In the wake of LeBron James’s move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Los Angeles Lakers, one league executive texted his unsolicited thoughts on the move.
“The biggest winners of free agency are the Boston Celtics.”
“The West has all the big boys now.”
After 15 years, James has finally left the East behind, becoming the latest in a long line of stars over the past two decades to migrate West. Left in his wake is an Eastern Conference that, for the first time in eight years, will have someone other than a team starring James as its representative in the NBA Finals next season.
“There are some other good teams in the East but obviously he’s been to the Finals [eight] straight years,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said. “He’s been the dominant figure, so it opens it up a little bit for everybody else.”
That means the Celtics, despite only re-signing center Aron Baynes and adding EuroLeague guard Brad Wanamaker so far, are one of the NBA’s biggest winners so far during free agency. Boston stands to gain the most from James heading to the West. The treasure trove of assets the Celtics took in from the ill-fated trade the Brooklyn Nets made with them five years ago for aging icons Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett allowed them to simultaneously compete while building for the future.
The end result of the deal is a deep team full of both prime-age all-stars such as Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and emerging talent such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — not to mention future draft picks from bottom feeders such as the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies that should bring in even more cheap, young talent down the road.
All of that together has the Celtics poised to sit atop the East for years to come. The team that lost to James and the Cavaliers in each of the last two Eastern Conference finals will be favored to, at minimum, make it that far for the foreseeable future.
That doesn’t mean, though, that their path to the NBA Finals will be free of obstacles. In fact, the East looks likely return to where it stood in the 1980s, when the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers represented the conference in eight straight Finals.
While the Sixers lost to the Celtics in five games in this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, the future remains quite bright in Philly. The Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid tandem is the best of any in the league of players under 25 years old, and the Sixers have surrounded them with a strong supporting cast of both present talent (JJ Redick, Dario Saric and Robert Covington) and future potential (Markelle Fultz, Zhaire Smith, the draft rights to forward Jonah Bolden and multiple future first round picks) that should allow them to compete with Boston well into the next decade.
The rest of the East? Not so much.
In the short term, the Toronto Raptors could be a formidable challenge. The Raptors had the best record in the East this past season and are bringing back their core with the one thing that consistently stood in their way — James — now out of the picture. But Toronto’s roster is aging, and while the team will remain in the mix, it’s on the downside of its life cycle.
After that? Good luck finding a credible challenger. The Milwaukee Bucks will be better under Mike Budenholzer, but even with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the fold the Bucks aren’t in the same stratosphere as the teams above them. The same goes for the Washington Wizards, who should be better than last year, and the Indiana Pacers, who should regress a bit. Both are still a clear rung below the teams at the top of the conference.
The rest of the East’s potential playoff teams — the Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets — all wouldn’t have a prayer of making the playoffs out West, where as many as 10 teams could surpass 50 wins next season.
That’s no surprise when you look at the talent disparity between the two conferences. Now that James has gone West, 11 of the 12 players who have been an all-NBA first team selection the past five years — James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol — are in the Western Conference.
The only one in the East is Joakim Noah, who has fallen off a cliff and is mired at the end of the bench for the New York Knicks on a bloated contract unless the team chooses to waive him.
To further highlight the disparity between East and West, of the 75 all-NBA spots that have been available for players to fill over the past five years, 55 of them have been filled by players now in the Western Conference. Only 15 of them have been players now in the East; four spots (Dwight Howard, Tony Parker, Al Jefferson and Isaiah Thomas) were players who are now free agents and one (Tim Duncan) is retired.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed, raising the volume of calls to abolish the NBA’s conference structure and seed the playoffs 1-16, regardless of conference affiliation. There’s only one problem with that: doing so requires two-thirds of the NBA’s teams to vote in favor. That means at least five of the 15 Eastern Conference teams would have to vote against their self-interest to make such a change.
In other words: the NBA won’t be changing its playoff structure anytime soon.
Which brings us back to the Celtics and the 76ers, who will gladly reap the benefits of James’s choice to go West.
Read more on the NBA: