For 82 games in a year, the best basketball players in the world battle it out for NBA supremacy. However, during one of the weekends of the first quarter of each calendar year, the best of the best gather in one city to play the NBA All-Star Game.
For the longest time, the All-Star Game was a battle of the NBA Eastern Conference vs. Western conference — each team fielding 12 players from their respective conferences. And, each year, the All-Star Game provokes one question: which conference is better?
The competition between the conferences goes beyond the All-Star Game. Over the years, people have noted that one conference seems far superior to the other. But is that the case? Let’s find out.
Why is the NBA Split Into Conferences?
Originally, when the league started in 1946, the NBA only had 11 teams. The first 11 were the following:
- Boston Celtics
- Cleveland Rebels
- Chicago Stags, Detroit Falcons
- New York Knickerbockers
- Pittsburgh Ironmen
- Philadelphia Warriors
- Providence Steamrollers
- St Louis Bombers
- Toronto Huskies
- Washington Capitols
All these teams were situated in the East to Midwest regions of the US. Traveling between games back then was easier because teams didn’t have to go too far from their home court. In fact, the Toronto Huskies and the Knickerbockers played the first NBA game — two teams that were a mere 8-hour drive or 1-hour flight away from each other.
The 11-team league didn’t need to divide the teams in any way. However, as basketball became more popular through the years, the NBA saw more teams joining the league. So, by 1970, the NBA formally divided the then 17-team league into the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference.
The number of NBA teams wasn’t just growing; they were also getting farther away. Case in point, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics — the two most accomplished teams — are more than 3000 miles away from each other.
After the 1975-1976 season, the NBA merged with its competitor, the American Basketball Association (ABA), bringing the number of NBA teams to 23. Seven more teams would join the NBA from 1988 to 2004 to reach the present total of 30 teams.
Today, the NBA Western Conference comprises 15 teams from the West and the South. On the other hand, the Eastern Conference is also made up of 15 teams, mainly from the Midwest and Northeast.
How Does the NBA Conference League Work?
One of the main points of creating the conference was to help out with the logistics of the regular season. All 30 teams play 82 games each, and having conferences helps the NBA schedule the games.
Throughout the year, every team will battle every team from the other conference twice for 30 games. This setup leaves 52 of the 82 games to be played against teams from the same conference.
Furthermore, the conference system is broken down into six divisions (three per conference) of five closely-situated teams. In the Eastern Conference, the divisions are Atlantic, Central, and South East. In the West, the divisions are North West, Pacific, and South West. Every team will battle the other four teams in their division four times for a total of 16 intradivision games.
Finally, the teams will play every team outside their division but within their conference three or four times for 16 more games.
With this system, teams wouldn’t need to cross the country as much. Also, teams can dedicate more time to recovery and practice instead of travel because of this. All these games determine the seeding and shape of how the NBA Playoffs will look like.
The conference system also helps teams battle the conference counterparts they will most likely meet in the NBA Playoffs. The path of an NBA champion is composed of winning a 7-game series four times — three against teams in the same conference and one against the champion from the other side of the country.
What Teams Make Up the Western Conference?
The Northwest division comprises teams from three regions in the country — three teams from the Midwest, one from the South, and one from the Midwest. Because of this, this division is geographically the largest in the league. Here are the teams that comprise the Northwest Division:
- Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets joined in 1976 and have won the division nine times in its franchise history.
- Minnesota Timberwolves – The Wolves joined in 1989 and won their lone division title in 2004 when Kevin Garnett led them.
- Oklahoma City Thunder – The OKC Thunder only joined the league in 2008, but they trace their roots to the Seattle SuperSonics that played in the league from 1967 to 2007. As a franchise, the Thunder had won the division five times and the Western conference once when the team was bannered by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.
- Portland Trail Blazers – The Blazers, who started in 1970, are the oldest team in this division. They’ve won the division six times, the conference thrice, and a championship in 1977 behind the efforts of Bill Walton.
- Utah Jazz – The Jazz have won the Northwest Division more than any other team, with 12 titles. They’ve also won the conference twice since joining the league in 1974.
All of the teams in the Pacific division belong to one region in the country — the West. In fact, four of the five teams in this division are all from California. This division is the winningest in NBA history, with a combined 24 championships under it. The conference remains one of the most competitive divisions in the NBA today.
- Golden State Warriors – The Warriors have been with the NBA since the first jump ball in 1946. They have won 7 championships — the second-most in the NBA — and have won the division 12 times. They are the 2022 champions and have seen great success since drafting the greatest shooter, Steph Curry, in 2009
- Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers joined the league in 1948 and are currently tied with their bitter rivals, the Boston Celtics, for the most NBA titles with 17. They also have the most conference and division titles in history at 32 each.
- Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers are known for being the Lakers’ neighbors, with both teams sharing the same arena for their home games. The team has won the division twice.
- Phoenix Suns – The Suns have been home to some of the greatest players in history, such as Charles Barkley and Steve Nash. They’ve won the conference thrice and the division eight times.
- Sacramento Kings – Contrary to popular memes, the Sacramento Kings have already won an NBA title in 1951 as the Rochester Royals. They’ve also won the conference once and the division five times.
This division comprises five teams from the South and is bannered by three teams from Lone Star State. They have a balanced roster of teams, with each of the five teams winning the division at least once in their history.
- Dallas Mavericks – This team joined the NBA in 1980 and was famously bought by billionaire Mark Cuban in 2000. They’ve won the division four times, the conference twice, and got the crown in 2011 behind the greatest Maverick of all time, Dirk Nowitzki.
- Houston Rockets – Since joining the league in 1967, they have won their division eight times and the conference four times. They won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 during the prime of Hakeem Olajuwon.
- Memphis Grizzlies – The Grizzlies only joined the league in 1995. Being a relatively young franchise, this team hasn’t won many titles yet, but they did recently clinch the division title in 2022.
- New Orleans Pelicans – The Pelicans are considered the youngest franchise in the NBA. They joined in 2005 and have only won one division title since. However, like the Grizzlies, this team is primed to start winning soon.
- San Antonio Spurs – With a staggering 22 division titles, six conference titles, and five championships, the Spurs are undeniably the Kings of Southwest. Behind the wheel for San Antonio is the winningest coach of all time, Greg Popovich.
What Teams Make up the Eastern Conference?
All states in this division have had an NBA team since the first tip-off. In fact, the first NBA game was played between New York and Toronto teams. This division has 23 NBA titles combined — which is good for second behind the Pacific Division. To this day, this division is considered the strongest in the East.
- Boston Celtics – Among all the first NBA teams, the Celtics are the only ones who were able to preserve their name. They’re arguably the most storied team in the NBA and are also tied with the Lakers for the most league titles with 17.
- Brooklyn Nets – The Brooklyn Nets are among the newest names in the NBA, but their franchise history dates back to 1976. They’ve won the division four times and the conference twice.
- New York Knicks – The Knicks and the Celtics are the oldest teams in league history. They first started as the New York Knickerbockers but soon shortened it to the Knicks. They’ve won the division 9 times, the conference four times, and the league twice.
- Philadelphia 76ers – The city of Philadelphia has been with the NBA ever since the league started. As a franchise, the Sixers have won 13 division titles, five conference titles, and three league titles. Wilt Chamberlain famously scored 100 points in one game while playing for Philly.
- Toronto Raptors – As the name suggests, the Raptors are the only non-American team in the NBA. The city of Toronto has also been with the NBA since 1946. The Raptors have won the division seven times and the conference once en route to their first championship in 2019.
This division is composed of five teams from the Midwest region of the country. All in all, the central division has 12 league titles and was home to some of the greatest players and narratives of all time.
- Chicago Bulls – The city of Chicago has been with the NBA since 1946, but the Bulls only joined the league in 1966. Twenty years after joining the league, the Bulls would draft a certain player named Michael Jordan who would end up giving the franchise all six of its championships.
- Cleveland Cavaliers – Cleveland has been with the NBA ever since, but the Cavs only came up in 1970. Much like the Bulls, the Cavs’ history also changed when they drafted a GOAT player in LeBron James. In 2016, LeBron won the Cavs’ first and only title after one of the most inspiring runs in NBA Playoffs history.
- Detroit Pistons – The Detroit Pistons franchise has been in the league since 1948. The team has won the division 12 times and the league thrice — a back-to-back during the Bad Boys era and another one in 2004 after a shocking championship run.
- Indiana Pacers – The Pacers organization is not short of great narratives despite being the lone ringless team in the division. They have won six division titles and one conference title en route to a trip to the NBA Finals in 2000.
- Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks joined the league in 1968 and have won the division the most times with 17 titles. They’ve also won the league twice — the first time with young Kareem (Lew Alcindor) and another in 2021 with Giannis.
Lastly, the teams from the Eastern side of the South. This division has only a total of five league titles, but that hasn’t stopped any of these teams from making waves recently.
- Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks started in 1949, making them the oldest franchise in this division. They’ve won the division 12 times and have won a championship behind the efforts of the legendary Bob Pettit.
- Charlotte Hornets – The Hornets started with the league in 1988 and were briefly called the Bobcats for a couple of years. In 2010, the franchise was bought by Michael Jordan himself, and their rebuild has started to reap benefits already.
- Miami Heat – With 15 division titles, six conference titles, and three championships, the Heat are arguably the most successful team in this division. The Heat joined the NBA in 1988 and stayed in the middle of the pack until finally reaching the league’s pinnacle behind the likes of Dwyane Wade, Shaq, and LeBron James.
- Orlando Magic – The Magic have won the division seven times and the conference twice since joining the league in 1989. The best run they had as a franchise was back when the duo of Shaq and Penny led them.
- Washington Wizards – None of the active NBA teams have changed their name more than the Wizards. The franchise started in 1961 as the Chicago Packers and has changed names four more times before its present name. They’ve won the division eight times, the conference four times, and the league once.
Which Conference in the NBA is the Most Competitive?
The East and the West have each had their fair share of glory days. So, the answer to which one of the conferences is more competitive is highly relative to the period and era. A good indicator of the conference’s competence is the number of teams they have in the top 10 of the NBA standings for that season.
For example, in the concluded 2021-2022 season, six of the top 10 teams were from the West for the regular reason. The champion for that season also came from that conference. However, during the 2015-2016 season, six of the top 10 teams in the league were from the East. The champions also came from the same conference.
During the past decade, seeing a Western team in the top 10 has been more common. In fact, eight of the last 12 NBA champions were from the West.
Who Has More Championships? East or West?
In 2021, the NBA celebrated its 75th anniversary. The first champions, the Philadelphia Warriors, were crowned in 1947. Since then, 75 more champions have been crowned, the latest being the Golden State Warriors.
Contrary to popular belief, the East has won more championships than the West. As of 2022, the Eastern Conference has 40 titles — four more than the West with 36.
All 76 championships are shared by 19 franchises, with the Lakers and the Celtics leading the count with 17 apiece. While the West has been considerably stronger than the East in recent memory, most of the teams from the East have been around longer, which some might consider an advantage.
Wrapping Things Up: Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference: Which is Better Historically in the NBA?
Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference is a debate that has circled the basketball community for the longest time. Historically, the East beats the West in total championships, 40-36. However, after the Chicago Bulls completed their second 3-peat in 1998, the West went on to win 16 of the next 24 championships.
In terms of total wins in history, three of the top five teams are from the West. However, when you look at the total win percentage, four of the top five teams are from the West.
Some fans say that the East is better, while others say otherwise. In truth, the East is better than the West, and the West is better than the East, depending on how you view it.
Explore the impact the significance of divisions in the NBA here.
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