Since the fall of the Chicago Bulls in 1998, analyst and sports fans alike have searched for the answer to one question; why is the Western Conference so much better than the Eastern Conference? Some have suggested that the discrepancies began as early as 1996 when Shaquille O’Neal left the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers. Others have said that it is something that goes in spurts, with the East being stronger than the West for a period of time, than it switches to the West being stronger and than back to the East. But one thing which is seldom mentioned is the coaching in each conference, and how much better coached the West is compared to the East.
The East has won two of the last three NBA championships, with the Pistons taking the crown in 2004, and the Miami Heat winning it just last year. Before that however the West had won the previous five. A western conference team has also had the NBA’s best record six of the last eight years, including the last year of the Jordan lead Bulls.
This dominance of the west is hardly surprising when you look at the number of top tier coaches the West has in comparison to the East. Of the eight western teams currently in the playoffs, seven of them are coached by a coach who has lead a team to the NBA finals, of those seven two have won NBA championships; those two coaches(Popovich, Jackson) account for 12 NBA championships. In contrast the East has only two coaches who have lead a team to the NBA finals, Pat Riley and Brian Hill. Riley is the only Eastern coach with an NBA championship, and he has five of them, but four coming in the 1980s with the Lakers.
Riley and Larry Brown have been the big exception to the “West having better coaches” theory, Both Riley and Brown have won an NBA championship during this time, they are the only Eastern coaches to have accomplished this feat. Both coaches have been coaching for more than 20 years, and are the only Eastern coaches who rank in the top 10 in active coaching wins.
A head coaching job in the NBA has never been a very secure job. The average time for a coach to stay with a team is only about four seasons, however since 2000 no Eastern coach has stayed with the same team longer than five consecutive seasons. The West currently has two coaches who have been with their respective teams for over 10 NBA seasons, Popovich who is in his 11th NBA season with the Spurs, and Jerry Sloan who is in 18th year as coach of the Utah Jazz. The coaching carousel however has proven to be of great benefit for the west, as three Western coaches(Jackson, Van Gundy, Scott) have lead Eastern teams to the NBA finals before leaving and eventually finding a job coaching in the West.
Since the Bulls won the title in 98, no coach, who has lead his team to the NBA finals has lasted with the team they coached to the finals longer than three years. Jeff Van Gundy lead the Knicks to the finals in 99, two years later he left to pursue a career in broadcasting. Larry Bird coached the Pacers to the finals in 2000, he left following the season. In 2001 Larry Brown helped guide the Sixers to the finals, he left to coach the Pistons in 2003. In 2002 and 2003 Byron Scott coached the Nets in back-to-back NBA finals, he quit partially through the next season. Larry Brown would get the Pistons to back-to-back NBA finals in 2004 and 2005. He would leave the Pistons for the Knicks following a game seven loss to San Antonio. Last year Pat Riley comes out of retirement to guide the Heat to the NBA finals, as of now it’s unknown what Riley will do. Comparing this to the west and you will see that the West has been lead by the same coaches every year. Phil Jackson would get the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA finals in 2000,2001,2002,and 2004; winning titles from 2000-2002. Greg Popovich would lead the Spurs to titles in all three of his NBA finals appearances in 1999,2003,and 2005. Avery Johnson who lead the Mavericks to the NBA finals last year looks poised to do so again.
The coaching carousel in the East leads to new coaches coming into an already established system and changing things, this causes problems for the players who have to learn a new system over night, which usually leads to a team failing even more miserably than they previously had. Eastern teams have also had on average four coaches per team in this span, compared to the West at two per team. This constant change doesn’t allow coaching staffs to fully develop and evaluate players to their fullest extent and has lead to some huge playoff droughts in the East. Until this year Toronto had not had a winning season since 2002, Orlando has had one since 1999, Boston since 2001 and Atlanta since 1998. Despite not having winning records, these teams would make the playoffs in the East.
The West by comparison has only one team with a playoff drought longer than four years, and that is the Golden State Warriors who last appeared in the post season in 1994. The Western teams who have succeeded in the NBA have had great stability in coaching; of the three Western division champions this season only Dallas has had a head coaching change in the past three years. When Don Nelson retired from the Dallas Mavericks, the job went to assistant Avery Johnson; this is yet another thing which as contributed to the West having better coaches than the East. Western teams have been more likely to turn to an assistant coach when replacing a head coach than going out and finding a new head coach like in the East. The West currently has six head coaches who served as assistants on their teams before taking over as head coach; these coaches include Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, and Avery Johnson.
Coaching isn’t everything, a team can have a great coach but be filled with bad players and the team will most likely not succeed; the key factor in all of this is stability. The teams who are willing to be patient and stick with coaches tend to win out over the more fickle and aggressive teams who change coaches with the seasons.