Eastern conference – NBA teams through history

The NBA Conferences are a deeply-rooted tradition in American sports that major pro and college leagues be divided into conferences and other sub-divisions. The Major League baseball has its National League and American League, the National Football Association, its NFC and AFC, the National Hockey League its Eastern and Western conferences. The finals traditionally see the champions of each conference compete against each other to decide who should be crowned league Champions. In similar fashion, since its official creation in 1949, the NBA has been divided in two, divisions at first, and then conferences. Even though geographical factors came into play when organizing the League, making sure the teams would primarily play within a certain geographical area and thus avoid having to make too many long trips too often, we’ll see that, in spite of their names, the Eastern and Western Conferences have not always been organized strictly on a geographical basis.

Eastern confrence

The Eastern conference is currently made up of 15 teams, roughly based east of the Mississippi – essentially on the East Coast – and include the only team located outside of U.S territory, in Toronto, Canada. Since the 2003-04 Season, the fifteen teams have been further divided into three 5-team partitions: the Atlantic, Central and Southeast Divisions. Here is a look at how the Eastern Conference is currently organized:

The East is often viewed as an overall more defense-oriented conference than its Western counterpart, with a tougher, hard-nosed kind of image, best impersonated by the 1960s Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons from the famous 1980s Bad Boys era.

It has also recently been an overall less competitive conference, with only 7 out of 15 teams finishing the 2010-11 Season above .500, against 9 in the West. On the other hand, the best team record of the season belonged to the Chicago Bulls, with 62 wins, surpassing the West’s San Antonio Spurs by one game.


When in 1949 the BAA (Basketball Association of America) absorbed the rival NBL (National Basketball League) to officially become the NBA, incorporating the new teams called for some realignment. The League therefore decided to divide the seventeen teams into three divisions: Eastern, Central and Western Divisions. The ancestor of the Eastern Conference was born. Six of the original teams were assigned to it: the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Syracuse Nationals (now Philadelphia 76ers), Washington Capitols (1946-51), Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State Warriors) and Baltimore Bullets (1944-54). The following season, the number of NBA teams dropped to eleven and the Central Division disappeared altogether. In the East, the Bullets and Capitols folded, leaving only 4 teams to compete for pretty much the whole of the 1950s.

The original Eastern Division (1950.)
new york knickerbockers 1950 logo
New York Knickerbockers
washington capitols 1950 logo
Washington Capitols
celtics logo 1950
Boston Celtics
philadelphia warriors 1950 logo
Philadelphia Warriors
syracuse nationals 1950 logo
Syracuse Nationals
baltimore bullets 1950 logo
Baltimore Bullets

The 1960s saw a few more adjustments. The Warriors relocated to San Francisco in 1962 and became part of the West, while the Cincinnati Royals took their place in the East. In 1966, to balance out the number of teams in the East and West, the new Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards, with no connection to the previous team of the same name) were reallocated to the East, the division now boasting a total of 5 teams. In 1967, it was the Detroit Pistons who came to play in the Eastern Division, while the West welcomed two expansion teams, the Seattle SuperSonics and San Diego Rockets. In 1968, it was the East’s turn to welcome its very first expansion team: the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Eastern Division (1969.)
new york knickerbockers 1969 logo
New York Knickerbockers
baltimore bullets 1969 logo
Baltimore Bullets
celtics 1969 logo
Boston Celtics
pistons 1969 logo
Detroit Pistons
76ers 1969 logo
Philadelphia 76ers
bucks 1969 logo
Milwaukee Bucks
cincinnati royals logo
Cincinnati Royals

Finally, it is before the start of the 1970-71 Season, with the arrival of three new franchises that the NBA was reorganized into conferences. The newly-created Eastern Conference, now with 8 teams, was further divided into the Atlantic and Central divisions and included three new teams: the Atlanta Hawks (formally in the West), the Buffalo Braves and Cleveland Cavaliers (expansion teams), while the Milwaukee Bucks, the Detroit Pistons and Kansas City/Omaha Kings (formally Cincinnati Royals) were shifted to the West. In 1973, the Baltimore Bullets relocated to Washington, becoming the Capital Bullets and were reassigned to the West, while the Houston Rockets (formerly from San Diego) come to the East. In 1974, the conference welcomed a new franchise, the New Orleans Jazz, while the Capital Bullets officially became the Washington Bullets.

