Why the East remains the participation-trophy half of the NBA

Paul George and Jimmy Butler are planning to make things happen in the West. (AP)
Paul George and Jimmy Butler are planning to make things happen in the West. (AP)

Perhaps when Philadelphia’s process is something that doesn’t need to be trusted but actually yields results, when more casual NBA fans are able to spell and pronounce Giannis Antetokounmpo, or when Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and next year’s Brooklyn Nets draft pick become the foundation of the Boston Celtics’ next Big Three era, the Eastern Conference will be more than the participation-trophy half of the NBA. Perhaps. Because the wait for the NBA’s uneven balance of power to start changing was given another extension this offseason, following a series of trades and free-agent signings that fueled more cackles for the league’s longest-running punch line.

The divide between the East and West is supposed to be cyclical, changing with each decade as new powers emerge. But the East has been struggling to keep up ever since Michael Jordan retired from Chicago for the second time in 1998. LeBron James has almost single-handedly spared the East from having no championship teams this decade. But he has also provided cover for Leastern Conference organizations that have either been hamstrung by bad luck, bad decision-making or a lack of innovation during a stretch in the league’s history in which the gap between the conferences is more vast than Stephen Curry’s shooting range.

This offseason has only accentuated the separation as teams in the Western Conference have accepted the dominance of the Golden State Warriors as a challenge to improve – even if it comes at the expense of raiding the inferior conference. Little has been done to combat a talent-guzzling drain that has seen three of last year’s Eastern Conference All-Stars – Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap – move out West. Chris Paul, a likely Hall of Famer, forced a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to stay in the conference even though being on the other side of the Mississippi River would have presented a much easier path to the conference finals, which have eluded him his entire career.

The best players on the open market are attracted to the better organizations and not many exist in the East. Miami and Boston have won championships in the past decade and remain the class of the conference in terms of consistency, management and coaching. That explains why they were the only two East teams both Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward considered when they elected to leave Oklahoma City and Utah, respectively. Pat Riley hasn’t been able to close on a marquee free agent since James and Chris Bosh, but he continues to find his way in the room – LaMarcus Aldridge listened even though the Heat lacked the salary-cap space to make something happen. James’ presence has given the Cavaliers’ organization credibility during both of his stints, but owner Dan Gilbert managed to upset the stability of the past three seasons by refusing to reward former general manager David Griffin for helping to deliver Cleveland’s first NBA championship.

The East has been LeBron James’ conference for quite some time. (AP)
The East has been LeBron James’ conference for quite some time. (AP)

James’ run to seven straight NBA Finals doesn’t come with an asterisk – because it takes a certain amount of determination and desire to keep going, regardless of being surrounded by other All-Stars – but it does come with an explainer. James has been first-team All-NBA 10 straight seasons, but Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are the only Eastern Conference players to share first-team All-NBA honors since James left Cleveland the first time in the summer of 2010. Rose is the only first-team All-NBA or second-team All-NBA player that James had to defeat in a conference playoff series during his current run of dominance.

An Eastern Conference team has won six of the past eight NBA draft lotteries, which should suggest an infusion of elite talent. Except the No. 1 pick has only gone to three teams – Washington, Cleveland and Philadelphia. John Wall has worked out well for the Wizards, making four All-Star teams and leading his team to three playoff series wins since going first in 2010. Kyrie Irving has also lived up to his hype, making four All-Star teams and serving as James’ sidekick for a championship run since going first in 2011. The Cavaliers won again in 2013 and 2014, using them on the bizarre choice of Anthony Bennett and the no-brainer selection of Andrew Wiggins, but flipped both players to Minnesota in order to get Kevin Love. The 76ers drafted Ben Simmons, then traded up for Markelle Fultz and both have yet to make their NBA debuts.

The two times the Western Conference won the lottery, New Orleans got Anthony Davis, a two-time first-team All-NBA player, and Minnesota got to select Karl-Anthony Towns, another immensely talented big man who appears headed toward a similar career trajectory. That’s 2-for-2 on potentially generational talents. But as great as they have already been, Davis and Towns will have to wait a while before either is leading a championship contender in an incredibly stacked conference. The wait likely wouldn’t have been that long if either wound up being drafted by, say, Charlotte and Orlando, respectively.

Celtics president Danny Ainge was able to build a title team by surrounding established star Paul Pierce with two hungry, Hall of Fame talents – Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen – who were foundering out West. Boston made that deal 10 years ago and no other team in the East has been able to duplicate the formula. Miami responded with the Big Three of James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but that trio represented the East in the previous All-Star Game, came together in free agency, and turned what could’ve been three respectable playoff teams into one powerhouse.

