The Eastern Conference is the new Western Conference
For most of the past decade, the majority of the NBA’s talent resided west of the Mississippi — specifically in the Western Conference.
All-Star Games always saw a few very deserving players get snubbed in the West while the East was generally able to include all its deserving stars (and some fringe All Stars). And that dominance carried over into the playoffs, as eight of the last 11 NBA Champions have been Western Conference teams.
But now the tides seem to be turning. While the Los Angeles Lakers are still the team to beat in the NBA, the West is no longer Murderer’s Row for Eastern Conference teams on road trips.
This past summer saw Amar’e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer join the ranks of the East’s upper crest, and the potential of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker also heading east has shifted the balance of power back into the East’s favor in a way not seen since the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons teams of the 1980’s. (Yes, the Chicago Bulls owned the 1990’s, but the West still had the majority of the league’s talent during this time; it’s just that it couldn’t supplant Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.)
Back in the early 2000’s, the West had a glut of talented big men. Players like Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, David Robinson, Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki, Elton Brand, Karl Malone, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace would make life miserable for the smaller Eastern teams. The likes of Alonzo Mourning, Jermaine O’Neal, and Dikembe Mutombo just couldn’t stand up to the West’s pedigree. And the guards didn’t give the East any advantage either, as Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Jerry Stackhouse were countered by Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Francis, Gary Payton, John Stockton, Michael Finley, and Mike Bibby.
However, this new decade seems to be the beginning of the East’s resurgence. The conference already has more overall talent than the West and is a smidgen away from having more talent at every position. Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez, and Al Horford are better than Yao Ming, Andrew Bynum, and Al Jefferson at center. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Carlos Boozer, Danny Granger, Andre Iguodala, and Josh Smith are neck and neck with Kevin Durant, Mello, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, and Zach Randolph at the forward positions. And while the West still holds an advantage at guard with Kobe Bryant, Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Brandon Roy, Chauncey Billups, Manu Ginobili, and Parker, the East is not far behind with Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and Joe Johnson.
As far as teams go, the West still has the Lakers and, to a lesser degree, the Spurs and Mavericks. And young teams like the Thunder and Blazers could finally come of age. But beyond those teams, everything else is a crapshoot. In the East, the Heat have joined the Celtics, Magic, Bulls, and Hawks as legitimate contenders, and Milwaukee and Charlotte may prove to be difficult “W’s” as well.
With that being the case, once the cracks begin to show in this latest Lakers Dynasty, it may be awhile before the Larry O’Brien Trophy comes back to the Western Conference.
The bright spot for those in the West is that the exodus of existing talent allows budding stars to show the league what they are capable of doing.
Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry are already their franchise’s star player, and Russell Westbrook will team with Durant on what many expect to be a breakout Oklahoma City team. Blake Griffin will make his anticipated debut with the Clippers, where he will be given a chance to immediately cash in on the hype. As well, LaMarcus Aldridge, Eric Gordon, O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol, and Aaron Brooks will find themselves showcased much more frequently than they may have been had the talent pool in the West remained as congested as it had been.
All these players will get an opportunity to shine brightly on a nightly basis, with All-Star berths and booming popularity a very real possibility.
In the East, the youth will be cloaked in the shadows of the conference’s bigger names. Players like John Wall, Evan Turner, Brandon Jennings, Darren Collison, Raymond Felton, and Joakim Noah will get their chances to contribute with their respective teams, but (with the exception of Wall) none will be showcased nationally, considering the other players and storylines available.
And unless All Star fan voting gets Wall in, you can expect zero young stars in the February showcase.
So while the East may be gobbling up talent left and right and the scales of balance continue to shift in the East’s favor, the West will get the opportunity to cultivate its young players, hardening them for battle in this never-ending struggle for conference supremacy.
By: Eric Lorenz
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