Non-conference play and its importance to the West

It was nearly a month ago when Mark Jackson was on the hot seat. Golden State had fallen to 14-13, losing to a short-handed San Antonio Spurs on national television. Championship expectations by fans were replaced with hope to just make the playoffs. The Warriors were in ninth place in the West, grouped with the mediocrity of the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers, among other teams.

Then Golden State beat both of those teams, rattled off home wins against the Clips and Suns, and went on a seven-game road trip out East where they finished 6-1. Their best stretch of the season was topped off with a win at home against Boston. 14-13 became 25-14. Title-contention was back to being realistic, though still a long shot in the loaded West.

The road trip out East helped the Warriors arguably the most in their quest to outdo last season’s exit in the Western Conference Semifinals. (Those hopes may have gotten a little higher today, thanks to a three-way trade to acquire Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks.)

All but one Western Conference playoff contender has used road trips out East – and games against the lowly conference in general – to beef up their win total. That one, singled-out contender is Phoenix who’s .500 in non-conference play.

Beating up on the East has been key for Western Conference playoff contenders since 2000, when the West took the upper hand in non-conference play, but it’s at its highest importance this season. That all might be obvious, but it’s nonetheless important to note that over the last 14 seasons just five Western Conference squads made the playoffs while finishing under .500 against the East:

Team vs East Record Seed  Finish
2000 Seattle SuperSonics 14-16 45-37 7 Lost First Round
2004 Denver Nuggets 14-16 43-39 8 Lost First Round
2006 Sacramento Kings 14-16 44-38 8 Lost First Round
2007 Golden State Warriors 14-16 42-40 8 Lost Semifinals
2007 Los Angeles Lakers 14-16 42-40 7 Lost First Round

The East just doesn’t have the same urge to win their battles against Western foes, able to stay in contention if they stumble during a road trip on Pacific coast, for example. Over the same seasons, they’ve had 50 teams in the playoffs with non-conference records below .500. Only one team, the 2012 Boston Celtics, has done that and made it all the way to the Conference Finals, but they needed some injury luck to get there. There’s always a chance they upset a top-seeded Bulls squad with a healthy Derrick Rose, but it’s an unlikely one.

Again, it might seem obvious about teams out West need to beat those out West to do well over 82 games. Related to the first table, below are the playoff teams with the second-worst non-conference records in those same seasons:

Team vs East Record Seed Finish
2000 Minnesota Timberwolves 18-12 50-32 6 Lost First Round
2004 Dallas Mavericks 19-11 52-30 5 Lost First Round
2006 Memphis Grizzlies 18-12 49-33 5 Lost First Round
2006 Los Angeles Lakers 18-12 45-37 7 Lost First Round
2007 Denver Nuggets 18-12 45-47 6 Lost First Round

The teams in the first table gave up, at the very least, four games to fellow playoff contenders. That worked out fine for the 2007 Golden State Warriors, but every other team missed out on the possibility of improving their seeding by one to three spots.

Of course, another (and more frequent) way of moving up in the standings is by winning games against contenders in the same conference, but some teams have gotten by with cherry picking — winning a good chunk of their games against the East. Here are some of the most egregious instances. For one squad, it wasn’t enough to make the postseason:

Team vs East vs West Record Seed Finish
2001 Houston Rockets 25-5 20-32 45-37 9 Missed Playoffs
2004 Houston Rockets 24-6 21-31 45-37 7 Lost First Round
2012 Denver Nuggets 16-2 22-26 38-28 6 Lost First Round
2013 Houston Rockets 21-9 24-28 45-37 8 Lost First Round

This season’s Minnesota Timberwolves, currently 11-5 versus the East but 7-14 against the West, might join the few and not-so-proud of that grouping.

Every 82-game season requires 30 non-conference games, though, and every one of those count given how stacked the West is this season. It’s also not any team’s fault for winning games they’re supposed to. Minnesota (and Denver and Memphis, for that matter) are hanging around with the help of that one edge available for about one-third of the season, but it would certainly help if they beat a few teams currently in the playoff seeds they’re trying to overtake.

For more posts about the East-West battles, check this out.


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2 thoughts on “Non-conference play and its importance to the West

  1. […] The 45.5 percent win rate the East had last week would be solid over an entire season. That’s if they ever cared about non-conference statistics. It’s fine if they don’t, especially when the games have nowhere as much impact as they do for the West. […]

  2. […] not even that bad compared to past West teams who dominated the East but struggled versus the West. Among other instances, the 2001 Rockets went 25-5 against the East but missed out on the playoffs at […]

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