July 22, 2014

NBA’s Potential Talent Shift is Worthy of the Cavaliers’ Attention

It’s not even the All-Star break yet in the NBA. I’m not sure what exactly a fair expectation would have been for the Cleveland Cavaliers at this point in the season, but “full on rebuild” is something few people thought would set in so soon for this franchise.

Yet, as we mercifully draw ever closer to the end of the brutal December/January schedules and into the slightly more friendly February/March schedules, the discourse surrounding this team centers on one topic and one topic only, rebuilding. Some may have been hoping for talk of trade exceptions and playoff runs, but that scenario turned out to be a mere pipe dream.

So instead, we’re already thinking draft picks and expiring contracts. All of this with an eye on the ultimate goal of getting the Cavaliers back into prominence where the conversation can once more revolve around playoffs and championships. As with any rebuilding process in any sport, there are countless hurdles that need to be cleared in order to have success. However, one road block that the Cavaliers may be facing is something that was previously unseen but is beginning to come into focus. The sprawl in talent from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference might end up being yet another significant problem the Cavaliers face in their attempts to rebuild.

The conferential balance in power between the East and West does indeed tend to be somewhat cyclical, and it appears we are standing on the verge of yet another shift. In recent history, the Western Conference has long been the dominant conference in the NBA. The Eastern Conference has routinely sent sub-.500 teams to the playoffs. 50+ wins in the East would make you a top seed contender, while in the West 50+ wins were needed just to squeak into the postseason.

Going back to the 2005-06 season, every year the 8 seed in the East has been .500 or below, while the fewest wins for the 8 seed in the West was 42. Not counting the lockout-shortened season, you have to go all the way back to 1998 to find the last time a Western Conference team got into the playoffs with just 41 wins (Houston Rockets). From top to bottom, the West has long had more depth in talent and has been the tougher conference to get into the playoffs. That could all be changing soon, though.

By now, everyone is familiar with Carmelo Anthony’s desire to leave Denver and head to New York. The other teams he is said to consider possibilities are the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls, both Eastern Conference teams. Last summer we saw Amare Stoudemire defect from West to East, going from Phoenix to the Knicks. We have heard of Chris Paul’s potential interest in joining him there. David West has an early termination option for this coming summer, and if he feels that Chris Paul is likely to leave, West would likely exercise his option and become a free agent, opening the door for him to move to one of the Eastern Conference mega teams.

It may sound like Mikhail Prokhorov and his Nets whiffed on Carmelo Anthony, yet for all of Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski’s harsh projections for the franchise, it’s hard to really believe that once that franchise is settled in the bright lights of New York with a mega star spokesperson in Jay-Z that they won’t begin to acquire high profile talent.

Dwight Howard is rumored to be considering leaving the Magic in 2012 when he joins Chris Paul on the free agent market, but should he leave Orlando, don’t be surprised if it isn’t for one of the New York franchises (Knicks or Nets, depending on where Carmelo and CP3 wind up). Either way, he is likely to stay in the East unless a lot changes between now and then and the Lakers find a way to become a player for him.

If you look at the Western Conference, the powerhouse teams are the Lakers and Spurs, and both franchises are lead primarily by older talent. With Carmelo likely leaving Denver and the talk of Chris Paul and David West leaving New Orleans, that sets up only the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz as current playoff teams with young, sustainable talent. Maybe some would include Portland in that discussion, but we’re splitting hairs there. It’s hard to have much faith in the Clippers organization, but with Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, perhaps they can enter the fray there. You might see teams like Memphis and Houston limp into the playoffs in the future, but as of right now, outside of the Thunder and the Jazz, the future of the West looks much different than the past.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference is still loaded with young talent. The Chicago Bulls look to be moving into the echelon of title contenders. Whichever team Dwight Howard plays for will have a chance to contend. The Miami Heat will be perennial favorites barring injury. The future is very bright for the Knicks, I believe the Nets will eventually turn things around. The 76ers are always a sleeping giant, capable of bringing in elite talent and no stranger to having elite superstars on their teams.

Of the 8 current playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, the only one I would consider to be overtly “old” are the Boston Celtics, and even then, as long as they have Rajon Rondo on their team, they will be able to pull off a quick reload as opposed to a prolonged rebuild.

Free agency in the NBA leads to excessive player movement, so it’s impossible to make guarantees or to know for sure how all of this will play out. As NBA fans, though, part of the fun is to make projections and to try to predict how the league will look 3-5 years from now. It’s not like the Lakers and Spurs don’t have any young talent on them. Perhaps they, too, find a way to simply reload and help maintain the West’s dominant status.

