The power disparity between the Western and Eastern Conferences is nothing new. Since the 1998-99 season, when the Michael Jordan dynasties finally ended, the West has had a better record in head-to-head play in all but one season. This offseason, we saw several stars — Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Paul Millsap — head West, while only one player of that caliber (Gordon Hayward) went the other direction.
Don’t worry. It might get even worse.
On Friday afternoon, it was reported that Kyrie Irving met with the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this summer and requested a trade. Irving is tired of playing under James’ shadow, something that is admittedly unavoidable even when Irving took more field goal attempts and recorded a higher usage rating than James last season. Irving listed four preferred destinations, although he has no leverage to actually enforce the Cavaliers trading him to one of those teams. However, barring unforeseen reconciliation, it appears Irving is on his way out.
The basketball world had already been entranced with trade rumors. For weeks, we’ve discussed Carmelo Anthony and his future — or lack thereof — in New York. Was he headed to Cleveland? Houston? Portland? It seems increasingly certain that Anthony won’t be with the Knicks next season, and that was the dominating conversation in the NBA all through July.
In a heartbeat, like a drunk best man stumbling onto the stage for an extremely ill-advised speech about some moment he promised never to talk about, Irving took over the national conversation. Nobody saw this coming! There have been rumors before that Irving didn’t love playing in Cleveland and would prefer being his own star. But he’s also a 25-year-old who’s a heavy favorite for a fourth straight Finals appearance this coming year, at least had he stayed with the Cavaliers.
Irving’s four teams, for as much as they matter, are as follows: the Spurs, the Timberwolves, the Knicks, and the Heat. Two are Western Conference teams, and two are in the East. If both Anthony and Irving get traded in the coming weeks, there’s a good chance at least one of them will go West. The gorge that represents the conference power disparity is rocking even wider than before.
The West is brutal, while the East will be a joke.
In the Western Conference, three teams sit on top: the Warriors and the Rockets, plus the Spurs, who are elevated into a top three out of respect and last season’s success, even though doubts are creeping in after a quiet offseason. (Then again, we’ve said that before. Obviously, if Irving ends up there, things quickly change.)
The Timberwolves and the Thunder are all but locks — one of them won’t get home court advantage in the first round, somehow! The Jazz and the Clippers are both playoff contenders, even though both lost a star. Some combination of the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Grizzlies and Mavericks will duel for the No. 8 seed, we’re guessing. The conference is overflowing with talent.
In the Eastern Conference, the No. 8 seed might not win 40 games. Hell, the No. 7 seed might suffer the same fate. You’ve got Boston, Cleveland, Washington and Toronto on top once again, with the Cavaliers likely favored to advance to the Finals regardless of the Irving outcome.
After that, the Bucks are fun while the Heat are promising. Charlotte is primed for a bounce back year, especially with the easy pickings they’ll have against in-conference foes. The next best team is the ... 76ers? Yeah, give me Philadelphia as a playoff team. Your other options are the Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, Pistons, Knicks, Magic or Nets.
There’s no good way to fix the conference imbalance.
Good teams in the Western Conference — teams that would certainly be playoff locks if they were located geographically towards the Atlanta — will have lottery picks in 2018. That adds to the talent disparity.
Moreover, players congregate to other stars and teams strive to make that happen, which is why Butler and George ended up out West. It’s a star-driven snowball that is so hard to stop once it gets rolling in one direction. Another minor factor is that the West coast has turned into the preferred destination for young male millionaires, more frequently seeking out the entertainment districts of Los Angeles and the booming tech industry of the Bay Area than places like New York.
In the 2015-16 season, the West was only plus-14 over the East. That vaulted to plus-42 last year, and it will probably rise again in the coming 2017-18 season. That will happen whether Irving or Anthony get traded West or not. But if they do, the rich keep winning lotteries.