Thursday, July 6, 2017
NBA East Officially Becomes the JV
After this past spring's NBA playoffs, it was temporarily easy to forget how fun and unpredictable following the league can be and is on a daily basis.
But very soon after the confetti rained down in Oakland, the league that had been Golden State's 16-1 playground for the postseason became awash with interesting dealings and signings.
In some years, the movement of the first overall draft pick would be the biggest story of the early offseason, especially with an elite prospect like Markelle Fultz as the consensus grand prize of the class, and the modern-day rarity of a conference finalist from the previous month holding the No. 1 pick after the Draft Lottery.
That's not the case at all this offseason.
On the eve of the free agency moratorium, there was the incredible trade of Chris Paul to Houston that involved CP3 effectively taking a pay cut on a sure 10-plus-year veteran max deal by opting into the final year of his 2013 Clippers contract instead of hitting the market. He also engineered a trade to a team that already had the MVP runner-up playing his position.
Paul had enough of Blake Griffin, Doc Rivers, and the rest of the Clippers team, and there's several reasons to be skeptical about his fit with Houston from the amount that him and James Harden will need the ball, Paul's age, and his ability to lead an up-tempo Mike D'Antoni offense.
Yet, even though Houston finished with the third-best record in the league last season, the Rockets knew they were still miles back of Golden State. Putting the same basic team around Harden wasn't going to get Houston to 60-plus wins and true playoff contention. Adding CP3 may not either, but it's a risk that has to be taken when the league's dominant team will return its top eight players, including all major scorers.
The other two moves that stand out the most from the past two weeks involve the two biggest assets on the trading block, Jimmy Butler and Paul George, heading to new teams in exchange for underwhelming trade packages offered by teams that were thought of as wild cards for each two-way, All-NBA star.
Somehow, on draft night, Chicago bit on an offer to deal Butler for a first-round pick swap, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. LaVine tore his ACL in February and Dunn, to be kind, showed limited offensive ability in his rookie year.
And last week, Indiana dealt Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo, who has a massive contract for the next four seasons, and Domantas Sabonis, who could be a solid contributor in the future but will likely be on-court with bench lineups for the immediate future. The Pacers didn't even fetch a protected pick for a four-time all-star and three-time All-NBA player, even if he might be just a rental before bolting to the Lakers next summer.
These three moves either involved a potential free agent staying in the Western Conference, or trades of stars from East to West. Paul Millsap going from Atlanta to Denver was more expected, but still leads to an unavoidable truth as we head into the 2017-18 season: Competitive balance may be more skewed to the West than ever before.
Sure, the players going to the West will be the dominant headline, but even a couple East teams with much to look forward to in 2017-18 are going through tumultuous offseasons.
Cleveland can't find a GM after David Griffin left and Chauncey Billups turned down Dan Gilbert. LeBron James is now reportedly mad at Gilbert, and another LeBron exit next summer doesn't feel unlikely anymore. Milwaukee, blessed with the league's best under-23 asset in Giannis Antetokounmpo, is having ownership group issues and its longtime GM bolted for Orlando in May.
Additionally, there's now about half the conference who could now be classified as in some sort of rebuild. By my count, the Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, Knicks, Magic, 76ers, and Nets all qualify, even though some Philly fans are justifiably giddy about their playoff chances next year. The Pistons don't count currently due to their salary commitments, but it's easy to see them being salary-dump contenders early in the season with a team that doesn't appear to be competitive.
All of that might mean that a team trying to get a high draft pick ends up getting in the playoffs next spring in an East full of mediocrity (or worse). That's not ideal for the league, especially when juxtaposed with the West, where only the Kings, Lakers, and Suns appear prepared for 50-loss seasons in 2017-18.
The solution is staring us right in the face and has been for at least the last three years: do away with conferences once and for all, and preferably have most teams play each other three times per year.
If that doesn't happen sometime in the next few seasons, the East could conceivably become even more of an inferior conference than it has been in recent memory.