In the past five years, a star player has been on the trading block seven times, and only once has that player wound up in the East, where general managers have either lacked the assets to make a deal or had no problem serving as spectators. Orlando hasn’t been relevant since shipping Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. Oklahoma City dealt James Harden to Houston. Butler, Paul and George were all moved last month, and DeMarcus Cousins went from Sacramento to New Orleans in a trade-deadline deal. Love went from Minnesota to Cleveland only to strengthen another James-led team.

Paul picked Houston as his trade destination, so that left other teams out of the game to acquire him. And, aside from the Love deal, the hauls for those All-Star players weren’t so staggering that teams in the East were unable to match. Think about it this way: The package that Thunder GM Sam Presti used to get George, a four-time All-Star, from Indiana for a possible one-year rental is the same collection of talent – Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis – that Orlando used to snag Serge Ibaka in a draft-day deal last year. Timing and the Pacers’ staggering misread of their situation with George certainly factored into the Thunder’s ability to make a lopsided deal. Also, Presti was at least willing to take the gamble, which could go a long way toward retaining reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. Pacers fans have to be furious over losing George for pennies on the dollar, especially since this is also the organization that traded Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio in 2011 in another one of those lopsided deals that has helped the West maintain its superiority over the East.

Missing on a few blockbuster trades would’ve been tolerable if teams in the East managed to score in free agency. James hasn’t left the conference in both of his free-agent decisions, but those moves were strategic and reflected his foresight in owning the junior varsity. Carmelo Anthony stayed with the New York Knicks because they offered the most money and a no-trade clause. But other big names have repeatedly picked sides that presented the more challenging path. For his first free-agent move, Dwight Howard picked Houston. LaMarcus Aldridge went from Portland to San Antonio. Durant ignored pleas from his hometown Washington Wizards, didn’t even bother to give them an interview, and left Oklahoma City for Golden State.

Carmelo Anthony certainly hasn’t helped the East’s case. (AP)
Carmelo Anthony certainly hasn’t helped the East’s case. (AP)

Though his execution was poor – the decision was leaked before he had completed his farewell letter – Hayward was wise to flee for Boston and play with his former college coach, Brad Stevens. For one, Hayward pushed the Celtics closer to competing with Cleveland for a conference championship. Two, he delayed running up against the Warriors until at least the NBA Finals. And three, he increased his chances of making more All-Star teams in a conference that will be scrounging for special players. The arrival of George, Butler and Millsap in the West would’ve made it hard to break through and they aren’t even assured All-Star trips in a conference in which Damian Lillard, despite routinely getting buckets, is repeatedly a victim of the conference’s talent overload.

The East has also had its fair share of misfortune this decade. Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP ever in 2011 and tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee a year later while playing for a Bulls team with the conference’s best record. George broke his leg while playing for Team USA, interrupting his career ascension and ending Indiana’s run of back-to-back conference finals appearances. And Bosh was forced to leave the game entirely after blood clots twice prematurely ended seasons with the Miami Heat.

Mismanagement has also been the enemy of the East. The Knicks are a perennial mess. Orlando got impatient with its post-Howard rebuild and is starting anew. Chicago kept investing in their hopes for a return of a healthy, explosive Rose until time eventually ran out. The New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets unwisely linked their future to the wrong player in Deron Williams, making blunder after blunder that set back the franchise while enriching other organizations. The Nets sent Derrick Favors to Utah in the initial deal for Williams, the draft pick that turned into Damian Lillard to Portland in a short-sighted Gerald Wallace deal, and a boatload of high draft picks to Boston for the remains of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The latter will go down as one of the worst trades in NBA history, especially because it only yielded one year of Pierce, one and a half years of Garnett, and one playoff series win. Panning the Nets is justifiable but they do get credit in one respect: They failed in spectacularly awful fashion, but they did try to challenge James. Most of the rest of the East has contentedly conceded to James. Half of the dozen teams to pay the luxury tax from 2012-16 are from the Eastern Conference. Two of them had James.

Atlanta and Indiana, two of the past four teams to lose to James in the conference finals, are already rebuilding. Toronto swung for the fences last season, acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline, but whiffed once they met Cleveland in the conference semifinals. Raptors president Masai Ujiri could’ve taken a different path this offseason without much backlash. Instead, Ujiri decided to run it back, doubling down on his core by re-signing Kyle Lowry and Ibaka with the understanding that there might be a reward in remaining competitive when other teams have decided to check out. Boston got its man in Hayward, losing Avery Bradley to a cap-clearing trade in the process, but didn’t sacrifice the young nucleus that Ainge has been grooming with a team that’s already built to win.

The East is now separated into six categories: A championship contender because of LeBron (Cleveland), default conference finals contenders because they’re trying (Boston, Toronto and Washington), likely playoff teams (Milwaukee, Miami), fingers crossed that they can sneak in (Charlotte, Detroit), wake me when James finally declines or retires (Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Indiana), and what are we doing here (Chicago, Orlando, New York)? The NBA remains a league of haves and have-nots. Too many teams in the East have not even been trying.

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