Think about the LeBron James rumors over the past few weeks. Most of them have involved the Lakers next summer, and they give way to several stages of reactions. The first: "Really? C'mon. Stop." It takes a few days and maybe one cap-clearing Timofey Mozgov trade to get past that stage. Then the questions get more practical: "OK, but could he get away with leaving Cleveland a second time?" People loathe Dan Gilbert enough to find a way to blame him for this, so let's say yes. Then the question turns to basketball: "But if LeBron leaves, why would he ever, ever, ever go to the West?"
Trying to answer that question eventually leads to an even tougher one: "OK. But if LeBron wanted to leave Cleveland and stay in the East, where would he even go?"
That question stuck with me in the aftermath of the Paul George trade Friday, and it hit me again when Paul Millsap signed with the Nuggets Sunday night. I understand the people who say that more superstars should push for moves to the East because it's wide open. It makes sense. The problem is that none of these teams have been competent enough to earn a superstar's trust.
Eastern Conference incompetence has been a joke for the better part of 20 years, but it's official as of this weekend. There are memes and everything. Of the 20 best players in the NBA, there are four who play in the East: LeBron, Giannis, Wall, Kyrie. You could probably include Isaiah Thomas as well, but either way, roughly 75% of the league's superstars will be in the West next season. It's a bloodbath out there, and the East looks like Division 1-AA by comparison.
To understand we got here, the George trade itself is telling. The Pacers could not have handled that situation worse over the past five months. They fumbled it first by refusing to acknowledge George's discontent in February, then by apparently panicking and grabbing an underwhelming OKC offer. In the end they came away looking hamfisted and clueless, and it would have been baffling if it weren't a note-for-note sequel to what the Bulls did with Jimmy Butler a week earlier. And the story for both teams—one team buying up Victor Oladipo stock, another trying to convince fans that Kris Dunn has lottery pick potential—helps explain how this entire conference has gone off the rails.
Teams in the East have suffered from consistently, amazingly mediocre management during an NBA era where smart management has become more important than ever. That's how 75% of the league's superstars end up in one conference.
Put yourself in LeBron's shoes. A return to Miami is off the table (because Riley), and Boston isn't happening (because LeBron in Boston isn't happening). Beyond the Celtics and Heat, how many other teams in the East would you entrust with your future?
The Cavs could've made the list, but they fired David Griffin a week before free agency and still don't have a GM. The Bucks have Giannis as a building block, but reading that "the other owners and their attorneys double-checked the team's ownership agreement" doesn't scream stability. Meanwhile, the Knicks are in New York City, but the Knicks are the Knicks. The Nets are hopeless.
Elsewhere, teams like the Pistons and Magic are even sadder than Brooklyn. The Hornets are talking themselves into Dwight Howard in 2017. This is the East.
Some of this is luck. Derrick Rose was the youngest MVP in league history before injuries derailed his career and a potential 5–7 years of Bulls contention. The Pacers could've spent five or six years building around Danny Granger and Paul George, but Granger's body fell apart. No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett was out of shape for his entire career, while Joel Embiid has been hurt for most of his. Likewise, had the Warriors won the 2016 Finals, there's a good chance Kevin Durant lands with the Celtics last summer. That's another title contender, and Durant's presence alone could've silenced any national worries about the East.
But even if Durant had gone to Boston, it wouldn't have prevented the mistakes made in Chicago the past 12 months, or Indiana stubbornly ignoring the writing on the wall with George. The mediocrity would've been easier to ignore with KD-LeBron battles to distract us, but all the problems have been the same for years.
If there's a baseline among teams in the East, it's a lack of self-awareness that manifests as impatience. Maybe it's because the conference is always mediocre enough for decent teams to trick themselves into thinking they're closer to contending than they really are. In any case, teams like the Bulls and Pacers have spent the past few years clinging to broken rosters, and spending on short-term solutions that never made sense. They are not alone.
The Knicks had one smart, conservative summer—drafting Kristaps, signing Robin Lopez and Aaron Afflalo to reasonable deals—and they followed that by trading for Derrick Rose and giving Joakim Noah $73 million the following year. The Wizards responded to a surprising playoff run a few years ago by ignoring obvious Randy Wittman flaws and extending a bad coach who stunted the growth of their best players, and may have cost them a chance at Durant last summer. When Durant turned the Wiz down, they spent KD's money on Ian Mahinmi—a sentence that will only get more amazing as years pass. In Detroit, the Pistons gave Reggie Jackson a max deal, traded for Tobias Harris, and went all-in on a nucleus that still hasn't broken 45 wins and probably never will.
The Raptors talked themselves into DeMarre Carroll and could never talk themselves out of Jonas Valanciunas, and they're currently doing everything they can to trade either one. The Bucks traded a Lakers lottery pick for Michael Carter-Williams. The Hawks refused to trade Al Horford, waffled on paying him when he hit free agency, then lost him for nothing. Then they lived the exact same timeline with Millsap. Meanwhile, the Hornets are all-in with Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, and Dwight Howard, a sentence that almost certainly ends with a first-round playoff loss. I still have no idea what the Magic were trying to do last year, but you could say that after every Orlando season for the past five years.
Running an NBA team isn't easy. It's also not as hard as teams in the East have made it look. So many of these franchises are making the exact same mistakes and selling fans on hope that isn't rooted in any kind of reality. When almost every team in one conference settles for half-baked solutions, it's only a matter of time before they all look depressing.
There are three outliers in the East. First, the Sixers. Obviously. Sam Hinkie turned patience into its own extremist religion. It wasn't always rational or well-executed, the degree of self-awareness was debatable, and I don't know if I would recommend trying The Process at home. But it could very well pay off if Embiid is healthy, and the plan makes sense with Markelle Fultz on board. As it stands now, the rest of the conference has made so many mistakes that Philly could make the playoffs by default.
What's interesting is that Bryan Colangelo isn't reacting to the opportunity like an Eastern Conference GM. Instead of jumping at the chance to be decent and overpaying someone like J.J. Redick on a multi-year deal that could've limited them down the line, the Sixers really overpaid him on a one-year, $23 million deal. It allows them to get help immediately, take their shot at the playoffs and see what they have, but keep their options open for next summer and beyond. It's bold, but smart, which feels like a minor revolution next to the rest of the conference.
Then there are the Celtics and Heat. Both teams are among the smartest in basketball, and they've navigated the post-title rebuilding process faster than anyone could've expected. This probably deserves a longer conversation, but Gordon Hayward has to sign with one of them. Right?
This is where we end. The Jazz have an uphill battle to even make the conference finals the next few years, and the East can't be this irrelevant forever. Hayward has to sign with the Celtics or Heat this week. As much as skill plays a role in how conferences shake out, luck is important too, and the East is due.
(Of course, LeBron could still go to L.A. next summer.)