The message was heard when Jimmy Butler was traded to the Timberwolves. It was loud and clear when the Pacers shipped Paul George to the Thunder. And even though the Celtics added Gordon Hayward via free agency, the league’s balance of power has certainly shifted out West.
The cream of the crop of NBA talent has relocated to the Western Conference. Paul Millsap included, three 2017 All-Stars packed their bags and headed out West this summer — a number that could grow when Carmelo Anthony reaches some level of understanding with the Knicks. The East gained Hayward, but he went to the conference’s best regular-season team, further saturating the talent level at the top of the conference.
Let’s look at it this way:
Of the 31 players to receive votes for an All-NBA team, only nine were from the Eastern Conference. Every Western Conference All-Star received an All-NBA vote, including Butler and George, who were traded to the West this summer.
East All-Stars Kemba Walker, Kevin Love, and Anthony failed to garner any All-NBA consideration.
Instead, Western Conference snubs like LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard, and Nikola Jokic stole votes across the board.
Now, only one of ESPN’s Top 14 players to enter last season remain in the East (you can probably guess who that is.) According to FiveThirtyEight, 22 of the top 30 players — ranked by a slew of advanced metrics, including a three-year rolling average of Box Plus/Minus, Win Shares per 48 minutes and Player Efficiency Rating — reside in the West.
Even Brook Lopez, whose numbers were hidden beneath a paltry Nets record, was shipped to Los Angeles for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov.
Good luck picking All-Star reserves
There are only 12 players allowed on each All-Star team. That’s just the way it is.
The West All-Star starters are on rinse and repeat for the next three years. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and one of either James Harden or Russell Westbrook will headline the team, with the final slot going to Anthony Davis or another deserving West big.
Picking reserves, though? Forget about it:
- You’ll have to name both Draymond Green and Klay Thompson All-Stars just off the strength of the Warriors’ dominance
- Whichever of Harden, Westbrook, or Curry is snubbed from the starting lineup will be named a reserve as well
- Depending on how good the Timberwolves are next season, at least one of Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler will be named a reserve.
- Then you’ve still got Blake Griffin and Paul George
- Perennial snubs Damian Lillard and Mike Conley
- Oh man, almost forgot about Chris Paul. Have to include him
- A wealth of bigs to choose from among DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, DeAndre Jordan, and Rudy Gobert
- Paul Millsap’s in Denver now
- Can’t forget about Zaza Pachulia. (Just kidding)
That’s 21 players competing for 12 slots, and we don’t even know which middling Western Conference player is going to have a breakout season yet.
It’ll be equally difficult picking East All-Stars, though. Why? Well, fewer players will be as deserving.
The East lost three All-Stars (George, Butler, Millsap) and only recouped one (Hayward). If Carmelo Anthony has his way, he’ll be traded to the Rockets — though he could wind up in Cleveland if the Knicks buy his contract out. Even if he stays in the East, Father Time is undefeated, and Anthony is a player on the wrong side of 30.
Fans could see an East All-Star starting lineup of two of either Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, or DeMar DeRozan; LeBron James, Gordon Hayward, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
As for the reserves, the remaining guards will shine, as will Kemba Walker. Kevin Love will probably be named an All-Star provided he doesn’t get traded, and let’s hope Kristaps Porzingis emerges without Phil Jackson around. After that, who are we talking about? Al Horford? Andre Drummond bounce back? Joel Embiid if he stays healthy? Hassan Whiteside? Bradley Beal?
What does this mean for the NBA?
The league has always had a parity problem. It’s the reason competitive balance was emphasized when negotiating the new collective bargaining agreement.
But once a spike in the salary cap afforded the Warriors the financial liberty to sign Durant last summer — adding to a team that already broke the record for most wins in a season — competitive balance went out the window. The Warriors may have hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June, but they were crowned champions in the court of public opinion 11 months earlier.
Now, parity doesn’t exist. The Warriors will probably win regardless of who teams up in what conference. And nobody — except maybe the Celtics, eventually — will challenge LeBron James for the top spot in the East.
Maybe this will make the All-Star Game entertaining? Perhaps a huge disadvantage on paper forces Brad Stevens (or Tyronn Lue) to draw up X’s and O’s to take down the West. Maybe the players feel so slighted by the stacked West that they’re compelled to compete for 48 minutes to win the game.
Or the All-Star Game could result in another uncompetitive blowout. We won’t know until February. What we do know is that the West is uncontrollably good, while the East is struggling to hold onto the few stars it has left.
And if the league doesn’t find a way to step in, its idea of competitive balance could be gone with the wind, headed out West as well.