Indianapolis The Western Conference has ruled the NBA the past decade. Not anymore.
West teams won seven of the past 10 championships and had a winning record against the East every season since 1998-99. Through Thursday’s games, the East was 87-65 against the West this season.
“I think the balance is shifting,” Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger said.
The last time the East had a winning record against the West in a full season was in 1997-98. The East also had a winning mark in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season. If the East maintains its .572 winning percentage, it would be its second-best showing since 1990.
Several Eastern teams made offseason moves to compete with NBA champion Boston. The activity has helped them against the West, too.
Philadelphia added Elton Brand, Milwaukee picked up Richard Jefferson and Toronto traded for Jermaine O’Neal. Indiana’s Granger and New Jersey’s Devin Harris have emerged as young stars, and Miami and Chicago took advantage of good positions in a strong 2008 draft to immediately improve.
With young, established stars such as Cleveland’s LeBron James, Orlando’s Dwight Howard, Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Toronto’s Chris Bosh residing in the East, the makings of a full flip-flop are in place.
“Dallas is getting older; San Antonio’s getting older,” Granger said. “It’s going to keep changing because Atlanta’s gotten better, Orlando’s going to be good for a while, we’re going to hit our stride eventually. It’s going to change.”
Many of the most recognizable names on the West’s perennial playoff teams are in their 30s. Phoenix’s Shaquille O’Neal is 36 and teammate and two-time league MVP Steve Nash, is 34. Dallas’ Jason Kidd is 35 and teammate Dirk Nowitzki is 30. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan is 32. Even Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant is 30.
Meanwhile, Wade is 26, Bosh is 24 and James and Howard are 23. Granger and Harris, both in the top 10 in scoring, are 25 and just beginning to reach their potential.
The West has its share of young stars, including Phoenix’s Amare Stoudemire, New Orleans’ Chris Paul, Utah’s Deron Williams, Denver’s Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Portland’s Brandon Roy. Memphis’ O.J. Mayo leads the NBA’s rookie scorers.
Still, six of the seven teams with single-digit wins hail from the West, and the East is largely responsible. Memphis, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento have a combined 11-51 record against the East this season.
The balance is affecting the Eastern clubs, too. Detroit, normally one of the top teams in the standings, is 15-11 and in fifth place behind Boston, Cleveland, Orlando and Atlanta.
“I definitely think teams in the East are getting better,” said New Jersey’s Keyon Dooling, a ninth-year guard. “Last I checked, the Eastern Conference has the defending champs of the NBA. Miami’s a couple years removed. From top to bottom, I think the East is getting better than it was five years ago.”
Wade, troubled by knee pain the past two years, is back with Miami. He was the leading scorer on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Beijing this summer, and now he’s the leading scorer in the NBA. Miami won 15 games last season, but heads into Christmas with 15 wins.
Atlanta has continued the momentum it gained from reaching Game 7 in the first-round playoff series against Boston last season, and the Hawks are off to an 18-10 start. Their young nucleus of Al Horford, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith has meshed with veteran stars Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby to form one of the league’s top teams.
“The West is kind of dying down a little bit,” Harris said. “But we don’t want to call them out too much. They’ve still got a lot of talent out there.”