After a tough few years in which seemingly every deadline and offseason saw the Western Conference get stronger, the “Leastern Conference” finally appears to have won a transaction period.
Seriously, it had gotten a little crazy. Coming into February, seven of the top 10 scorers in the NBA found themselves in the West. If you prefer advanced stats, 13 of the 20 leaders’ win shares were in the West.
If you rank players by salary, only five of the top 20 played for an Eastern Conference team, and you have to use “played” loosely, as the top 20 includes Gordon Hayward and even Chris Bosh, whose salary still impacts Miami Heat books.
And as of earlier in the week, it looked like that trend might continue: New York’s Kristaps Porzingis, who had missed all of the season so far due to an ACL tear suffered at the end of his last campaign, was moved to Dallas in exchange for just Dennis Smith Jr, a couple of first round picks, and cap relief. That move gives the Mavericks a formidable, young combination of Porzingis and Luka Doncic, who is well on his way to being 2018-19′s Rookie of the Year.
But in the 24 hours before the deadline, we saw the Eastern Conference become a veritable gauntlet at the top, thanks to the additional pieces they added from the middle of the West. First, the L.A. Clippers traded away perhaps their best player, perimeter forward Tobias Harris to Philadelphia for two first round picks, Landry Shamet, and Mike Muscala, among other pieces.
One of those first round picks is Miami’s unprotected 2021 first, which is one of the better draft assets available. In short, the Clippers didn’t do too poorly for themselves. But Harris being traded means that the Clippers are likely removing themselves from the Western Conference playoff picture this year.
New Orleans wasn’t able to trade Anthony Davis, but they did trade Nikola Mirotic to the Bucks in exchange for minor players and four second round picks. This gives the Bucks yet another terrific shooter to place around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they can stagger minutes so that either Brook Lopez and Mirotic are threats from deep at all times. They’re in the top five on both ends of the floor this season, and you can make a real argument they should be the favorites in the East. Meanwhile, though, New Orleans wholly signaled that winning games this season was no longer a priority.
Memphis, famously, did not trade Mike Conley, but losing Marc Gasol, Garrett Temple, and JaMychal Green indicates their willingness to tank, too. And Gasol should add another threat on both ends for the Raptors, who now have two former defensive players of the year on their roster, along with Kawhi Leonard.
Adding in the Boston Celtics — who could take a talent leap of their own if ex-Jazzman Gordon Hayward returns to form — gives the Eastern Conference four legitimate contenders at the top, fighting for a spot in the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Western Conference is undeniably still more talented, but there’s a clear leader of the pack: defending champion Golden State. Houston has fallen off, while nobody really expects Denver, Oklahoma City, or the others to prove to be much of a challenge.
This could just be a temporary rise in competition level in the East, though. All four teams rely heavily on upcoming free agents to carry a heavy load, and two of those four are definitely going to lose in the conference semifinals. If Boston loses there, does Kyrie Irving go to another team? Will Toronto be able to keep Leonard with only a second round defeat? Milwaukee could lose Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and the newly acquired Mirotic. And the Harris’s expiring deal isn’t Philadelphia’s only concern, either: Jimmy Butler might not be happy with his new situation.
While there are a couple of free agent destinations with cap space in the East — we’re looking at you, New York — much of that departing talent could end up heading back West. Both Los Angeles teams are keeping open two max slots, trying to sign their share of talent to form a super team. Dallas just opened one with its trade as well, and the Kings and Jazz could get involved, too.
Western Conference teams can’t breathe that sigh of relief just yet.
THREE MORE THOUGHTS
• The NBA televised its All-Star raft for the first time this week, and it was a massive success as LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo took turns drafting the All-Stars in playground fashion. The best moments were when James drafted Pelicans star Anthony Davis, prompting Antetokounmpo to ask, “Isn’t that tampering?” The two players even agreed on a trade, sending Russell Westbrook to Team Giannis in exchange for Ben Simmons. It was a lighthearted ritual, but one that clearly only added intrigue to the NBA All-Star Game, an event desperately in need of it.
• After the Lakers weren’t able to trade for Davis, everyone else on the roster beyond LeBron James (and perhaps fellow Klutch representee Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) probably felt a little unwanted, with their names plastered in the media in trade rumors all week. Will James elevate his game in the second half of the season to push his 10th place Lakers into the playoffs, as he has in years past? Or will he be content with knowing that more talent is on the way next season? “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake,” James told reporters. “There’s nothing I’m chasing.” We’ll see if he plays like it.
• Kevin Durant took a media hiatus last week, going nine days without talking to the media at all. It could have just been a mercurial superstar getting aggrieved at the wrong time, but it sure seemed like Durant’s silence was timed with the New York Knicks opening up the cap space in the Kristaps Porzingis deal to sign him this offseason. Was he ducking the question? In the end, Durant returned to the podium with a vengeance, in particular angrily criticizing one article from The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss that contained reporting which some Warriors executives conceded he was more likely to leave than stay. But Durant never denied the report, and Strauss’ reporting has significant merit. In the end, Durant’s strange expectation of being universally beloved once again got him in hot water he could have easily avoided.