The NBA’s Eastern Conference is a mess again. The Pacers rented Paul George to the lowest bidder when (shockingly) the Warriors didn’t want to trade Klay Thompson for PG-13. Now, he’s going to give Oklahoma City a go with the reigning MVP: Russell Westbrook. The Pacers also let Jeff Teague go to the Timberwolves. Gordon Heyward left the Jazz to play for Brad Stevens again in Boston, but that move isn’t enough to really give the East hope.
The three-time defending Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers lost out on getting Paul George or Jimmy Butler (getting there), re-signed Finals liability Kyle Korver, and then hinged their fourth straight Finals hopes on Jeff Green and Jose Calderon. LeBron James does not seem pleased.
Paul Millsap didn’t appreciate the trade rumors in Atlanta and headed for an up-and-coming Denver team that just missed the playoffs last season. John Wall is still mulling over his huge contract extension from the Washington Wizards, citing he wants to see what the Wizards do in free agency. And, the Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to Minnesota for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the seventh pick Lauri Markkanen. The Bulls also let Rajon Rondo sign with New Orleans, but that was expected with all the issues he had midseason with his teammates and management.
The West got even better, and the East seems destined to reach lows not seen since the early 2000s. Once Michael Jordan retired for the second time in 1999, the Bulls’ stranglehold of the East fell to the Pacers, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and eventual (unexpected) 1999 Eastern Conference champions New York Knicks. The Knicks promptly dropped in five games to the Spurs, who won their first title of the Tim Duncan era.
This was followed in 2000 by the Pacers reaching their first NBA Finals, only to lose in six games to the Shaq and Kobe-led Lakers. 2001 saw Allen Iverson bring the 76ers a 1–0 Finals lead that turned into a five-game series loss, as the Lakers repeated. 2002 and 2003 brought the New Jersey Nets to the NBA Finals in back-to-back years for back-to-back losses. Despite the Detroit Pistons overcoming the Lakers in 2004 and seemingly tipping the scales back in the East’s favor, eight of the last 13 NBA champions have been from the Western Conference.
But, with the Big 3 in Boston starting in 2008, followed by Miami’s Big 3 in 2010, which was then followed by LeBron, Kyrie and Love in Cleveland by 2014, at least it felt like the East had a chance. With all the movement out West this summer, the Eastern Conference feels like the Pride Lands after Scar took over; just switch in LeBron and a bunch of starving teams.
When the Chicago Bulls were winning year after year in my youth, it felt like the Eastern Conference was an unstoppable force. Truth be told, the teams in the West were consistently having better seasons than everyone else other than the Bulls — the Bulls did not have home court advantage just twice in the Finals (1993 and 1998). The three years the Bulls were down in the ’90s led to the aforementioned Spurs title and the back-to-back Rockets championships.
The Bad Boy-era Pistons were the only East team to win a title in the ’90s that Michael Jordan wasn’t part of. If you look at the ’80s, the Lakers won five times and were the only West team to make the Finals, aside from the Rockets’ two appearances. The Celtics went to the Finals five times as well, but only brought home three rings. Philly and Detroit were the other East contenders, but only brought home one ring apiece. The East and West split titles in the 1970s too, leaving the 1960s as the last time the East was dominant over the West in championship contests (Celtics with nine).
“With all the movement out West this summer, the Eastern Conference feels like the Pride Lands after Scar took over; just switch in LeBron and a bunch of starving teams.”
Aside from championships, the East at least always seemed competitive during the Lakers’ early 2000s three-peat. It was great watching Iverson, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady slug it out for East supremacy. While the Knicks and Heat faded, the Pacers were still tough in the playoffs every year. The 2002 Charlotte Hornets were one of my favorite teams to watch in the postseason, and by ’02 and ’03, the Pistons were beginning their ascension to the top.
But, at the end of the day, the East was not beating the West in the Finals. Some call the Heat’s 2006 championship an aberration, citing the Mavericks for blowing the series more than giving Dwyane Wade credit for winning it almost by himself. On the other hand, the Pistons were nine seconds away (and 48 minutes away if you want to look at Game 7) from taking a 3–2 lead in the 2005 Finals and possibly repeating as champs. A repeat East champion to combat the Lakers and Spurs dominance would have at least given the East some footing in the constant best Conference argument. Instead, the Spurs would win again in 2007, and the Lakers would end and begin a decade with championships in 2009 and 2010.
The Heat won two out of four championships, and the Cavs have won one out of three. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be entering his fifth season, with many eyes set on him and Milwaukee to not just challenge Cleveland, but for the Greek Freak to barge his way into the elite player conversation. Boston got stronger with Hayward and by drafting Jayson Tatum. Toronto is returning a team that was in the Eastern Conference Finals just two seasons ago. The Wizards are hoping to break through to the Conference Finals for the first time since 1979. The 76ers are waiting to see how good their young squad will play if they’re all healthy at the same time.
The rest of the East looks like they’re trusting the process and hoping for the No. 1 pick next season. Looking out West, the Suns, Jazz and maybe the Kings are the only teams I’d put money on to be in the draft lottery come June 2018 (and the Clippers. I have no faith in Blake). And, of course, two of the biggest kickers of all lie with the fact that Carmelo Anthony is willing to go to Houston (even though trade talks have stalled)… and it seems like a move to Los Angeles is imminent for King James as well. The East’s one shining hope could be gone.
I love you, Eastern Conference, I do, but your inability to compete with the West as far as even keeping players in-conference is maddening. Sure it’s basketball and any team can beat any team on any given night, yadda, yadda, yadda, but let’s face facts. The Golden State Warriors are returning with Curry, Durant, Iguodala and Livingston. Then, Golden State added rookie forward Jordan Bell (from the Bulls) and Nick Young. Not only is all the talent from the East going West, but the defending champions, who have won 140 regular season and 31 playoff games in the past two seasons, got better than they were when they hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. The Rockets added the league’s best point guard (Chris Paul) to the two-time MVP runner-up in James Harden. The Spurs will return a healthy Kawhi Leonard to the floor and Gregg Popovich to the bench. Then, OKC, Minnesota, Denver and New Orleans all have potential to swing the West playoff seeding in any direction.
The Jordan years spoiled my young mind into thinking the East was used to winning more championships and All-Star Games every year. Unfortunately, I’ve been backing an underdog conference my entire life. A conference that just keeps getting all of its talent shipped, or signed West once the talent is ripe enough. LeBron’s proclamation of multiple championships for Miami wasn’t enough to give the East any edge. His seven straight NBA Finals appearances have only produced three rings, four losses and even more doubts as to whether the East will ever be the dominant conference. And if he does bolt from Cleveland yet again next summer (or sooner? I don’t know, I just have a weird feeling), it’ll be the most painful reminder of the East’s ineptitude if he strikes championship gold in the Hollywood hills. With player loyalty at an all-time low (and Players’ Tribune articles on the rise), the East could soon be sending 2001 Philly and 2002–2003 Nets clones to the Finals to meet their makers.
When you can’t even give the greatest basketball player in the world reason to stay in your conference, there’s a problem. And while I’ll always support you Eastern Conference, I really need you to stop the bleeding. But, I’ll settle for Adam Silver reversing the Jimmy Butler trade.