Just a few days into NBA free agency this summer, the talk of a depleted Eastern Conference was everywhere. At the time, Jimmy Butler left Chicago for Minnesota and Paul George went from Indiana to Oklahoma City. In September, Carmelo Anthony joined George on the Thunder, leaving New York behind.
Since Michael Jordan’s second retirement (before the 1999 season), the NBA has been laughably imbalanced from one conference to the other. From ’99 through 2017, the West has won 13 of 19 championships, including five apiece for both the Lakers and Spurs, plus two for the Warriors. LeBron James has slowed down the West’s dominating pace just a bit — his Heat and Cavaliers have won three of the last six titles — but when you look up and down the standings each year, you’re always taking the West’s top 4-6 teams over the East’s.
Except, that dynamic may be about to change.
With James holding dominion over the East with seven straight conference titles (four for Miami, three for Cleveland), the league’s established stars have looked elsewhere for a route to the NBA Finals. The pinnacle of that perceived attitude was this summer, when the last of the aforementioned all-stars cleared out. Gordon Hayward joined the Celtics, though the Boston team he was becoming a part of was already clearly stacked with talent to contend, a feeling that was further echoed when Kyrie Irving also came to town.
In some ways, that was supposed to further dilute the East and make it a cakewalk for the Cavs to repeat in a two-team conference. But a quick look at the standings shows there’s something more interesting going on instead.
The departure of all of that talent has actually opened the door for the next collection of rising stars to take center stage in the East. While the Cavaliers are a veteran-heavy group that’s built to win now, much of the rest of the conference has been hedging on catching Cleveland and LeBron on the decline in a couple years. Fans have grown accustomed to the current order of the NBA, largely uninterrupted since 2006 or 2007, save the Warriors’ recent dominance. However, the league’s executives have been paying attention to the aging process of LeBron, Carmelo, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, et al. And many have been building teams young enough to eventually out-run them at the back end of their respective careers.
That time may be about to begin.
A glance at the standings shows young teams everywhere, and the list of league leaders shows similar signs of an NBA about to undergo an unexpected youth movement (much like the last one that took over in the middle of the 2000s). Three of the league’s nine highest scorers right now are under 25, and they’re all in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (22 years old) leads the NBA with 31.9 points per game. The Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis (also 22) is second with 30. Washington’s Bradley Beal (24) is ninth. And that’s just looking at the top of the scoring numbers.
In his first healthy season (he missed last year), the 76ers’ Ben Simmons has already taken off, and so has the team around him. The young Sixers are 6-4, winners of five straight games, and the 21-year old point guard is averaging a near-triple double at 17.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and eight assists per contest. Joel Embiid, just 23, is averaging 20.5 points and 10.1 rebounds for Philadelphia.
Similar stories litter the East standings right now. The green Knicks — who also employ lottery point guard Frank Ntilikina — have been a comeback machine of late, and beat the experienced Cavs just a week ago. Indiana embraced youth on a dime with players like Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis playing big minutes and helping push a rapid rebuild. Orlando, after starts and stops on a long post-Dwight Howard process, suddenly look the part of a real NBA team. Though Brooklyn’s sitting near the bottom of the standings, offseason acquisition D’Angelo Russell is putting up 20.4 points per game right now.
And that all skates right past Boston, which is arguably the top youth movement story of all. The Celtics, among the league’s least “penny-pinching” franchises, went all-in on a hard rebuild just a few years ago. Danny Ainge piled up assets but instead of #TheProcess and an extensive wait period for everything to mature, Boston quickly rebooted by cashing in where necessary. Free agent additions like Al Horford and Hayward further sped up the process, as did the trade for Irving. But the resurgence was built because so many picks and trades turned into serviceable, interesting players.
Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart would all be very welcome additions to most NBA squads and are still on the upswing in their young careers. Jae Crowder’s emergence helped facilitate the Irving trade to begin with. And let’s not forget that Irving himself is only 25 after a one-and-done stint at Duke before being drafted.
The East — and maybe the NBA’s — future is being set as we speak. It doesn’t mean that long-time stars like LeBron or Carmelo (or even slightly younger players like Steph Curry or Klay Thompson) are going to be out of the league in a year or two. It just means that one conference, in particular, needed a rebirth and now it got one.
Rather than add a slew of stars and chase immortality with Golden State or Cleveland, the East’s franchises largely built through the draft and now this is just the beginning of the payoff. You may not see the Bucks or 76ers (or Knicks?) in the NBA Finals this year, or even next. But the day’s coming soon. And you have this offseason’s mass Western migration to thank for speeding that process along a little bit.