Golden State steamrolled through the Western Conference this spring, with the addition of Kevin Durant to a team that had won an NBA-record 73 games the previous season making the Warriors every bit as dominant as expected.
The run to their second NBA title in three seasons leaves the West’s 14 other teams with a choice: delay trying to contend until Golden State begins to fall off — and who knows when that will be — or ramp up efforts to compete with the Warriors. The past few weeks have made clear the way the West has responded.
First it was Jimmy Butler going from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night to play alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Then it was Chris Paul getting traded Tuesday to the Houston Rockets, where he will be paired with James Harden, before Paul George was stunningly sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder late Friday, giving Russell Westbrook the co-star he lost when Durant left a year ago.
Suddenly, the star-rich Western Conference has added two more all-stars from the East — and that doesn’t include Paul Millsap, an all-star with the Atlanta Hawks in each of the past three seasons who is expected to sign with the Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets or Phoenix Suns in the next few days.
The arms race for the West is in full swing. And the Eastern Conference — other than the Cleveland Cavaliers — again looks hopefully overmatched.
There has been plenty of talk in recent weeks that LeBron James, who will be back in free agency a year from now, would consider heading West to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, potentially with George as a running mate. But why would James — one of the smartest players to step onto a court, not to mention one of the most powerful — willingly walk into the crucible of the Western Conference playoffs when he can continue to have basically an unobstructed path to the NBA Finals in the East?
The more surprising thing is that no one else seems willing to take that same mind-set. Perhaps Gordon Hayward, the all-star forward for the Utah Jazz, will choose to head east. He’s meeting with the Miami Heat on Saturday and the Boston Celtics on Sunday before reconvening with the Jazz on Monday and making a decision.
But what if Hayward stays in Utah? Suddenly three more all-stars would be in the West, with none going to the East. And simply the prospect of making the Western Conference playoffs — let alone advancing deep into them — becomes daunting.
The Warriors still will be the heavy favorites to return to the NBA Finals with Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Then would come a tier of teams including the Rockets, Thunder, Jazz (assuming Hayward stays) and San Antonio Spurs, who undoubtedly will win another 50-plus games because that’s what they do.
Then there is another glut of teams, including the Timberwolves (who could even move into a higher tier if Millsap goes there), Jazz (if Hayward leaves), Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets all fighting for the spots in the back half of the conference playoff picture.
Even the teams at the bottom of the conference — likely the Dallas Mavericks, unless they, too, strike big in free agency, along with the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Lakers — all should be better, regardless of how many times they lose ugly games against superior teams above them in the standings.
Compare that to what’s happening in the East. The Celtics had dreams of pairing Hayward and George in Boston to make a run at the Cavaliers but instead may strike out on both — and then have to face an uncomfortable decision on what to do with Isaiah Thomas when his contract expires next summer. The Toronto Raptors are expected to keep both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka (who happen to be represented by the same agent, Andy Miller), but that leaves them with a core mostly headed in the wrong direction. And the Washington Wizards, despite the wishes of John Wall, did not land George and still have the uncertain future of Otto Porter Jr. to deal with — and couldn’t beat the Celtics last year, anyway.
After that? Three of the four remaining playoff teams in the East — the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Bulls — are shifting into full rebuilds. And others with seemingly defined ceilings as lower-tier playoff teams — such as Miami, the Detroit Pistons and the Charlotte Hornets — are set to replace them. The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic all remain in rebuilds, and while the Philadelphia 76ers are brimming with young talent, it seems like it will be at least a year before they’re a legitimate factor in the East — assuming their talented young players, such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, can stay healthy.
Given all that, it’s hard to see how James can do anything but laugh at his competition for the next few years, having a leisurely waltz through the playoffs — barring injury, of course — and to more Finals trips for as long as he remains in the East or until either a team such as the 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks grows up or one such as the Celtics or the Wizards can add a few more pieces (for instance, the Wizards getting their hands on Wall’s college teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, next summer).
Meanwhile, the West playoffs will be the NBA’s version of the Hunger Games, with each series having the potential to become a total slugfest — even if the Warriors are deemed to be a significant step ahead of the pack.
Such is life in the NBA’s Western Conference, where teams have decided that they aren’t going to cede ground to the Warriors. In the process, they are combining to leave the East in the dust again.