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Friday, June 27, 2008
Updated: June 30, 5:15 PM ET
Face it, the NBA's Western Conference is overrated

By Jemele Hill
Page 2

More than a week has passed since the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship, and I've been patiently waiting for someone to point out the obvious.

Kevin Garnett
After the Celtics' dominance over the Lakers, it's hard to argue that the West is better.
Fine, let me be the bearer of bad news.

The Western Conference is overrated.

The basketball certainly is entertaining. The Phoenix-San Antonio opening-round series was better than any of this year's NCAA tournament games. And if I had been told I could attend only one NBA game this season, I'm positive I would have picked a Western Conference matchup.

But winning and entertaining are two different things. All season long, and especially during the playoffs, we heard nonstop about how much better the Western Conference is than the Eastern Conference. But if that's true, why has the East won three of the past five NBA championships? (And when you consider the Pistons-Spurs series in 2005 lasted seven games, the East easily could have been winners of four of the past five.)

We're so fond of the style of play in the West, we've given the conference a free pass for how its teams have recently failed to show up in the NBA Finals.

The past few Western Conference teams in the Finals have had one very obvious character flaw:

They've been softer than John Daly's midsection.

The Mavericks mentally shrunk against the Heat in 2006. The Lakers were completely undressed by the Pistons in '04. And this year, reigning MVP Kobe Bryant and his sidekick, Pau Gau-soft, were punked by the Celtics.

This is the big, bad West?

It's often been argued that if you entered Western Team A into the Eastern Conference, it'd either win the conference outright or at least be among the the East's top teams. But after watching how the Celtics annihilated the Lakers, how can that possibly be true?

In fact, a lot of the Western teams have major issues lurking behind those pretty 50-win records.

Houston can't win a playoff series. Utah can't win on the road. Denver doesn't play defense. Golden State can't get focused (and doesn't play defense). Phoenix can't get past San Antonio (and doesn't always play defense). New Orleans doesn't have enough pieces and is too inexperienced. Dallas has yet to regain its confidence after losing to Miami in the Finals. And San Antonio, the West's savior, is starting to get old.

At least in the East, there's no pretending. When Eastern Conference teams stink, they make it obvious (see: the 76ers', Nets' and Cavaliers' Finals appearances).

"That's not to say [the West's] style can't win," said Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Woodson, who was an assistant with the Pistons when they beat the Lakers for the NBA championship in 2004. "When I look at the East, we're more deliberate. Our focus is more on trying to get stops."

A team with 37 wins (Atlanta) and a team with 45 wins (Cleveland) pushed the Celtics to seven games -- something the mighty West's Lakers had no shot at doing.

Shaquille O'Neal
It didn't work, at least not this year, but the Suns trading for Shaq still made a statement.
"I don't think the Celtics took us lightly," Woodson said. "I think the media thought it would be an easy series. … The Celtics second-guessed themselves a little in our series, but the fact that they went through a seven-game series with us prepared them for the next round."

Both Boston and Detroit had a better winning percentage against Western Conference teams this season than against teams in their own conference. But outside of Boston, very few people thought the Celtics had a chance against the Lakers.

Why?

It says something that the Suns tried to adopt an Eastern style this season, hoping it would give them a better shot at winning a championship. Trading for Shaq was supposed to help the Suns play the grind-it-out style it takes to win playoff games and shore up their interior defense. Too bad they ran into the Spurs, who've already mastered that.

Understand, this isn't an argument about which conference is deeper. Clearly the West wins that argument. Every Western playoff team won more than 50 games, while just three teams in the East accomplished that. Only four Western teams had a losing record against the East -- the SuperSonics, Clippers, Timberwolves and Grizzlies. Just four Eastern teams managed a winning record against the West.

But despite those gaudy, imbalanced numbers, the East's recent dominance in the NBA Finals has earned its teams the right to tell everyone to be quiet about how great the West is. At the very least, there should be a moratorium on that crazy talk that the NBA playoff format should be changed so that teams with the top 16 records make the playoffs, regardless of conference.

I'll be the first to admit Eastern Conference basketball is about as appealing as K-Fed and Britney Spears reconciling. But it wins titles. That's what matters.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.