How the West was Won

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How the West was Won, Part I

In 1988, Yugoslavia won silver at the Seoul Olympics before hosting and winning the European Championships, led by tournament MVP and member of the FIBA Hall of Fame, Drazen Petrovic.​

On that same roster was a 7’1 player from Prijepolje who would become the standard for European centers with the talent (and interest) to play in the NBA, whose impact can be observed nearly 35 years later.

Vlade Divac, who was the most highly sought-after free agent in Europe before he departed for California, had been winning not just with the national team, but with KK Partizan, champions of the Yugoslavian League (‘87) and FIBA’s Korac Cup (’89).

For the Lakers, with Kareem-Abdul Jabbar retiring in 1989, 22-year-old Divac received playing time immediately, participating in all 82 games (4th in MP for rookies), scoring 8.5 PPG, shooting 50% and earning All-Rookie 1st Team honors.

1st Yr. Comps

Although Divac’s rookie year was impressive, during the 1989-90 season there were more talented, polished young centers in the league, including one from Europe who was as good or better (statistically).

Fellow 1st year, David Robinson, who led the Spurs to a +35 win improvement YoY, would eventually win ROY for the 1989-90 season and be recognized as center on the All-NBA 3rd team, behind Hakeem Olajuwon 2nd and Patrick Ewing 1st.

Rik Smits, originally from the Netherlands, had been named to the All-Rookie team the prior season, and played with the same on-court efficiency (PER), scored more points per minute, and blocked more shots per game during the 1989-90 season.

The league was rich with a collection of talented big men, early in their careers, but Divac was different; and his style was refreshing:


Effortless passing, flawless footwork, creative risk-taking (offensively and defensively), and an instinct for the game that had never been seen in the league from a “foreign” center before.

Effortless passing, flawless footwork, creative risk-taking (offensively and defensively), and an instinct for the game that had never been seen in the league from a “foreign” center before.

Generational Champions

Statistically, Divac had the most impressive and significant season of his NBA career in 1994-95. He played 35 minutes, scoring 16 points, blocking 2.2 shots per game, with a PER of 20.5 (career highs), and contributed 4.1 assists each night.

In the decade following Divac’s best season, the Western Conference included NBA Hall of Famers, Olajuwon, Robinson, and eventually Shaquille O’Neal at the center position, all of whom led their teams to conference and league championships.

However, after Divac’s 1994-95 season, every 10 years (a generation), the champion of the Western Conference featured a starting center who was originally from Europe or was drafted from a professional team in Europe, including this year’s winner, Serbian, Nikola Jokic.

Considering the style of play, statistical contribution, and impact on team success, neither Rasho Nesterovic (Slovenia, Spurs) nor Tiago Splitter (Brazil/Spain, Spurs) compare to Jokic, nor were they as important to the NBA – they were, however, champions of the West.

Also, regarding the progression of European centers from Divac to Jokic, the latter is the best player in today’s NBA and has been for a few seasons. If he stays healthy, he will be one of the most dominant centers of all time with a chance to win the West for years to come.

Yet, as Jokic embodies the position’s evolution, so did Divac in his time.

Future of the West

Vlade was the blueprint for centers from Europe, and along with Lithuanian, Arvydas Sabonis, helped inspire multiple generations of 7ft+ players with European basketball beginnings, including German Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, and Spaniard Paul Gasol in Los Angeles, both conference champions.

So, how real has the talent shift at the position been in the West since 1995? If Jokic for Denver is the current model, and Wembanyama in San Antonio is the future, will European big men continue to win the conference?

Stay tuned, our team has answers and Part II is on the way.