Is the East really that scared of LeBron James?
Look what happened after James nearly swept his way to his seventh straight NBA Finals appearance:
The Chicago Bulls, who have been eliminated four times by James’ teams, dealt Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves; the Indiana Pacers, likewise eliminated four times by James, traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder; the Atlanta Hawks, recently swept twice by James’ Cavs, let Paul Millsap walk to the Denver Nuggets, reportedly without making a contract offer.
Whatever the reason, the rich got richer. The Western Conference already was stacked, going 246-204 (.547) against the East last season. Of the 15 All-NBA members last season, nine hailed from the Western Conference, and Butler makes 10.
Have you seen the All-Defensive teams? The Western Conference claimed every member of the two teams except for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who found himself on the second team.
There’s a better, more complete way to capture this conference imbalance at the top of the talent tree. We can be pretty sure that the West All-Stars are better than the East All-Stars. Is it possible that the West’s B-team of All-Stars is also better than the East’s top 12?
Selecting the top players
You’ve probably seen the graphic on our ESPN airwaves that 13 of the top 14 players in the last edition of #NBArank now hail from the Western Conference. (Sorry, Boston fans, Gordon Hayward didn’t make the cut.)
– ESPN (@espn) July 1, 2017
That list was made about eight months ago and a lot has happened since then. After last season, East stars such as Kyle Lowry and Antetokounmpo have a good case for being in that group.
So to bring the list up to date, let’s blend #NBArank (with a slight age adjustment to make it current) with predictive RPM, ESPN’s player impact rating, to create composite rank. Predictive RPM is a helpful tool because it considers aging effects, both ends of the floor and the player’s greater track record to better detect a fluke season. This version, provided by ESPN Insider’s Jerry Engelmann, isn’t available publicly yet, but it’s vital to an analysis like this. So is the Western Conference really so stacked that its B-team would beat the East’s A-team?
Without further ado …
Picking the West’s A-team
In real life, the fans pick the starters, and the coaches pick the reserves. In this case, we’ll do it for them, based on composite rank.
Overall, it looks a lot like the real-life squads. Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook are in the backcourt while Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green fill out the frontcourt. The reserves? Chris Paul, James Harden and Butler get spots as well as Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, George and Karl-Anthony Towns.
One crazy thing? The talent divide is so wide that Towns is the worst player on the West team (14th overall by composite rank), but he’s ranked higher than the third-best player in the East.
Picking the East’s A-team
LeBron James and … well, that gets tricky. James is currently composite ranked as the NBA’s best player even though he’ll be turning 33 in December. Then after that you have to scroll … and scroll … and scroll.
Hey, look at that — an East player! Lowry checks in at 12th by composite rank, which makes sense for a player who averaged 22.4 points, 7.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds while making 3s at a high volume and the same percentage as Curry and Klay Thompson.
If the two conferences equally distributed their talent, you’d see East and West tend to alternate in the player rankings. But it goes East, West, West, West, West, West, West, West, West, West, West, Lowry. Then you have to wait until No. 17 to find another East player: the Greek Freak.
In other words, 14 of the best 16 players in the NBA hail from the Western Conference, by this measure. If you want to go further, the West claims 18 of the top 21 players in the league.
(For this exercise, we subbed Isaiah Thomas in for Jae Crowder and Myles Turner on the All-Star squad given they were all in the same tier and Thomas is the bigger star. Thomas ranked fifth in the 2017 MVP voting, but his RPM rating has him 59th this past season because of porous defense while the predictive RPM — which is forward-looking — has him pegged at 68th as he approaches age 30. The more favorable composite rank puts Thomas at 39th best among players for next season.)
For the East, Lowry and John Wall start in the backcourt while James, Antetokounmpo and Kevin Love take the forward slots. On the bench, Hayward, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Al Horford and Hassan Whiteside join Thomas.
Is that squad good enough to beat the West’s second-best?
Picking the West’s B-team
There is no LeBron on this team, but wow, the depth makes up for it. Damian Lillard and Thompson man the starting backcourt while Blake Griffin, Denver’s newest star Millsap and DeAndre Jordan also start for the West’s B-team. They could probably hold their own, but the reserve corps is loaded.
Off the bench, Mike Conley, CJ McCollum and Eric Bledsoe join Ricky Rubio (FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO Projections peg him as a “borderline All-Star“). Joining those guards are Nikola Jokic (leader of the NBA’s best offense since he joined the starting lineup in December last season), Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams. The reserves on the West average out to 27th in composite rank while the East reserves check in at 32nd.
What about overall? Amazingly, the average rank of a West B player is better than for an East A player. The average composite rank is 23.8 for the West versus 24.9 for the East.
Even if we ignore #NBArank altogether, and look purely at predictive RPM, the West B-team still comes out ahead. On top of the strength of its bench, the West B-team holds a combined RPM of 47.6 compared to the East’s 41.7. That’s not a small difference.
Amazingly, when considering playing time, the West’s B-team is projected to be worth six more wins above replacement than the East A squad next season. Oh, and the West A-team? That has 74.9 combined RPM, yielding 185 wins above replacement — about 50 percent more wins than the East squad.
So, yes, we have evidence that the Western Conference can field not one, but two squads better than the East’s best squad. That’s without taking any of the West’s most elite 12 players.
Of course, there are other ways to look at this, including matchups. The West B-team has gaps — for instance, it doesn’t have an ideal one-on-one defender for James (Millsap is probably the best bet). But Gobert is the best rim protector in the game and Jordan isn’t very far behind. They could pack the paint against the East’s best and get away with it, considering Antetokounmpo, Wall and James aren’t sharpshooters.
Any team featuring James will be competitive … to a point, but the West’s A-team would run circles around the East’s best in a real competition. Based on player talent, the only fair fight is to run out the West B-team against the East’s best. Even then, the East still looks like the least conference.