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Data Dimes: What happened to the Western Conference’s dominance?

The Western Conference’s struggles to start the season has turned one of last year's major storyline on its head. 

In recent years, the NBA’s Eastern Conference has been labeled a laughing stock. At the culmination of the 2014–15 season, three playoff teams in the East finished at or below .500. That prompted some to suggest that the best 16 teams in the league should make the playoffs, regardless of which conference they play in.

Fast-forward to 2015–16, however, and the plot has flipped 180 degrees. Now, instead of the Eastern Conference bringing up the rear, the Western Conference is the weaker collective entity—and it’s not particularly close in terms of win/loss records.

This week’s iteration of Data Dimes will dive into the numbers defining that shift within the Western Conference.

Note: All stats referenced are accurate as of Dec. 30, prior to games played.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network.

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Seventy-seven represents the total amount of games below .500 the conference’s nine sub-.500 teams are through late December. By comparison, only five teams are below the .500 mark in the East.

Western Conference Stragglers | PointAfter

The Los Angeles Lakers lag far behind at the caboose (a whopping 22 games under .500), but even the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz—two teams currently in the playoff picture—have not won as many games as they’ve lost.

In the East, meanwhile, both the Charlotte Hornets (17–13) and Detroit Pistons (17–15) sit outside the top eight in the conference despite sporting winning records. It’s a narrative basketball fans have seen before, just not in the wild West.

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Part of the reason for the balance of power evolving in the West is the brute strength atop the standings. The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have combined for a 48–5 conference record. These three juggernauts routinely bully Western Conference foes.

The Western Conference Powers | PointAfter

There’s been far less parity out West because the top three teams in the conference continue to be so dominant. Seven teams in the Western Conference finished with 50 wins or more a season ago. It appears increasingly less likely that we’ll see more than three (maybe four) win that many this time around.

The Portland Trail Blazers lost four starters from a year ago, so it’s understandable that they’d regress. Utah and New Orleans have both been hit by waves of injuries to explain their woes, but it’s still remarkable how much change we’ve seen in just a matter of months.

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The Nos. 6, 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference currently are the Memphis Grizzlies, Rockets and Jazz, respectively. That trio combines for an average point differential of -5.1 points per game.

For some added perspective, not a single team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture has a negative point differential right now. At the end of last season, only the No. 8 seed Brooklyn Nets in the East had a negative scoring differential out of all the squads that made it to the postseason.

Teams out West have channeled the stink of the East from a season ago, and perhaps no team is more confounding than the Rockets.

After making a run to the Western Conference finals a season ago behind MVP-caliber play from James Harden and impressive team defense, Houston has been an enigma. Head coach Kevin McHale was fired after a 4–7 start, and interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff hasn’t exactly been the savior, leading the Rockets to a 12–10 mark.

The Rockets’ offensive numbers are actually quite similar to a season ago. It’s the defense that’s caused problems.

NBA/ABA Historical Teams | PointAfter

For a wide array of reasons, multiple Western Conference teams are facing identity crises. The Warriors, Spurs and Thunder pose lethal threats to opponents, but now the East has taken over as the most competitive conference from top to bottom. Heck, even the Philadelphia 76ers’ lone two victories occurred against Western Conference foes. 

It just goes to show how volatile the league can be. One of last year’s biggest storylines has been turned on its head, and it’s been truly bizarre to behold.