Since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990’s, there has been a distinct difference between the overall talent in the NBA Western Conference versus the Eastern Conference. That never used to be the case. Sure, the Lakers and Rockets won some championships during the 80’s and 90’s, but the powerhouse teams like the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Chicago Bulls were all in the East. When Jordan left the Bulls in 1998, the NBA landscape shifted. Young players like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O’Neal were all in the West and ready to take the league by storm.
The King to the Rescue?
Since 1999, a Western Conference team has won the NBA title in 13 of 19 seasons. When a young man by the name of LeBron James burst onto the scene in 2003, basketball fans began preparing themselves for the next Jordan era. James is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime talent, but even his run of seven consecutive NBA Finals appearances has not slowed down the West. LeBron has been the best player in the world for over a decade, and even he has a losing record in the Finals.
The “Super Team” Era
Now, the NBA has entered the “Super Team” era, where an organization’s only hope at a title is to stack their team with All-NBA caliber players. It’s hard to say that this off-season marked the “changing of the guard” in the NBA because the West has been elite for so long, but with the new talent that has emerged, it is only going to get stronger.
In 2016, Kevin Durant decided to join the Golden State Warriors, a team that was coming off a record-setting 73-win season. His decision sent the NBA world on fire, as teams began scrambling to find talented players to add to their roster. Since then, the Warriors coasted their way to another NBA title, making it even more imperative for teams to assemble elite rosters if they want to have an opportunity to knock off the reigning champions.
The 2017 Off-season
With loaded rosters popping up around the league , teams with only a single superstar were beginning to understand that they were on the outside looking in. Those teams began selling high for an opportunity to gather draft picks and set their sights on the future.
While players like Chris Paul were being traded within the Western Conference, the stars out East had some decisions to make. With free agency looming and their star player already on his way out, the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls had to make some moves if they wanted to get anything in return. First, the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night. Then, the Pacers traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder. After two top-10 talents shifted to the West via trades, NBA Free Agency began to unfold.
Any NBA fan would understand why those moves would persuade free agents to head East for an easier route to the playoffs, but if there is one thing that will always remain true, it’s that money talks. So, despite losing his All-Star point guard, Blake Griffin decided to resign with the Los Angeles Clippers. Shortly after his decision, Paul Millsap decided to leave the Atlanta Hawks to sign with the Denver Nuggets, another Western Conference team.
Every year, sports publications like to compile a list of the top-100 players in the NBA. While many of these rankings are opinion-based and speculative, there seems to be a consensus agreement about the top 20-25 players. According to Sports Illustrated’s 2017 top-100 list , 19 of the top 25 players are now on Western Conference teams. According to Bleacher Report’s 2017 list , 20 of the top 26 players are in the West.
The shift doesn’t end with the stars either, as top-notch role players began moving West as well. George Hill, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Zach Randolph, Nick Young, and Patrick Patterson also decided to sign with Western Conference teams. Brook Lopez was even traded from the Brooklyn Nets to the Lakers a few weeks earlier.
Nobody truly believes that the Warriors can be beat by any of the “Super Teams” that are being assembled, but it’s safe to say that the NBA “arms race” has just begun. Buckle up, the 2017 off-season is only a sign of things to come.