I've seen this movie before. And you have too, if you're a football fan and older than say... 25. There was a time, between 1984 and 1997, when the Super Bowl, the NFL's version of the "Finals," was less a championship game than a four-hour coronation, with the matter almost always decided by halftime. The de-facto Super Bowl was the NFC Championship game, the equivalent of the conference finals. Whoever won that would be the champ, guaranteed. The actual Super Bowl was cake. One conference was so superior to the other, that even though football is just a one-off and not a best-of-seven series, the AFC representative might as well have been from the German league. The Super Bowl was a joke for most of my formative years, the only compelling parts of the games were whether the favorite was going to cover a gargantuan point spread and which anthropomorphic bottles of swill would prove victorious in the Bud Bowl.
And here we are again, with LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the role of the Buffalo Bills. Again, they ran roughshod over the Eastern Conference, sweeping the Pistons and Hawks before having to sweat a bit against the Raptors. The Eastern Conference Finals took six games, but Cleveland still won four blowouts.
As dominant as the Cavs have been in the East, they continue to be no match for the Warriors, who've beaten them seven straight times now, by a combined 130 points. James has personally been to six consecutive Finals, and before returning to Cleveland his Heat were wiped out by the Spurs in similar, one-sided fashion. And that Miami team had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, two of the five best players drafted into the Eastern Conference in the past 15 years, along with James of course.
How did we get here? Why does the West continue to have such a prohibitive edge in the Finals year after year? What happened to all the rhetoric we heard during the regular season, about the East having finally caught up? Well, the draft is a good place to start. Simply put, general managers of Western teams have continually outperformed their Eastern counterparts for a generation now, regardless of draft position. Somehow, someway, when it comes to finding superstars and true difference-makers, the Western GM's have consistently gotten the pick of the litter, throughout the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich Era.
I used basketball-reference.com to check out every draft from the 1997-98 season (Duncan's rookie year) to the most recent class. That doesn't even account for Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, who are, in precisely that order, the three most important players drafted between Michael Jordan's class (1984) and Duncan, with all due respect to Karl Malone and David Robinson.
I ranked the players using Win Shares, discarding anyone before 2005 who didn't accumulate at least 100 WS through their careers, and then using a sliding scale after that as we got closer to the present. I chopped the cut-off to 80 WS for 2006, 70 WS for 2007, 60 WS for 2008 and so on, until I just went with the leader for the last three seasons because of small sample size issues.
1. Tim Duncan 206.4
2. Chauncey Billups 120.8
1. Dirk Nowitzki 198.8
2. Paul Pierce 149.9
3. Vince Carter 118.4
1. Shawn Marion 124.9
2. Elton Brand 109.6
3. Manu Ginobili 101.2
4. Andre Miller 100.8
1. Pau Gasol 130.6
2. Tony Parker 105.9
1. LeBron James 192.5
2. Dwyane Wade 113.8
3. Chris Bosh 106.0
1. Dwight Howard 113.2
1. Chris Paul 144.1
1. LaMarcus Aldridge 79.5
1. Kevin Durant 107.9
2. Al Horford 64.2
3. Marc Gasol 61.8
1. Russell Westbrook 67.0
2. Kevin Love 64.2
1. James Harden 76.3
2. Stephen Curry 71.6
3. Blake Griffin 54.7
1. Kawhi Leonard 41.8
2. Jimmy Butler 35.5
3. Isaiah Thomas 32.9
4. Kyrie Irving 31.4
5. Kenneth Faried 30.1
1. Anthony Davis 37.7
2. Damian Lillard 35.2
3. Andre Drummond 29.4
4. Draymond Green 24.7
1. Rudy Gobert 16.1
1. Rodney Hood 8.1
1. Karl-Anthony Towns 8.3
It's pretty easy to notice a pattern, huh? The top performer by Win Shares has been a Western player in 14 of the 16 years, and nine of the 19 other qualifiers have as well. That's 23 of 35 overall, or roughly two-thirds of the top talent. I didn't count Brand and Miller from 2000 because they've mostly been vagabonds, toiling for multiple teams in both conferences. You'll note that the edge has gotten only more skewed in the West's favor in recent years, 17-5 from 2006 onward.
We can also look at this another way, through the prism of All-NBA teams, which is probably a better method for determining the league's cream of the crop than the All-Star Game. All-NBA teams are just 15 guys and are voted on by the media, not the fans.
So how's the voting gone?
