Last month, Brian Windhorst wrote an article about how LeBron has conquered the Eastern Conference. It's true, LeBron has conquered the East. But is that achievement as great as Windhorst made it sound? Anyone that has followed the NBA knows that the Eastern Conference has been incredibly weak, since shortly after the turn of the century. If that truth isn't patently obvious to you, then let's look at some basic numbers.
During LeBron's 14 years, the top three franchises with the most wins in the league are all in the West (San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston). Following those three teams are Miami, Denver, Boston, OKC, Golden State, Chicago, Cleveland, Indiana, Phoenix, LAL, Utah, and Memphis. That's the top 15 best records in the league and ten of them are Western Conference teams. It's even more lopsided than that though; because of the top five Eastern Conference franchises, two were teams he played for (Miami and Cleveland) and not rivals. Not only is the West better at the top, it's also better at the bottom. The bottom ten (from worst to "best") is Charlotte, Minnesota, Philly, Sacramento, NY, Brooklyn/NJ, Milwaukee, Washington, New Orleans, and Orlando. So of the bottom ten franchises in the league, seven of them are from the East.
If that isn't enough for you, let's take a look at how the best players are distributed. Of the 210 All-NBA players since '03-'04, 137 have been in the West. The fact that 65% of All-NBA players have been in the West doesn't even illustrate how much of an imbalance exists. Why? Let's look at the top 25 most selected players in each conference, with the West players in bold:
P. Gasol 3x
B. Wallace 3x
D. Jordan 3x
Of the top 25, 19 are from the West! It's not even close. Who is LeBron's competition? He didn't have to go against Kobe, Duncan, Dirk, Paul, Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Curry etc. Not only that, but his most formidable foe became a teammate! In the last 14 years, 9 MVPs are from the West. And of the five MVPs from the East, four were LeBron. It goes even further than that. If you took the top 3 finalists for MVP for each of the last 14 years, the West holds 26 of the 42 spots and LeBron holds ten of the 42 spots. That means that there are only six top three finishes by LeBron's competitors! One Rose MVP and one MVP finalist season from Wade, Shaq, Carmelo, Howard, and Jermaine O'Neal. Again, who has been LeBron's competition?
No matter how you slice it, the East has been incredibly weak. 67% of the top 15 franchise records, 65% of All-NBA players, and 64% of MVPs have been from the West and 70% of the worst ten franchises are from the East. So don't pretend that he conquered a stacked, or even competitive, conference. He faced the tail end of the Pistons, the brief reign of the Celtics, an abbreviated run from the Magic and Bulls, and a flicker of the Pacers. LeBron didn't make the Pistons and Celtics get old, he didn't make Rose's knee and Howard's back deteriorate, and he didn't make Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson lose their ability to play basketball. And in spite of facing few strong competitors, he still teamed up with Wade and Bosh and then essentially traded them in for Kyrie and Love.
LeBron didn't conquer the best. He faced the path of least resistance.