By: Kenny Doyle
I know. Carmelo Anthony, Paul Millsap, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George are all headed to the Western Conference. That’s 4 of the 12 players on last season’s Eastern Conference All-Star team now playing for the other conference. However, NBA fans are overreacting to these moves. Yes, the Eastern Conference is losing 4 great players, but the East isn’t getting any less competitive. The good teams are still good. The bad teams just got worse. Before we get into the East’s good teams, let’s talk about the bad ones. In particular, the ones that just gave away their All-Stars.
The Pacers, Bulls, and Knicks were going nowhere fast. The 7th, 8th, and 12th seeds were holding their star players hostage on teams with bad coaching and subpar supporting casts. It’s not as if those teams losing their star players is going to drastically change the East from what it was last year. Those teams were a non-factor when it came time to play in the postseason and it’s better for the East that they parted ways with the faces of their franchises. You’re not getting anywhere in the NBA by scratching and clawing trying to sneak into the playoffs. Yet year after year, these teams get caught doing just that. The most important thing the Eastern Conference teams have been lacking in the last decade or so hasn’t been talent, it’s been clarity.
The Pistons, Bulls, Pacers, Knicks, Heat, and Hornets all had star players last year, what they didn’t have was a plan, or at least a good one. They were all stuck in NBA limbo. The torturous in between in the NBA known as mediocrity. Not bad enough to tank, but not good enough to compete for a championship. The best you can hope for is to get ticket revenue for 2 playoff home games before you get swept by LeBron James in the first round. These organizations should have been tanking and trying to get another star to add to their team through the draft. Instead, they all doubled down on mediocrity.
The Bulls signed the outdated and floor spacing nightmare of a backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. The Pacers threw money at Al Jefferson on his last legs and traded their first round pick for Thaddeus Young. The Knicks traded for the ghost of Derrick Rose and gave Joakim Noah 72 million dollars. The Eastern Conference teams haven’t been bad. They’ve been stupid!
It doesn’t stop there. Last season the Heat were 11-30 halfway through last season and in line for a great shot at one of this years premiere prospects in the draft like Josh Jackson, Markelle Fultz, or Jayson Tatum. So did they do the smart thing for their organization and continue to tank for one of those franchise building blocks? No. They opted for a winning mindset and decided to reject the idea of tanking. They ended up 41-41 and got the 9 seed, missing the playoffs by one game. Call me crazy, but dropping 9 spots in the draft and in exchange for playing in the same amount of playoff games as the Brooklyn Nets and a meeting with Gordon Hayward doesn’t sound like a great way to build an NBA team. The whole reason that the Heat became a team with 3 championships is because they drafted Dwyane Wade 5th overall, a pick they got by tanking.
The NBA is better off with Butler, George, and Anthony on teams that actually have a chance to be really good. The Thunder and the Timberwolves should have made the playoffs this year even if they didn’t have Anthony, George, and Butler so while it gives these teams a slightly better shot at trying to keep up with Golden State, it doesn’t create a situation where there’s any more good teams in the West than there already was.
While it seems like the Pacers plan is to be as mediocre as physically possible, at least it looks like the Bulls, Knicks, and maybe even the Hawks will be tanking, which is exactly what they should be doing. Whether you like it or not, teams need to tank. The middle of the Eastern Conference is a perfect example that not every team that refuses to tank can be the Golden State Warriors. Not every team gets Curry, Thompson, and Green with picks at 7, 11, and 35. You have a better chance of getting an All-Star with a top three pick than with one in one of those spots. Tanking is an essential part of team building for the majority of teams in the NBA. The Bulls have a long road ahead of them, but if the Knicks hit on this year’s pick and can add another star to Porzingis and Ntilikina, they could have the makings of a future contender.
The bottom of the East got worse, but the fringe playoff teams in conferences, West or East, don’t have an effect on the balance of power in the NBA. In fact, the top of East got better this season. The Wizards are pretty much the same team they were last year, but the Raptors adding CJ Miles to sure up their SF spot and retaining Serge Ibaka makes them marginally better and the two top teams just swapped players, with the Celtics adding an All-Star from the West in Gordon Hayward. The top 4 teams are better this year and another year of Giannis development should scare the entire NBA.
As for the other 3 playoff spots, the 76ers are going to be a young, fun, future powerhouse and should be an exciting team to watch all season. They should definitely be headed for the playoffs. The Hornets addition of Dwight Howard to play alongside Kemba Walker should make them a lock for the postseason, and the Pistons or Heat or whoever gets the last spot shouldn’t be anything to cry about.
As for the All-Star team, it’s not as bad as it looks. Yes, the West will be an absolute snub-fest. There will be multiple great players that miss out on a All-Star spot, but it’s not like Otto Porter will be making the Eastern Conference team. Carmelo Anthony was a replacement player on last year’s team and Gordon Hayward is coming over from last year’s West team and will probably get one of those spots. That leaves 2 spots left to be filled and here are some of the names of great players in the East that didn’t make the All-Star team last year:
Dwyane Wade (12x All-Star)
Dwight Howard (8x All-Star)
Al Horford (4x All-Star)
Andre Drummond (1x All-Star)
There’s at least 2 players on that list who are All-Star caliber, if not more. If you think the East got worse, that’s fine, but take a good hard look and ask yourself: How much worse can it be if the top 4 teams are collectively better?
Photo: (Jennifer Stewart - USA Today)