Will The West Rule Forever? With shorter centers and cheaper owners, the NBA's East can't close the competitive gap--and next year's realignment makes it worse

December 01, 2003

Out where the handclasp's a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
That's where the West begins.
--AMERICAN POET ARTHUR CHAPMAN, 1916

Out where the big men stand taller, out where they're paying top
dollar, that's where the NBA's West begins. Out where the scorers
are soaring, where the G.M.'s are exploring and the fans ain't
snoring, that's where the Western Conference begins. ¶ For the
past six seasons the NBA has been woefully lopsided, its Eastern
Conference a pale imitation of the West--and growing paler by the
minute. Last year the East went a measly 170-250 (.405) against
its better half; through Sunday's games it was 24-55 (.304).
For the past two seasons the top four teams in the West have
won more games than any Eastern franchise--something that
hasn't happened since 1956-57. At week's end the West was also
home to the five highest-scoring teams, six of the eight
priciest rosters and the only active coaches with championship
rings, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs and Phil Jackson
of the Los Angeles Lakers, who have claimed the last five.

In approving realignment plans for next season on Nov. 17, NBA
officials did not just fail to start closing the gap--they made
it more pronounced. The expansion Charlotte Bobcats will be in
the East while the up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies stay in the
West, where they will be joined by the New Orleans Hornets (page
92), a potential Eastern finalist this season. While NBA deputy
commissioner Russ Granik defends the geographical setup and
believes that "the pendulum will swing back," such optimism is
hard to swallow for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who wouldn't have
endured seven straight first-round losses in the playoffs had
they been situated a couple of hundred miles to the east. Says
Hornets general manager Bob Bass of the imminent shift of one of
the East's strongest teams to the West, "I don't think the local
chambers of commerce out there are going to be welcoming us."

Nor will TV executives and advertisers. Though ratings were up
markedly at week's end over last year's dismal levels, "it's not
great for the league that the weaker teams are in the Eastern
markets," says a Western Conference G.M. With the Eastern teams
6-20 in the Finals since Michael Jordan left Chicago in 1998, the
ratings for the league's marquee event are in free fall, tumbling
to a modern low average of 6.5 last spring, or roughly one third
of the record 18.7 averaged the year Jordan delivered his
farewell dagger to the Utah Jazz. "We are in a far more
competitive business environment [now]," says Dallas Mavericks
owner Mark Cuban. "By the time we wait for cycles, we may have
dug ourselves too big a hole to get out of."

How deep is the hole now and how long will it take to dig out?
Based on the key factors below, the answers appear to be very
deep and very long.

--EXECUTIVE DECISIONS. For the past decade teams in the Western
Conference have poached rising players from their Eastern
counterparts like so many scientists and intellectuals plucked
from behind the Iron Curtain. "One of the few players who went
East was Jason Kidd," says Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy,
"and he's been dominating the East since he's been there."

Thanks to the draft and free agency, the East's fortunes could
change quickly, right? Well, they could, but as a practical
matter, it may not be so simple. Every team in the East is over
the salary cap, while three lower-level Western teams--the Jazz,
the L.A. Clippers and the Denver Nuggets--along with the reigning
champion Spurs, have the millions in cap room to lure top
players. And though the exodus of talent and their poor
performance should leave Eastern teams with better draft
position, that avenue to improvement is more of a crapshoot than
ever. "It's much harder to build back up today," says Boston
Celtics G.M. Danny Ainge, "especially with all the youth in the
draft."

--WILLINGNESS TO SPEND. By crossing the luxury-tax threshold last
summer in acquiring Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell and Michael
Olowokandi, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor proved he would rather
spend heavily and try to win than conserve cash and exit in the
first round. At least six teams in the West will pay the luxury
tax this year, but "with the exception of New York, Philly and
New Jersey, [teams in the East] avoid the tax like
plaque--meaning they are sending great players to the other
conference," says Cuban. "In the West there are maybe four teams
that wouldn't go over the tax even if it would help them win the
conference."

--STYLE OF PLAY. At week's end the eight best-shooting teams were
in the West, while eight of the nine lowest-scoring teams were in
the East, where coaches try to win with grind-it-out defense
because they have no other options. "There is a physical,
knockdown emphasis in the East," says one of the West's leading
G.M.'s. "Good players don't like that style." Such is the sad
bargain for true hoop lovers along the Atlantic coast: Stay up
late watching the most attractive teams out West; wake up early
looking like Jeff Van Gundy.

