NBA: The East is Even Worse Than We Thought
Re-ranking the teams using Probable Win Percentage (PWP)
How would team records and playoff seedings be affected, if they played equal games against the East and Western Conference? This easy formula gives us a better look.
By J.A. Pringles
As we’ve gone over several times here at TheTwineLine, there is a big disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NBA. Here’s a quick summary of the differences:
- TALENT: In 2016: 9/10 players in the All-NBA First and Second Teams were from the est. This year, the East did a bit better, with “only” 7/10 All NBA first and second team All-NBA Players from the West.
- SCHEDULING: Currently, teams play uneven schedules, with 52 games in their own conference and 30 games agains the other conference. So, if the East is eaasier, the Eastern teams have an easier schedule than Western teams.
- RECORDS: The West is much more top heavy, with the top three records in the league being in the West (Golden State, San Antonio, Houston), with the top Eastern Conference team (Boston) chiming in at fourth. The rest of the teams more or less alternate between conferences.
While no teams actually play equal schedules, for the most part, conference teams play a similar amount of games against common opponents. Our PWP formula takes this into account, giving a better picture of how the playoff teams should be ranked, projecting their record as-if teams played a more equal schedule.
We take the winning percentage each team plays vs both conferences, then apply that percentage to an 82 game schedule. For example,The Boston Celtics were 36–16 (69.2%) against the East and 17–13 (56.6%) against the West. We project with Probable Win Percentage that if they played an equal amount of games against East and West, their overall record would be 52–30, instead of their actual 53–29 record. This would equate to a difference of 1 game. Here’s the chart of how each team would project, plus a couple other teams near the threshold of the playoffs.
*The Bulls and Trailblazers fall to a tie for 17th (9th in each conference) based on a small percentage point.
Minor Changes with Big Implications
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of changes in team records. The biggest difference is only two games, up or down, shared by a few teams. However, these small fluctuations would drastically change the face of the playoffs, especially if we seed the teams 1–16 (a change that should be coming).
The first thing you may notice, is that when PWP is applied, the top of the league standings will change. No team in the East cracks the top five records. Boston, which had the fourth best actual win/loss record, would end up with the sixth best record overall. So, placing the Celtics in the West would have them face the Houston Rockets, a series where they would be large underdogs. Cleveland would actually wind up with the eighth best record overall, down three spots from their current fifth place overall record. This means, of course, that if they Cavs were in the West and had an equal schedule based on PWP, they would have faced the Warriors in the first round. (Would a very possible first round elimination tarnish the legacy of Lebron James? A question for another day…) Overall, PWP would see only Boston and the Cavs from the East in the top eight seeds, with a very good chance of the final four being from the West.
New Invites to the Party
While there are some other minor shuffling with PWP, the most significant moves would be in who actually qualifies for the NBA tourney. Looking at the bottom of the standings, both Denver and Miami would have qualified for the playoffs. This leaves Chicago and Portland out (by the tiniest of percentage points). Interestingly, there would still be eight teams from each conference making the playoffs. This lends some credence who feel the middle-ish of the East is at least as good as the Western Conference.
The Sad State
Look, anyway you cut it, the East is struggling. Seven of eight EC playoff teams had a worst record vs. the Western Conference, with Indiana being the only exception. It’s clear that the talent is out West, and seeding 1–16 would not only be more fair, but would likely have some better playoff matchups, especially in the first couple rounds. Boston/Memphis would not only be a better matchup, but likely an ugly battle we’d love to see. Cleveland/Washington would also be more compelling than Cleveland/Bucks, as well.
Really, though, the Warriors would have likely swept any combination of teams. Though we will never know how the (PWP projected) finals would be if the Spurs hadn’t lost half their team to injuries, the sad state of the playoffs would likely continue.