First, let’s get this out of the way. I know you’ve seen the pun from the title before. Hell, you may have even seen it earlier today. It is by no means an original thought out of my head. Neither will the next ten paragraphs or so. It is just an affirmation of a reality that is getting worse and worse by the day in the NBA. The Eastern Conference is falling behind again. This time the plummet may be worse than it has ever been.
During the winter of 2016, I said that the Eastern Conference was beginning to build up its mid-tier to rival their cross country counterparts. I wasn’t entirely wrong. The Cavaliers were a well-oiled machine. Boston was slowly rebuilding themselves back up to what they once were. Toronto had a new culture with both ownership and management willing to keep it alive and thriving. Even teams like Detroit, Washington, and Chicago had frameworks for taking that leap into the upper echelon of NBA competitors.
But my what a difference a couple years make. Since Cleveland’s epic comeback victory over Golden State in the 2016 Finals, it has been all downhill for the East. The parity may still be there, but not with the upward trajectory I foresaw. After this summer, it’ll be even worse.
Three of the conference’s best players (Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Paul Millsap) now reside out west. Kyrie Irving may be next. Carmelo Anthony won’t be too far behind. If you believe those “in the know”, the Lakers are ready to further the rift even more next season.
Eastern Conference clubs are now in disarray. Cleveland is the most notable of all, ready to implode at a moment’s notice. But even with all their volatility, the Cavs are still the class of the conference. That’s crazy to me, but it is true. No team has done enough to vault themselves past Cleveland barring a total organizational meltdown.
The green teamers already have their pitch forks aimed at me for the above paragraph. Boston was a 1 seed last year! We added Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum! Deep down they know their own point guard power struggle is imminent though. Is Isaiah Thomas going to get max money from Boston, or is he going to head back to the west coast himself? This question and more are the ones that Eastern Conference fans don’t want to think about.
Washington and Toronto spent a king’s ransom this summer to keep their cores intact. That money was spent out of fear. Outside of John Wall, none of the recipients of the over $400 million spent between the two clubs is a game changer. But these teams are willing to overpay to keep even marginal talents from splitting. Having a cohesive unit of above average players is all you need to be relevant in the conference.
But relevant is just another way to say mediocre. Nobody thinks Washington or Toronto are conference favorites. Less than nobody would pick either to take out any of the Western Conference’s eight playoff teams in a best of seven. The sad thing is I don’t think either team is truly torn up about it.
One of David Stern’s most prevailing manifestos during his time as commissioner is that conference superiority was cyclical. The East will rise again. But the current direction of the league is making that seem more and more a fairy tale than a reality. The Western Conference is stronger than ever and it is only getting stronger. The East is floundering and getting weaker. Super teams are fun for the mainstream media, but if this trend continues, the league will undeniably alienate half of the country, potentially irreparably.