The Eastern Conference before the ABA merger (1975.)

New York Knicks
cavaliers 1975 logo
Cleveland Cavaliers

Boston Celtics
rockets 1975 logo
Houston Rockets

Philadelphia 76ers
new orleans jazz logo
New Orleans Jazz
washington bullets 1975 logo
Washington Bullets
hawks 1975 logo
Atlanta Hawks
buffalo braves logo
Buffalo Braves

1976 marked the merger of NBA with the rival league ABA. As a result, 4 new teams were absorbed by the League: the New York Nets (who would relocate to New Jersey the following year), the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Denver Nuggets. Both the Spurs and Nets were assigned to the East.
In 1978, the Buffalo Braves relocated to the West Coast, becoming the San Diego Clippers, while the Detroit Pistons came to the East. In 1979, the New Orleans Jazz relocated to Salt Lake City as the Utah Jazz and became part of the Western Conference. The Indiana Pacers took their place in the East.

The Eastern Conference (1979.)
knicks 1979 logo
New York Knicks

Cleveland Cavaliers
celtics 1979 logo
Boston Celtics

Houston Rockets
76ers 1979 logo
Philadelphia 76ers
pacers 1979 logo
Indiana Pacers

Washington Bullets

Atlanta Hawks
pistons 1979 logo
Detroit Pistons
spurs 1979 logo
San Antonio Spurs
nets 1979 logo
New Jersey Nets

The 1980s and 1990s were a period of extensive development for the League and the arrival, in 1980, of the 23rd franchise, the Dallas Mavericks, called again for some reorganization. The San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets were reallocated to the West, while The Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls came east. In 1988 and ‘89, the NBA welcomed four expansion franchises, the Miami Heat, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Charlotte Hornets and the Orlando Magic. After a few seasons of bouncing around, The Magic, Hornets and Heat were permanently assigned to the East. 1995, the first two teams to be located outside of U.S territory, the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies (they would relocate to Memphis in 2001), joined the NBA. The Raptors became part of the East.

The Eastern Conference (2003.)
knicks 2003 logo
New York Knicks
pacers 2003 logo
Indiana Pacers
celtics 2003 logo
Boston Celtics
hawks 2003 logo
Atlanta Hawks
76ers 2003 logo
Philadelphia 76ers

Chicago Bulls
washington bullets 2003 logo
Washington Bullets
bucks 2003 logo
Milwaukee Bucks
pistons 2003 logo
Detroit Pistons
heat 2003 logo
Miami Heat
nets 2003 logo
New Jersey Nets
magic 2003 logo
Orlando Magic
cavaliers 2003 logo
Cleveland Cavaliers
hornets 2003 logo
New Orleans Hornets
raptors 2003 logo
Toronto Raptors

Finally, in 2004, the Charlotte Bobcats were the 30th and latest expansion franchise to join the NBA, (the Hornets having relocated to New Orleans two years before). As a result, the league realigned the Conferences, sub-dividing each of them into 5-team divisions.

Most successful teams and players

Over the course of its 70+ year long history, the Eastern division/conference has seen many teams, players and coaches leave their marks on the game.

The most titled franchise of the East, and of NBA as it turns out, are the legendary Boston Celtics, who hold a record 17 NBA championships and 21 Eastern Conference championship titles. They are well ahead of any other team in the Conference, the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers having been champions only 9 times, the New York Knicks, 8 times and the Chicago Bulls, 6 times.

Out of the 62 official NBA Finals played since 1949, the Eastern Division/Conference won 32, while the West only triumphed 28 times. The last Eastern Conference team to be crowned NBA champions were the Boston Celtics in 2008.

From 1955 to 1970, the East put together an amazing streak of victory, winning all NBA titles but one. The Boston Celtics claimed 11 of them, the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers, 2 and the New York Knicks and Philadelphia Warriors, one each.

