WITH the Cleveland Cavaliers trading for Donovan Mitchell, the Cavs can now be considered as a legitimate playoffs contender. But in the East, that still places them behind the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers — the perceived top four. But you also need to consider the Brooklyn Nets as they finally retained Kevin Durant, and the retooled Atlanta Hawks along with the rising Toronto Raptors — and we haven't even discussed the Chicago Bulls, yet.
The battle for Eastern supremacy will be tough and bloody as we listed nine contending teams already. The Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets may get in the mix, the Orlando Magic has a promising young core and the New York Knicks acquired Jalen Brunson, for what it's worth.
The balance has tilted
For more than a decade, the thought of the East lording over the West seemed unimaginable. Even in the late 2000s, when the Lakers won the last two championships, the East only became significant because of LeBron James. The last Eastern Conference champions prior to the Toronto Raptors beating an undermanned Golden State Warriors in 2019, were LeBron-led teams of Miami and Cleveland.
The Cleveland Cavaliers title in 2016 is legitimate, but so many serendipitous events needed to happen, even when the Cavs gave it their all. But the Eastern playoffs were uninteresting, as LeBron just beat the other teams. In contrast, there were many strong Western contenders that were seen as possible winners if only the Warriors weren't a superteam.
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The "lob city" LA Clippers and the small-ball Houston Rockets were probably better than any Eastern team during that time, as they could probably beat Lebron's Cavs teams post 2016. Denver with Nikola Jokic and Portland with Damian Lillard were also legit threats.
So when Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard, the anchors of the Eastern championships in the 2010s decided to move to the LA teams in the West in 2020, the NBA balance of power shifted even more to the western front. But in just two years, there was a 180-degree turn. How did it happen?
Drafting smart will always pay off. Milwaukee Bucks have probably the biggest draft steal in history with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they finally built a team around him. The Celtics drafted their core (Tatum, Brown, Smart) and the Sixers drafted the best bargain in the league (Tyrese Maxey).
The Sixers used their picks to get more pieces around Joel Embiid, who is now a legitimate top 7 franchise player. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat found their franchise big man in Bam Adebayo. They also got key pieces by mining the "undrafted players" market.
Meanwhile, franchise players like Kevin Durant and James Harden have jumped to the East, tilting the balance of power.
How the West stacks up
Just how many title contenders and playoff fixtures are left in the West? The Golden State Warriors are still the favorites, keeping their core despite losing some key reserves like Gary Payton 2nd. The Phoenix Suns dropped out early on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes. These two teams are likely the favorites.
The LA teams could have a resurgence. Painful to say, the Clippers have the inside track to this as they will bring back Kawhi Leonard with a refurbished lineup. Perennial playoff presence the Utah Jazz is out, but the Minnesota Timberwolves will take their place.
The dark horse is the Denver Nuggets. They won 48 games with MVP Nikola Jokic carrying them, but they will get Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back — their no. 2 and 3 players. Also, the New Orleans Pelicans can parade a Zion Williamson — Brandon Ingram Duke stud reunion.
Still not as cutthroat as the Eastern Conference.
Both the Cavs and Jazz got what they wanted, based on the directions the respective teams are going. Mitchell is a great fit with Even Mobley and Darius Garland. The Jazz get the picks they wanted, and Colin Sexton can now have full reins along with our own Jordan Clarkson. JC, however, may get traded to a contender later in the season, as he is one of the best "off the bench" players in the league.