fun NBA season. Where Ben Simmons lands and the Klay Thompson return could shake up some of the tiers, but regardless, there will be lots of competitive games down the stretch. The playoffs will only build on that with no less than six solid playoff teams in each conference. Should be a blast!