The 1990s, again, saw the NBA being dominated by two Eastern teams, first the Detroit Pistons, during their infamous Bad Boy Era, and then Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls who garnered six titles in eight years.

Few players play with the same team or even within the same conference their whole career through so it is often abusive to label players as exclusively “Eastern Conference players” but some of them, like Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Larry Bird or Wilt Chamberlain, through the special bond they developed with one team or the role they played in helping their organization win titles have earned that distinction.

Since the MVP Award was implemented in 1956, it’s been awarded 32 times to a player from the Eastern Conference, while the West only claimed 24. Among the multiple winners are Michael Jordan (5 times with the Chicago Bulls), Bill Russell (5 times with the Boston Celtics), Wilt Chamberlain (once with the Philadelphia Warriors and 3 times with the 76ers), Larry Bird (3 times with the Celtics), Moses Malone (3 times with the Sixers) and LeBron James (twice with the Cleveland Cavaliers). The last 3 MVP awards have been awarded to players from the East (James and Derrick Rose, from the Bulls).

League MVPs from the Eastern Conference
1957. – Bob Cousy (Boston Celtics)
1981. – Julius Erving (Philadelphia 76ers)
1958. – Bill Russell (Boston Celtics)
1982. – Moses Malone (Houston Rockets)
1960. – Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia Warriors)
1983. – Moses Malone (Philadelphia 76ers)
1961. – Bill Russell (Boston Celtics)
1984. – Larry Bird (Boston Celtics)
1962. – Bill Russell (Boston Celtics)
1985. – Larry Bird (Boston Celtics)
1963. – Bill Russell (Boston Celtics)
1986. – Larry Bird (Boston Celtics)
1964. – Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati Royals)
1988. – Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls)
1965. – Bill Russell (Boston Celtics)
1991. – Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls)
1966. – Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia 76ers)
1992. – Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls)
1967. – Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia 76ers)
1996. – Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls)
1968. – Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia 76ers)
1998. – Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls)
1970. – Willis Reed (New York Knicks)
2004. – Kevin Garnett (Minnesota Timberwolves)
1973. – Dave Cowers (Boston Celtics)
2009. – LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
1975. – Bob McAdoo (Buffalo Braves)
2010. – LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
1979. – Moses Malone (Houston Rockets)
2011. – Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls)

Best scorer of the league:

The NBA Scoring champion has been from the East 37 times (thanks, especially to Michael Jordan’s 10 titles), for 20 for the West.

Other Hall of Famers attached to the Eastern Conference include Bob Cousy (six titles with the Boston Celtics), Dolph Scheyes (12 times all-star with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers), Paul Arizin (Philadelphia Warriors), Oscar Robertson (MVP with the Cincinnati Royals and NBA Champion with the Milwaukee Bucks), Hal Greer (Nationals), Willis Reed (NY Knicks), John Havlicek (Celtics), Clyde Frazier (Knicks), Julius Erving (76ers), Kevin McHale (Celtics), Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars (Detroit Pistons), Dominique Wilkins (Atlanta Hawks), Patrick Ewing (NY Knicks), Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman (Chicago Bulls).

The All-Star games

Since 1951, the best players from the Eastern and Western conferences meet in an exhibition game, the NBA All-Star Game. It is traditionally held in February and opposes players voted in both by the public (the starting line-up) and the coaches (7 bench players for each team). The Eastern All-Stars traditionally wear blue uniforms although from 1997 to 2002, players were allowed to wear their usual team jerseys.

The East won 36 of the 61 matches played (1999 All-Star Game was cancelled due to lockout). The last time the Eastern Conference triumphed was in the 2010 edition, when they beat the West 141-139 in Dallas.

League development
The NBA is currently studying the possibility of adding franchises in Europe as part of the Eastern Conference. Cities as Paris and London have already been considered as potential hosts. In 2011, the first NBA regular season games played outside of North America saw the New Jersey Nets meet the Toronto Raptors in London’s 02 Arena.