1st: 4-1 West 2nd: 3-2 East 3rd: 4-1 East Total: 8-7 East
1st: 3-2 West 2nd: 3-2 West 3rd: 5-0 West Total: 11-4 West
1st: 5-0 West 2nd: 3-2 East 3rd: 3-2 East Total: 9-6 West
1st: 4-1 West 2nd: 3-2 East 3rd: 4-1 West Total: 10-5 West
1st: 3-2 West 2nd: 4-1 West 3rd: 4-1 East Total: 8-7 West
1st: 4-1 West 2nd: 3-2 East 3rd: 3-2 West Total: 9-6 West
1st: 4-1 West 2nd: 3-2 East 3rd: 3-2 West Total: 9-6 West
1st: 3-2 West 2nd: 3-2 West 3rd: 3-2 West Total: 9-6 West
1st: 3-2 West 2nd: 3-2 East 3rd: 3-2 West Total: 9-6 West
1st: 5-0 West 2nd: 3-2 East 3rd: 3-2 East Total: 8-7 West
1st: 3-2 East 2nd: 5-0 West 3rd: 4-1 West Total: 11-4 West
1st: 3-2 East 2nd: 4-1 West 3rd: 5-0 West Total: 11-4 West
1st: 3-2 East 2nd: 5-0 West 3rd: 3-2 West Total: 10-5 West
1st: 3-2 East 2nd: 3-2 West 3rd: 4-1 West Total: 9-6 West
1st: 3-2 West 2nd: 5-0 West 3rd: 4-1 East Total: 9-6 West
1st: 4-1 West 2nd: 4-1 West 3rd: 3-2 West Total: 11-4 West
1st: 3-2 West 2nd: 5-0 West 3rd: 3-2 West Total: 11-4 West
1st: 4-1 West 2nd: 4-1 West 3rd: 4-1 West Total: 12-3 West
1st: 4-1 West 2nd: 5-0 West 3rd: 3-2 East Total: 11-4 West
1st: 64-31 2nd: 64-31 3rd: 56-39 Total: 184-101
.674 .674 .589 .646
Only in Duncan's rookie year did more Eastern players populate the All-NBA teams than Western, and it was by the slimmest of margins, 8-7. Even then, four of the five best were judged to be from the West. As you can see, Western players have accounted for 67.4 percent of First-Team selections during the Duncan/Popovich Era, an identical 67.4 percent of the Second-Team, the lion's share of the Third-Team as well, and a 64.6 percent figure overall. The difference in quality is even more pronounced in the past five seasons, where the West has had at least eight of the league's top ten players every time, and nine of the top ten this past season, with James as the only outlier.
Basically, the 2003 draft class of James, Wade and Bosh was the anomaly, with Cleveland, Miami and Toronto respectively nailing their picks and then those players deciding to team up in pursuit of glory. It's a good thing they did, because their teams would've been hard-pressed to find complimentary talent in the draft. Even that Celtics team that had a good run from 2008-2012 needed a sweetheart trade between former teammates-turned-executives Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale to acquire Garnett, who spent most of his career with Minnesota. Without the roster swiveling of the "Heatles" and the Celtics, we would be looking at two solid decades of Western teams sitting on the league's iron throne.
There's more to great teams than star players of course. You have to surround the stars with the right role players and coaches, but by-and-large the Western teams have been demonstrably better at finding, nurturing and developing them, no matter where they've drafted. For every no-brainer like Duncan or James where the first overall pick winds up being head-and-shoulders the best player of his draft class, there are multiple examples where the best guy wound up being picked second, third, fourth, or even in Leonard's case, 15th. Heck, Ginobili could very well be the best player of his draft class, and he was taken 57th, the penultimate pick. Teams like the Spurs, Thunder and Warriors have been terrific about building their talent bases organically, without having to sign high-priced ring-chasing free agents, with Andre Iguodala being the closest exception in the Warriors' case and obviously Aldridge for the Spurs.
Will this imbalance ever end? Logically, you'd assume it would, sooner or later, but the timing is just baffling. The Timberwolves and Pelicans have had the top picks in recent seasons and have used them on generational talents like Towns and Davis. The Cavs had the top pick in 2013 and 2014, and they wound up with Anthony Bennett, an all-time bust, and Anthony Wiggins, whom they promptly traded (mistakenly, it appears) for Love. Philadelphia has the top pick in the upcoming draft, where none of the prospects promises to be a game-changer just yet. Of course, no one could've foreseen Leonard, Ginobili, Parker or 20 other guys around the league turning into the players they've become. The draft remains more art than science.
Either these Eastern GM's need to start getting luckier or more players need to follow James' and Bosh's example and team up with established Eastern stars where it's easier to advance in the playoffs.
I suppose it could be worse for Cleveland fans. At least John Elway spared them from a few Super Bowl beat-downs.