The severe conference imbalance inflicting the NBA is self-perpetuating because of how it affects draft positioning.
The NBA Draft is currently structured such that the worse your team, the higher it is likely to pick. This applies to the lottery itself (which only directly determines the top three picks) and the remainder of the draft order (which is determined by reverse league standings). Team X being one game worse than Team Y not only gives Team X a better shot at a top-3 pick, it also means that if neither team gets a top-3 pick, Team X will pick ahead of Team Y.
Every loss matters. This is why tactical tanking at the end of the season is so closely watched, and it’s why so many veterans are already getting lots of rest among the rebuilding teams. Any given win may concede not just a handful of lottery combinations to a rival rebuilder, but could be the difference between picking, say, No. 5 instead of No. 6.
Consider the structure of the NBA’s 82-game schedule. Teams play all 15 squads from the other conference twice each (30 games), and split the remainder among the 14 teams in their conference (52 games). East Team X plays 52 games against other East teams and 30 games against West teams, and vice versa.
Now consider current conference imbalance. After Saturday’s results, the collective East was 126-214 against the collective West, a .370 winning percentage. (That makes the West 214-126 — .629 — against the East.) The West features 10 teams at .500 or better. The East has five. There are five West teams have won at least two-thirds of their games. The East has two. Four East teams have won a third or fewer of their games. No West teams fit that criteria.
The West is much, much stronger top to bottom than the East.
And because of that, the worst West teams — who play many more games against the West and thus have a comparatively tougher strength of schedule — will benefit when it comes to draft positioning. Conversely, this is also why the East’s horrible depth hurts the East in the draft. That runs counter to the whole spirit of the exercise, which is to replenish the worst teams with the best picks.
Last season, the Suns had the West’s worst record, while the Magic were the worst in the East. In the aggregate, the Suns’ opponents had a 52.9 winning percentage, according to Basketball-Reference.com. (I translated B-Ref’s strength of schedule measure to winning percentage.) All those games against good West teams (and the lack of opportunity to play against themselves) added up. Orlando’s opponents, meanwhile, were collectively winning 49.4 percent of their games. Fewer games against the West meant more against the shallow East and a weaker schedule overall.
As it turns out, the Magic were way worse than the Suns and finished with five fewer wins. In fact, three East teams were worse than the West’s last place Suns, and the East ended up claiming the top four picks in the 2013 draft thanks to a fortuitous leap by the Wizards. But there was evidence further down the lottery that the conference imbalance hurt the East.
The Kings finished 28-54 and picked No. 7 (Ben McLemore). The Pistons finished 29-53 and picked No. 8 (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope). But the Pistons were actually very slightly worse than the Kings when you account for strength of schedule. Sacramento’s opponents won 52.6 percent of their games, while Detroit’s won 48.6 percent. If you remove strength of schedule from the equation (setting it to .500, basically), both teams would have gone 27-55. If you swapped the two teams’ conferences and held all else constant — giving the Pistons the schedule the Kings played and vice versa — then Detroit would have gone 25-57 and Sacramento would have gone 28-54. The Pistons would have picked ahead of the Kings.
In any given year, situations like this can be resolved by luck (the ping pong balls smile upon the blessed), the inherent noise in win-loss records and deft prospect evaluation. (There’s no guarantee McLemore will even be better than KCP, after all.) But this is a pretty pervasive issue, and over the long haul, one expects the improved odds for Western teams to keep a finger on the scales of fortune.
How pervasive? In 2012, stripping out the strength of schedule disparity, the Pistons were slightly worse than the Kings. Yet in part because of conference imbalance, the Kings finished 22-44 and the Pistons finished 25-41. The Kings picked No. 5 (Thomas Robinson) and the Pistons picked No. 9 (Andre Drummond). See my point about deft prospect evaluation?
In 2011, the Nets and Raptors were worse than the Timberwolves after adjusting for strength of schedule. Minnesota finished 17-65, the Raptors 22-60 and the Nets 24-58. The Wolves picked No. 2. The Nets’ and Raptors’ picks ended up at Nos. 3 and 5, respectively. In 2010, the Pistons and Knicks were each worse than the Kings and Warriors after accounting for strength of schedule. Draft order for those four teams? Kings (No. 5), Warriors (No. 6), Pistons (No. 7) and Knicks (No. 9, owed to Utah).
And so on.
The worst part is that whatever quantifiable impact this issue has is totally self-perpetuating. The imbalance that helps West teams gain draft position reinforces the imbalance causing it in the first place! Until the conference imbalance is somehow destroyed, this particular feature (or bug) will continue. And as it continues, bad West teams will continue to benefit.
It’ll most likely happen again this season, with the Kings (again) and Lakers most likely to benefit. If you strip out strength of schedule, the Cavaliers are very slightly worse than the Lakers. L.A. is 20-39 and in line for a top-5 pick. Cleveland is 24-37 and might not even be in the lottery. Sacramento is actually “benefiting” quite a bit from noise in its win-loss record, more than any other team in the lottery. But there’s a strength of schedule advantage, too. Between W-L noise and strength of schedule, the Kings are just the 13th-worst team in the league, but in line for a pick in the Nos. 4-6 range.
I can’t put a number on the impact this issue has on the league. (At least, I’m not smart enough to be able to do it. No doubt someone can. In today’s secretive NBA, a team or two possibly has.) But I can think of a solution: eliminate conferences.
But that’s a topic for another