Two years ago, after the Wizards bottomed out in the Orlando bubble, they closed the season with a 25-47 record overall. Despite being 22 games under .500, they had the 10th-best record in the East, which means if the play-in tournament had existed in its current form, the Wizards would have been postseason bound.
Fast forward to this season and the Wizards, at 12 games under .500, finished 12th in the Eastern Conference. The final play-in team, the Charlotte Hornets, had a winning record of 43-39.
The 8th-seed this year, the Cleveland Cavaliers, was six games above .500, at 44-38. Meanwhile, the Wizards just last season made the playoffs as the 8-seed despite being four games under .500 (34-38)
The East also won its 2021-22 season series against the West with a record of 226-224. Though the margin was slim, according to NBA PR it was the first time that has happened since 2008-09 and just the second time in the last 23 years.
Those are just some measures that show how much better the Eastern Conference was this year. All of a sudden, the conference is extremely deep, like the cast of F9, the ninth Fast and Furious, deep (Vin Diesel, John Cena, Ludacris, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell, Cardi B AND Helen Mirren? Come on.).
After decades of Western Conference superiority in the NBA, the tide may have finally shifted. The question is whether it is here to stay and if so, what that would mean for teams like the Wizards who were on the playoff bubble this season and could face a more difficult road ahead.
The West may still be better at the top, as the two best records were owned by Western Conference teams (Suns and Grizzlies), but there is no question at the moment it is much harder to make the playoffs in the East. The 10-seed Hornets had a better record than the Clippers (42-40), who finished eighth in the West.
In most years, the 10-seed in the East comes in well below .500, often around 8-to-12 games under. More often than not, the 8-seed has a losing record. Since 2000, only seven times has the No. 8 team in the East had a winning record. Before this season, 2015-16 was the only year since 2000 that featured the 10-seed finishing at .500 or better. That was the 41-41 Wizards with a young John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Looking ahead, what could make this Eastern Conference glow-up sustainable is the fact there are quite a few teams that may get better over time. The Nets, for instance, were the seventh-seed largely due to injuries and roster turnover. If Kevin Durant stays healthy and Ben Simmons is available, they are much better than a 44-win team.
There are also a collection of young teams that could improve as their players develop. The 9-seed Hawks have loads of young talent highlighted by Trae Young, the Hornets have a young star in LaMelo Ball, the 8-seed Cavs have Darius Garland and Evan Mobley Jr. just scratching the surface of their potential and the 5-seed Raptors could get better as Scottie Barnes ascends.
On the other hand, some of the balance and league-wide parity could be the product of teams in the West having down years. Kawhi Leonard missed the whole season and with him, the Clippers would likely win more than 42 games. The Nuggets were held back by injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. The Lakers were a mess, but also could have been much better if Anthony Davis stayed healthy. Injuries to Damian Lillard and Zion Williamson also had domino effects.
It's possible the West is back to being the better conference next season. Part of the equation has been young stars and top draft picks going to the West, thereby preserving its advantage over the East potentially for years to come. Three out of the last four No. 1 overall picks have gone to the West, for instance. But also four of the top-5 picks in last year's draft went East and two of the teams with the best lottery odds this year are Eastern Conference teams.
So, how does this pertain to the Wizards? While they likely pay much more attention to their own roster, if 2021-22 was the start of a years-long trend, they may need to be much better than they were in years past just to make the postseason. The West, at its peak in recent years, has required 50 wins just to get a top-8 seed. Washington hasn't won 50 games since the 1970s.
If the East did get to that point, it could create some natural urgency for the Wizards to aim higher, to get more aggressive in building their roster. This year, it required 46 wins just to be the sixth seed, while the Wizards haven't won that many since 2016-17.
It may be a new era in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards have made some legitimate progress in developing their young players and acquiring quality veterans like Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma. But moving forward in the East, it may take a really good team just to make the playoffs.