LeBron James is the West’s problem now. Having signed with the Lakers for four years on what appears to be little more than a promise of a return to Lakers exceptionalism, the Eastern Conference can now step out of the King’s enormous shadow. LeBron has controlled the conference for almost a decade, so this will take some getting used to, but the notion that the East is barren of quality players and teams is overblown.
His exit leaves a superstar void in the East, but the maligned conference is in far better shape than many would have you believe. There’s at least five teams with 50+ win potential and a bevy of young stars ready to emerge without James around to block their progress.
No one benefits from LeBron’s departure more than the Celtics. By doing nothing more than drafting a project center late in the first round and re-signing his own veteran big man, Danny Ainge has positioned the C’s to control the Eastern Conference for next season and possibly well into the future.
Of course, Ainge already did the bulk of his work over the past three summers. He signed Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in free agency, traded for Kyrie Irving, and drafted Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier. The latter three all grew up during a spirited run to Game 7 of the conference finals where their fate was once again sealed by LeBron James.
LeBron has knocked the Celtics out of the postseason for three of the past four years, winning 12 of the 16 postseason games. He would have made it an even four if the C’s hadn’t been taken out by Atlanta in 2016. It’s an odd state of affairs that LeBron’s signing with Los Angeles was Boston’s preferred outcome, but that’s the way of the league.
It would certainly help if Ainge could re-sign the invaluable Marcus Smart. He may even go for broke with a blockbuster for disgruntled San Antonio superstar Kawhi Leonard, although that seems less likely when you consider what he already has in hand.
The path may be clear for the C’s, but there will be spirited competition. The Sixers boast Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, along with Dario Saric and last year’s top pick Markelle Fultz. The trade market for Leonard is hazy, but the Sixers could also make a run at Kawhi, a development that could tip the scales in their favor.
That pursuit carries a bit more urgency now that LeBron and Paul George are off the board. Sixers coach/acting general manager Brett Brown has been blunt about needing to pursue veteran starpower and that leaves Leonard as the last remaining target.
Even if they fail in that endeavor, the Sixers are good and getting better. A revitalized Boston-Philly rivalry should carry the conference well into the next decade.
Then there are the Raptors. In a LeBron-less universe, they were the class of the conference. The Raps’ core is still there — for the time being anyway — led by their All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, along with that killer bench. Running it back, again, may not be the most exciting option, but that was before LeBron took his talents out West.
The Pacers, with Victor Oladipo, came within a game of knocking out LeBron’s Cavs in the first round. Oladipo has developed into one of the finest two-way players in the league, a scoring guard with lockdown defensive abilities. Young Myles Turner still has untapped Unicorn potential and Domantas Sabonis is a player.
The Bucks have arguably the best player in the conference in Giannis Antetokounmpo, along with the underrated Khris Middleton. In Mike Budenholzer, they now have one of the game’s top strategists, who should help them reach their full potential.
Again, that’s five quality teams, all with 50+ win potential and All-Stars, or potential All-Stars, at every stop. It’s a matter of degrees, but remember that the overachieving Blazers were the third seed in the West last season.
What the East doesn’t have is quality depth. At least not yet. The Heat and Wizards are playoff teams, albeit ones with limitations. Several teams including the Nets, Bulls, and Hawks are in the early stages of a full-scale rebuilding efforts that will take several years to complete.
Others like the Knicks, Hornets, Magic, and Pistons are forever trying to find their way. The Cavs are a wildcard. If they stand pat with Kevin Love and others, they’ll remain competitive. If they tear it down, it may be years before we hear from them again.
For the time being, the West is deeper and yes, better. The concentration of top-level superstars is thick out West, but it’s also top-heavy with the Warriors and Rockets holding most of the top talent.
The sentiment to reshuffle the playoff deck to allow the top 16 teams to square off in a postseason tournament regardless of geographical location will grow stronger. It’s one that I share, but the idea that the East is a barren graveyard is not.
Give it a year or even two or three. We’re looking at a brand new era as the Eastern Conference is finally emancipated from their King.