LeBron James Leaves the East Dribbling With Envy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
All seven active NBA MVP winners now play in the West. So what does this mean for the rest of the league?
By Matt Foley
It seems like ages ago now, but back in 2011, before the Splash Brothers and James Harden and the Los Angeles Lakers reload, there was an emerging battle for National Basketball Association supremacy in the Eastern Conference. Then–Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose became the youngest league MVP in NBA history that season before falling to draconian warlord of the East LeBron James in the conference finals.
As it happens, injuries struck Rose hard. He is now a backup in Minnesota, while James grows more powerful each season. James, a three-time champion and four-time NBA MVP, has carried the Eastern Conference for years, leading his teams to eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances. But with Monday’s announcement that LeBron is joining the Los Angeles Lakers, the league’s power imbalance is officially cemented. The West has the greatest player, the greatest team, the top contenders and the biggest stars. In fact:
All seven active MVP winners now play in the Western Conference.
But, hey, at least the East has the Boston Celtics. “The NBA is a copycat league,” says NBA TV analyst Dennis Scott. “Right now, everybody wants to be in the West.”
For most of the 1990s and 2000s, the Eastern Conference was the place to be. Teams like the Bulls, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and (when LeBron allowed) Cleveland Cavaliers dominated conversation while the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs had their way with the West.
There are 7 active NBA players with MVPs.
All 7 of them are now in the Western Conference. pic.twitter.com/oFAfaSiwOg
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 2, 2018
That’s no longer true. In signing Gordon Hayward last offseason, Boston is the East’s only club that has made a sexy free agent splash of late. Reigning back-to-back NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant famously chose Golden State, in part because of the abundant business opportunities available in Silicon Valley. James’ media company, Uninterrupted, is based in Los Angeles. And yes, most of the West’s best players — Curry, Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Anthony Davis, Demarcus Cousins — were drafted into the conference with high picks by bad teams during the East’s heyday. But as seen by James, Durant and Oklahoma City’s Paul George, the league’s best players are choosing the West when given a choice.
The obvious winner of James’ decision to don purple and gold is his new team, the Lakers. LeBron is a locker room shape-shifter, immediately transforming any roster into a title contender. Need proof? See the Cleveland Cavaliers of 2007 and 2017. Now in Los Angeles, James will take a young team long on potential to the stratosphere. BetOnline Sportsbook currently puts the Lakers’ odds to win the NBA title at 5–1, second behind defending champion Golden State (2–3) and a massive uptick for a team that missed the playoffs last season.
Speaking of Golden State, the Warriors were beneficiaries of a shocking free agent coup themselves this week. In addition to two MVPs (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant), Golden State added four-time All-Star center Demarcus Cousins to their laundry list of all-league players. That makes five All-Stars for Golden State. Six, including the aging David West.
But next season will be no cakewalk for the Warriors. Houston and reigning MVP James Harden remain hot on the Warriors’ trail, Utah proved an emerging power, LeBron will LeBron and Oklahoma City will look to build on the foundation of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. What was already a star-studded conference is now untouchable, and the NBA will be better for it. The West will be a slugfest all season.
The Western Conference now includes every player who has finished in the top 5 of MVP voting since the Warriors' first title run (minus free agent Isaiah Thomas).
— Zach Kram (@zachkram) July 2, 2018
And the East? If you like realized potential and emerging stars, tune in. “A lot of teams in the East are happy to see LeBron go,” says Turner analyst Steve Smith. “The back door to the finals is wide open.”
The Celtics are probably the second-biggest winner in James’ choice to move West. Coming off a surprise conference finals run, Boston is now the East favorite. In fact, BetOnline puts them tied with Los Angeles at 5–1 odds to win the NBA title. But Boston’s path will be interesting. Breakout stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will look to improve alongside All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Hayward, both of whom are now healthy after missing most of last season. The Celtics’ roster is as talented as any team not called Golden State, but it’s anybody’s guess how the pieces will fit.
The Philadelphia 76ers are also in the running to win the East, followed by the Milwaukee Bucks at a distant third. LeBron’s absence clears the way for the transcendent young phenoms like Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo to take over the conference and fully realize their potential.
By 2025, who knows, the Warriors’ run of dominance may have finally ended, and the East could be the place to be.