--SIZE. The East hasn't won a championship with a frontcourt
superstar since Larry Bird, along with Kevin McHale and Robert
Parish, led the Celtics to the 1985-86 title. Out West there are
more than a dozen gigantic talents--Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan,
Kevin Garnett, Yao Ming, Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki and Amare
Stoudemire, to name a few--while the only Eastern headliners who
are 6'10" or taller are Jermaine O'Neal and Cavaliers center
Zydrunas Ilgauskas. "You try to name a power player in the East,
a name doesn't come to mind outside of [6'9"] Kenyon Martin,"
says Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach Jim Lynam. "I'm not
trying to disparage anybody, but I'm groping a little."

Says Miami Heat guard Eddie Jones of the West's supremacy, "I'm
sick of that, so sick of that it's crazy. But the fact remains:
They keep winning. You see all these big players over there and
see all these guards over here, and everybody knows you don't win
championships with guards." So, Jermaine, will you and some of
your talented young Eastern colleagues please grow up? Quickly?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SIZE MATTERS The top big men tend to win titles, and the West has the two best in O'Neal (below) and Duncan (far right). COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (DUNCAN) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON (NOWITZKI) STATE OF THE ART The East's elite would be hard-pressed to beat Nowitzki (41) and his fellow Texans. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (GARNETT) Garnett COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BRYANT) Bryant COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (VAN HORN) Van Horn COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (WEBBER) Webber COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (JACKSON) Jackson COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (MCGRADY) McGrady COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (GASOL) Gasol COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON (YAO) Yao

The Seven-Year Glitch

Here are the key developments--from the breaks and bold strokes
in the West to the blunders in the East--that have contributed to
the power imbalance

1995: Glen Taylor buys the T-Wolves, then drafts high school
forward Kevin Garnett. Taylor is soon joined in the West by such
fellow free-spenders as Sacramento's Maloof brothers (1999) and
Dallas's Mark Cuban (2000).

1996: In a one-week span in July, the Lakers sign Shaquille
O'Neal from Orlando and acquire the rights to Kobe Bryant from
Charlotte. Washington also ships Rasheed Wallace, 21, to Portland
for Rod Strickland, 30.

1997: A decade after winning the lottery to get No. 1 pick David
Robinson, San Antonio again gets the No. 1 pick, Tim Duncan. With
the second choice, Philadelphia chooses Keith Van Horn and trades
him to the Nets.

1998: In an off-season deal for Mitch Richmond, 32, Washington
sends Chris Webber, 25, to Sacramento. Milwaukee drafts Dirk
Nowitzki--then unloads his rights to Dallas for Robert (Tractor)
Traylor.

1999: Following the breakup of the Bulls and a year off, Phil
Jackson turns down an offer to coach New Jersey and takes over
the Lakers. Under the zen master, Los Angeles rolls to three
straight championships.

2000: Tracy McGrady breaks up a potential title twosome by
leaving Vince Carter in Toronto to sign with Orlando, joining
star swingman Grant Hill. An injured left ankle prevents Hill
from playing 212 of the next 259 games.

2001: Atlanta drafts 7-foot Pau Gasol, then trades his rights to
Memphis in a deal for forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Gasol wins the
Rookie of the Year award and increases the West's stockpile of
towering talent.

2002: Houston wins the lottery and selects Yao Ming. With the No.
2 pick, Chicago chooses Jay Williams, who one year later injures
his left leg and pelvis in a motorcycle accident, placing his NBA
career in serious jeopardy.

SHALLOW END Of the Talent Pool

How much difference is there in the depth of elite talent between
conferences? Here's the early-season Eastern All-Star team--and
three from the West that could beat it.

EAST

CONFERENCE ALL-STARS

SF Vince Carter, Raptors
PF Jermaine O'Neal, Pacers
C Ben Wallace, Pistons
PG Baron Davis, Hornets
SG Allen Iverson, 76ers

WEST

TEXAS ALL-STARS

SF Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
PF Tim Duncan, Spurs
C Yao Ming, Rockets
PG Steve Nash, Mavericks
SG Steve Francis, Rockets

CALIFORNIA ALL-STARS

SF Peja Stojakovic, Kings
PF Brad Miller, Kings
C Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers
PG Gary Payton, Lakers
SG Kobe Bryant, Lakers

REST OF THE WEST ALL-STARS

SF Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
PF Zach Randolph, Trail Blazers
C Pau Gasol, Grizzlies
PG Stephon Marbury, Suns
SG Ronald Murray, Sonics

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)