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.
Photo Credit: WeGotThisCovered.com