Golden State overwhelmed 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. This pressures the West’s other fourteen teams increase their efforts to compete with the Warriors, and the last weeks show they have acted accordingly.
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, Chris Paul getting traded Tuesday to the Houston Rockets, where he will pair with James Harden. Right after, Paul George was sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder late Friday, giving Russell Westbrook the co-star he needed. Paul Millsap, an all-star with the Atlanta Hawks in each of the past three seasons, is now likely to sign with the Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets or Phoenix Suns in the next few days. The arms race for the West is in full throttle, making the Eastern Conference look quite overmatched. Now LeBron James seems to have basically an unobstructed path to the NBA Finals in the East.
There are way fewer stars with a different tendency. Maybe Gordon Hayward, the all-star forward for the Utah Jazz, will pick to head east, as he met with the Miami Heat on Saturday and the Boston Celtics on Sunday before reconvening with the Jazz on July 3rd before final decision. However, if he stays in Utah, three more all-stars would be in the West, with none going to the East. The prospect of making the Western Conference playoffs, let alone advancing into them, becomes intimidating.
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The Warriors still will be the favorites to return to the NBA Finals with Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Then would come a level of teams including the Rockets, Thunder, Jazz (assuming Hayward stays) and San Antonio Spurs, who certainly are going to win another 50-plus games because that’s what they do.
Then there is another group of teams, including the Timberwolves, Jazz (if Hayward leaves), Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets – all aiming for the back half of the spots for the conference playoffs. Even the teams at the lowest of the conference (the Dallas Mavericks, along with the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Lakers) all should be better.
In the East, meanwhile, 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. The Toronto Raptors are expected to keep both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka (both represented by the same agent), but that leaves them with a core mostly headed in the wrong direction. And the Washington Wizards did not land George and still have the future of Otto Porter Jr. to deal with. Also, three of the four enduring playoff teams in the East — the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Bulls — are entering full rebuilds.
Others, 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 overflowing with young talent, it seems like it will be at least a year before they’re a real factor in the East – assuming their talented young players stay healthy.
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