OT: The rise of the NBA’s Eastern Conference

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell at his introductory press conference. Photo courtesy of David Richard/USA Today Sports. 

JAKE KAUFMAN | SPORTS REPORTER | jfkaufman@butler.edu 

There has been a consensus belief in the NBA that the Western Conference has been better than the Eastern Conference both historically and recently. The numbers do in fact back that up. Of the last 23 NBA champions, 15 of them have been from the Western Conference as opposed to just eight from the East. The Western Conference has also had a better interconference record than the East in 21 of the past 23 seasons. 

Aside from just the numbers though, the West has simply been thought of as the superior conference and some took the extreme route saying the conference was in a league of its own. Arguments such as “The 7th seed in the West is better than the 2nd seed in the East” were made and at the time could seemingly be justified. 

Throughout the 2010s, the team that came out of the Eastern Conference was essentially just whatever team LeBron James was on. James made the NBA Finals every year from 2011-18, and as a result, there was a sense of lack of parity in the Eastern Conference. 

Even if there were teams that finished the regular season with a better record than James’s Cavaliers, no one thought they actually had a chance of getting past James. If they somehow did advance to the Finals, the overwhelming majority believed that whatever team came out of the Western Conference would embarrass them. 

However, in 2022 this is no longer the case. While the reigning champion Golden State Warriors are in the Western Conference, there are a number of teams from both conferences that have a legitimate chance of stopping the Warriors from repeating. 

Many of the top ten seeds in the East from last year made moves to improve their roster. The reigning conference champion Boston Celtics added Malcolm Brogdon, the Atlanta Hawks added All-Star Dejounte Murray, the Philadelphia 76ers added PJ Tucker, the New York Knicks added Jalen Brunson, the Cleveland Cavaliers added Donovan Mitchell and the Brooklyn Nets now have Ben Simmons available. 

With the exception of Tucker, JJ DeBrosse, Butler director of graduate and professional recruitment and basketball fan, sees a common theme in what the teams have been trying to do in order to improve.

“It’s just been a major influx of playmakers,” DeBrosse said. “A lot of these GMs saw what worked well for the Warriors and realized how important it is to have secondary playmakers to allow your star to both rest and play off the ball.” 

The two prime examples of this are the Hawks and the Cavaliers. Due to a major lack of playmaking on both of their rosters, the teams’ put an excessive amount of responsibility on their star point guards Trae Young and Darius Garland and struggled to generate offense whenever their stars went to the bench. The Hawks were one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year and now have an elite defender and secondary playmaker in Murray which gives them a good shot at earning a top-six seed in the East. 

The Mitchell addition is huge for the Cavaliers, who were the surprise team of the NBA last season after doubling their 22-win season from the year before and barely missed the playoffs after losing in the play-in round. With Mitchell on the roster, the Cavaliers now have two all-star guards along with the twin towers duo of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. They have a real chance of being a top-four seed. 

Then there’s the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks; The three Eastern Conference playoff teams that did not make a major move in the offseason but will still be contenders in the conference nonetheless.

The new parody in the Eastern Conference is not just something that is appealing to die-hard NBA fans. It is also increasing the interest amongst casual fans who are now intrigued to see how the teams will fare in the regular season and in the playoffs. Noah Pitlik, a junior biology major at Butler, now feels a new sense of passion for the regular season. 

“With the season being so long, it becomes difficult at times to be interested in following the games throughout the regular season,” Pitlik said. “But now this year it is so interesting because you really do not know who is going to come out of the East.”

With 12 out of the 15 teams in the conference making a real effort to fight for the playoffs, the 2022-23 NBA season is going to be really fun to watch. 


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