Whatever happens, though, there’s no denying the tea leaves project a much more talented Eastern Conference in the future, and this will have a direct affect on the Cavaliers. It’s going to make Chris Grant’s job and life much more difficult and it could make for a longer period of time before the Cavaliers can truly contend for a Championship again. This influx of talent into the East also makes any thoughts the Cavaliers may have had of trying some kind of rebuild-on-the-fly seem rather foolish. With the metropolitan mega teams drawing all the free agent attention, it will only make Cleveland’s already difficult attempts at signing free agents even harder.

For the Cavaliers, this should give them some clarity into the fact that rebuilding by acquiring as many draft picks as possible is probably the best route for them to take if they want any chance of one day joining the ranks of the elite in the East again. Using the Western Conference as a template, they can find the blueprints on how a small market franchise unattractive to free agents can build and compete with the big teams.

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Photo Credit: WeGotThisCovered.com

  • http://www.twitter.com/azv321 Amin

    Good conclusion. Also, why the hell does Melo want to go east? He’s essentially surrendering the Western title to OKC from now on.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew

    Yeah, I really don’t get it. Obviously playing for the Knicks and having success there means a lot to players, but still, you have to go through the Heat/Celtics/Bulls/Magic every year. I always thought he had a good situation in Denver.

  • andy

    Conversely, playing in the stronger division will lower the Cavs winning percentage while they’re awful, improving their lottery odds against w. Conf. Teams.

  • Lyon

    Good point Amin. He seems to be more concerned about his night life than his best chance to win. With Kobe getting older, the West will be up for grabs. But instead he wants to go where everyone else is going.

    He’s not a top end player anyways, so wherever he goes they won’t win, unless he joins someone better, which i doubt would happen

  • The Conductor

    Melo is from NY. Also, he played at Syracuse. And his crazy a$$ wife loves to munch on the big apple.

  • mgbode

    I think it’s too early to tell about conference swings. I do think the East has had more elite teams the past several seasons (Celtics, Cavs, Magic vs. Lakers). The West just had the entire 2nd tier of teams.

    But, what happens if the Kings, Clippers, Twolves get one more good draft pick on those teams. Each seem to be on the cusp of having good young teams there.

    Add in the Lakers who will find a way to compete, Jazz (and their neverending system), Thunder, and potentially even a solid Spurs team (alot of youth though I don’t know how any team replaces a Duncan). The West could have alot of talented teams as well.

  • Omar’s Magic Glove

    @#5 Anthony was born in Brooklyn, but moved to Baltimore, MD at age eight and stayed their until going to Syracuse. I don’t know if that would be considered from NY or not.

    In my 28 years of life I have come to the realization that the Lakers are always relevant in the West. They may have a couple down years here and there, but they are usually dominant in the West.

    It’s hard to say that a power shift will happen, as of now the only players that have switched are Stoudamire and Boozer, not rely enough to change the balance of overall talent between east and west teams yet. I can only assume that history will continue to repeat itself and the same top franchises (Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Bulls) will still win most of the championships for the next decade no matter what else happens.

  • CleveFan10

    The NBA needs some type of franchise tag or a way to keep star players in their current markets. I believe this has been mentioned before and may be negotiated this offseason in the CBA. I would project that only a quarter of markets are actually doing well right now, regardless of how the NBA says they are doing. The league can not succeed if they continue to allow the players to have all of this power and freedom. Players like Dwight Howard, LBJ, CP3, Melo, and other young stars can not continue to openly discuss FA when it is greater than a full season away. Franchises are held hostage to either trade stars or risk losing them for nothing. The media basically ensures that these players don’t stay put by glorifying the whole situation.

    What chance does a city like Cleveland have? We made all the possible moves (except adding Jamison instead of Stoudemire due to our overvaluing of JJ Hickson) to contend and at the end of the day LBJ left for a gutted roster with a legendary coach/GM. Even if we added Stoudemire they both would have left, although we could have traded both of them and been worse this season with even more draft picks in our pockets.

    Bottom line: NBA needs a way for franchises to tag players and keep them in town. It is bad for the NBA when a franchise loses 23% of its value overnight. It is bad for the NBA when LBJ tells Melo if he wants any chance at beating him he needs to join Amare and CP3 in NY. It is bad for NBA when stars tell “sources” that wind up on ESPN that they will only play for one team in an attempt to force a trade.

  • http://gooddoctorzeus.blogspot.com DocZeus

    For the last time, the Cavs did not trade for Stoudemire because Phoenix didn’t think JJ Hickson and a late round draft pick was a good enough haul for Amar’e. Phoenix didn’t WANT to trade him to us.

    Thus, we settled for Jamison.