Here’s a sentence that hasn’t been written in a while, and certainly no one thought could be honestly penned so soon: The NBA’s Eastern Conference is better than the Western Conference.
On the heels of the Philadelphia 76ers acquiring Jimmy Butler to pair with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the East now has four legitimate high-level clubs, along with the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks. The first two are probably still the favorites to come out of the conference and reach the NBA Finals, but any of the four are capable. And the Indiana Pacers are forever hanging around, too.
That’s five decent to good teams.
Well, there are the Golden State Warriors, who are going to win the title again, of course. The Warriors’ dominance is a given.
And then … Denver and Portland? Nice teams. Interesting. Denver could be very good. And the Utah Jazz should keep improving, but doesn’t have the record to show for it right now. The fifth team? None stands out. Gregg Popovich pulling a miracle or something in San Antonio? The Minnesota Timberwolves getting hot with the additions of Dario Saric and Robert Covington?
Either way, it isn’t the East. Not as long as the Houston Rockets are a mess and the Oklahoma City Thunder have faded and LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers are bad (three-game winning streak notwithstanding).
Put it this way: At the very least, this is a debate. And it hasn’t been a debate in a long, long time.
When LeBron entered free agency last summer, one of the reasons people thought he might stay in Cleveland was because his road to the Finals was perceived to be a lot easier in the East.
That’s technically true – defeating Golden State in a seven-game playoff series seems impossible. And in the West, that means likely not even making the conference finals. But the road through the East is far, far more challenging when looking at multiple playoff rounds.
A second round of Toronto-Boston and Philly-Milwaukee is very possible. You won’t find anything so compelling in the West.
Golden State’s complete dominance could be considered the high tide that lifts all boats, but that is to ignore how the bottom has dropped out of a conference that recently was deep in talented and dangerous clubs. And until recently, the East was a dumpster fire outside of Cleveland.
Three moves put the East over the top.
The first was Toronto landing Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio this past offseason. Leonard gave the Raptors a two-way star with a knack for making the plays that win games. He’s been a shot in the arm for a team that was frustrated in its inability to get past the LeBron-led Cavs. Toronto is 12-1.
The next was Milwaukee hiring Mike Budenholzer after his five-year stint in Atlanta. The Bucks’ improvement was instantly noticeable, with an offense that has spaced the floor, improving not just Giannis Antetokounmpo’s field-goal percentage and efficiency but the entire team’s. They now have five players averaging 13 or more points and are 10-3. The potential here is considerable.
It’s quite possible Milwaukee’s rise forced Philly to make a move, which is the other big addition here.
The Butler trade may not pan out in the end, but in the short term the 76ers clearly got the best player in the deal. In the NBA, that usually signifies the winner. As a result, the 76ers are better now than they were last week, at least as long as Butler can coexist with Simmons and Embiid.
That said, it’s tough for patient Sixers fans to know that this is what “The Process” yielded. Philly is out of assets from its half-decade tanking experiment. It has three All-Stars but a still incomplete team that isn’t the favorite to make the Finals.
The Butler deal isn’t the problem, but it’s illustrative of the problem. The Process required smart draft picks and Philly has been inconsistent on that end. For every Simmons and Embiid, there was a Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor who didn’t pan out. The decision to trade up in 2017 to take Markelle Fultz at No. 1 overall is the one that will haunt the 76ers. It not only likely cost them a 2019 No. 1, but Fultz has struggled when the franchise could have stood pat and instead taken De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, Dennis Smith Jr. or others.
Philly has proven those misses aren’t fatal though. Now it goes all in with a three-star roster in search of role players. A couple years ago, that might have made them the favorites in the East.
Now they are just another dog in the fight at the top. Maybe a battle to be Golden State’s road kill isn’t much, but it’s changed one conventional belief in the NBA.
West isn’t best. At least not anymore.
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