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Why is the NBA split into conferences?

The NBA is split into two conferences to help reduce the travel load of NBA teams during the 82 game season.

As it stands today, there are 30 teams in the NBA. Since the league’s inception in 1946, new franchises have entered the league while others have fallen by the wayside. Names such as the Washington Capitols, Detroit Falcons, and Chicago Stags have folded whereas the New Orleans Pelicans, Toronto Raptors, and Memphis Grizzlies are the more recent additions to the league.

Just as with the comings and goings of its competitive teams, the league’s structure too has developed over its more-than 70-year history. With more and more teams joining the NBA, the decision was made in 1970 to form two official conferences – the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference.

Today, both the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference are comprised of 15 teams and three divisions (five teams per division). For the east, that’s the Atlantic, Central, and Southeast Divisions, with the Western Conference being made up of the Northwest, Pacific, and Southwest Divisions.

Why is this important? The main reason being that a team’s performance in their conference dictates whether or not they make it into the play-offs with the top eight teams from each conference qualifying at the end of the regular season. At the end of it all, the two conference champions meet in the NBA Finals.

Is the NBA split into conferences due to logistics?

The initial answer may be obvious, but it is nevertheless an important one. The USA is a huge country with teams in the NBA spread across the entire area from Portland to Miami and LA to Boston.

While the 2020-21 regular season has been reduced to 72 games per team because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a “normal” season in the NBA each franchise will play 82 games within a six-month period. Without any geographical consideration, teams could easily clock up hundreds of thousands of miles within the regular season. Of course, cross-country travel is now much easier than it was back in the 1950s and 1960s before the introduction of the two conferences, but even today that frequency of travel is known to have quite a severe impact of athlete performance, as well as having a high associated cost.

Within the current setup, teams will play the other teams in their division the most often, followed by the other teams in their conference and, finally, teams from the other conference least of all (only once home and away in the regular season). By operating the league in this way, travel requirements are heavily reduced, as the teams in closest proximity to each other will play the most often.

Eastern Conference vs Western Conference

While the conference system may work on a logistical front, there are many who want to do away with this set-up. One of the key arguments for this is the disparity in performance across the two conferences.

It has been widely acknowledged that the teams in the Western Conference play better basketball, have better win records, and yet still end up missing the playoffs to give way to lower-performing Eastern teams due to the conference structure.

While the journalistic opinions that teams in the West play a freer flowing and more skilful form of basketball compared to the often-methodical and raw approach employed by those in the East, this is exactly that – opinion. However, it’s often hard to disagree with the stats.

One of the best ways to compare the two divisions as a collective is to look at the “strength of schedule” rankings released by ESPN each year which ranks the difficulty of the average opponent the team will face throughout the entire season. Quite simply, the higher the number the harder a team’s run of fixtures across the season. The numbers here back up the theory that the Western Conference is more competitive. In fact, ever since the 2009-10 season, the teams at the bottom of the strength of schedule rankings have all been from the Eastern Conference.

What does this mean? Quite simply, that teams in the Eastern Conference have an easier run to the play-off. A good example of this is from the 2017-18 season when of the top 15 schedules in difficulty, 12 of them were from the Western Conference. If you look back at the 2018 Western Conference Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, you’ll find a game series gripping from start to end as the advantage flipped from one team to the other resulting in a 4-3 win to the Warriors led by names including Steph Curry and Kevin Durrant. Following such an enthralling Western Finals, the Warriors match themselves against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This was the same Cavs team that had the second easiest season according to the strength of schedule rankings. The result in the Finals? The Warriors put the Cavs to the sword with a 4-0 thrashing and not much of a fight in sight.

The key point here is that many of the best teams in the NBA don’t make it to the Championship Finals, or even to the play-offs, due to the league’s conference set-up, ultimately meaning that it’s incredibly rare that the two teams in the Final are actually the two best teams in the league.

The Future of NBA Conferences

While the conference set-up is a cause of debate for a few, there are no calls to remove it that are picking up any real traction. There are, however, a number of calls to remove the divisions within each conference. 

The argument regarding the Eastern teams having an easier path to the play-offs does have some legs, but to win a Championship, whichever side of the country you’re from, is still one of the biggest challenges in sport: 82 regular season games, three best-of-seven games to be crowned the conference champion, and then a final best-of-seven final Championship match between the two conference winners. Ultimately, the best team wins.