How the NBA Eastern Conference was lost


The surprising Suns rank second in the NBA in made three-pointers per game, one of the shooting categories in which the Western Conference outshines the East. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

Since the turn of the calendar year, the NBA’s hottest team has been the Brooklyn Nets. Entering Friday’s game vs. Dallas, the Nets are 8-1 in 2014, including victories against Oklahoma City, Golden State and Miami.

The run has vaulted Brooklyn’s talent-filled roster up the Eastern Conference standings and just two and a half games out of first place in the Atlantic Division with a record of … 18-22.

Ahead of Brooklyn sits Toronto at 21-20, making the Raptors one of just four Eastern Conference teams with a winning record. Although the past two years have ended with Miami hoisting the championship trophy, with teams like Chicago and New York performing below expectations as they struggle with injuries and chemistry, the league’s standard of excellence rests out West this season.

As of Thursday, the East had a combined record of  279-348 (.445 percent) and the West boasted a 350-281 (.555) mark and 10 teams with a record of .500 or better. By comparison, at this time last year, both conferences had seven teams with winning records.

In a February 2013 article by NBA.com writer John Schuhmann, he discussed the four factors that affect a team’s efficiency: shooting, rebounding, free throws and turnovers. A closer look at these statistical categories on NBA.com/stats shows that the Western Conference possessed a clear lead in each area entering Wednesday’s games.

In effective field goal percentage, which factors in the added value of three-pointers, the Western Conference shoots 50.5 percent while East teams make shots at a 48.7 percent clip, despite having the league’s top team on this list, Miami. Perhaps even more telling is the vast difference in offensive rating. West teams are scoring 105.3 points per 100 possessions, whereas the Eastern Conference is averaging just 100.6 points.

eFG% Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg
East 48.7 100.6 102.6 -1.9
West 50.5 105.3 103.4 1.9

Charts courtesy of NBA.com/stats with SAP

The difference speaks some to the varied styles of play between the conferences. East teams like Chicago and Miami operate at a more deliberate, grind-it-out pace, as opposed to West squads like Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers, which are known for up-tempo offenses that create more scoring opportunities.

Three-point shooting also appears to play a role in the Western Conference’s superiority on offense. Eight of the league’s top teams in three-point field goals made and attempted compete in the West, led by Portland’s 10.1 converted threes per game.

%PTS (3PT)
East 22.3
West 23.3

Tied for second are the surprising Phoenix Suns, whom many wrote off as a lottery team at season’s start after hiring a new coach and trading starting center Marcin Gortat to the Wizards. But the Suns have taken a cue from their coach, former sharpshooting guard Jeff Hornacek, averaging a franchise-record 25.8 three-point attempts per game and scoring 27.2 percent of their 104.4 points per game from three-point land.

Hornacek’s “given those guys great confidence that when they’re open and they have a good look from three, he wants them to shoot that,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough told the “Burns & Gambo” radio show last month. “In fact, that might be the only time that he really gets upset with our guys with our guys offensively, that if they don’t shoot one of those shots…”

The second statistical category in the West’s favor is rebounding. In addition to their pace, Western Conference teams create even more opportunities with an offensive rebounding percentage of 26.3. In other words, whenever a player takes a shot, he or one of his teammates grabs the offensive rebound 26.3 percent of the time. By comparison, Eastern teams record a percentage of 24.9.

Naturally, turnovers and free throws — the third and fourth factors — also speak to a team’s efficiency. The margin isn’t as wide in turnovers, with the East turning over the ball 11.69 times per 100 possessions compared to the West’s rate of 11.22. But Western Conference teams are getting to the foul line more. In the West, 28.7 percent of the shots attempted by teams comes on free throws, whereas Eastern Conference teams come in at 27.5 percent.

OREB%* FTA Rate** TO Ratio
East 24.9 .275 11.69
West 26.3 .287 11.22

*Percentage of rebounds while on the court **Free throws shot in comparison to the number of shots taken. Shows ability to draw fouls and get to the line

According to Schuhmann’s four factors theory, which is based on historical evidence and efficiency, the teams that excel the most in the areas of shooting, rebounding, turnovers and free throws typically win games at a high rate. Should this hold true come playoff time, how the West is won might also be how this year’s championship is won.

PIE* Pace**
East 48.7% 95.53
West 51.2% 97.36

*Player impact estimate is an estimate of contributions and impact on a game **Number of possessions per 48 minutes

BY THE NUMBERS
5
Players in NBA history who have recorded at least 30 points and four assists in nine straight games. Kevin Durant became the latest member of the club after dropping 36 points and five assists in Wednesday’s win against San Antonio. Tiny Archibald, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson are the four other players to achieve this mark.

5.3
Increase in assists per game for Toronto since trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento on Dec. 9, according to NBA.com/stats. Before the trade, the Raptors averaged 18.5 assists and went 7-12. Since then, Toronto has averaged 22.7 assists and gone 14-8 through Wednesday’s win against Dallas.

QUOTABLE
“The way he was playing, he probably could have scored on Jesus.”

-Portland Trail Blazers guard Mo Williams about Durant following the Montrose Christian alum’s 46-point performance on Tuesday, his fourth 40-plus point game in January.

“Some of the flagrant fouls that I see called nowadays, it makes me nauseous. You can’t touch a guy without it being a flagrant foul.”

-Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, referring to the “finesse” style of play he’s seen from the sideline while rehabbing from injuries this season.

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