From sea to shining sea, we’ve all heard the proclamation that “The East is TRASH!” because for what feels like an epoch the “Leastern Conference” has been busting at the seams with franchises incapable of employing teams of above average talent, coaching or management. One idiotic knock on LeBron James’ seven-year stretch of Finals runs is that there hasn’t been the same level of competition en route to his three championships compared to whomever ran the gauntlet out West.
Sidebar: You can’t really knock a dude for basically existing when he does or for the fact that so many veteran talents went West this year. Furthermore, count how many players have led their team to the finals 6 times and get back to me.
Every year that one of #NBATwitter’s new favorite Western Conference team misses the playoffs by a half game that has a better record than all but three Eastern Conference teams, the calls for a 1-16 playoff seeding arise. This position has always been overkill for what is more a cyclical problem than one that requires fundamentally changing how the quest for a champion is followed. Have we forgotten that three of the last six NBA champions came from the East? Or that there was a stretch in the late ’80s and early ’90s when the East took the title eight of ten years? For what it’s worth, the god-commissioner Adam Silver put any talks of reseeding to rest over the summer after the annual league meetings concluded.
And it’s a good thing too because the climate in the NBA is about to change. The Eastern Conference is finally ready to close the talent gap with the West. The problem hasn’t been that the West has been that great, but that the East hasn’t had a real middle class. The growth of some key franchises is beginning to create a new balance, as evidenced by nine East teams currently have a .500 record or better against the West, and this doesn’t even include the Cavaliers.
The ‘17-‘18 season is still in its infancy, but the East is showing more life than it has in years thanks in large part to the conference’s young faces becoming true “faces of the franchise” type players as opposed to the annual “new faces in new places” storylines. One of the biggest early season surprises is the feat Aaron Gordon pulled off in become both the “Old” Blake Griffin who can yam you into oblivion and the “New” Blake Griffin who can shoot from distance, leading a promising Orlando squad which spent much of the early season in the second seed in the East.
Sidebar: What is the proper name for a group of magicians?
The two brightest spotlights in the East belong to a pair of freak unicorns: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis. Giannis took basketball Twitter by storm last year but has been on a tear this season, leading the league in scoring for a Bucks team that has been inconsistent out the gate (the addition of Eric Bledsoe should provide a much needed boost). Conversely, Porzingis hasn’t just stepped out from Carmelo Anthony’s shadow in New York, he proclaimed himself the new mayor (or king even) with a string of dominance on both sides of the ball that harkens back to the days of Pat Ewing. In the distant (but not so distant) future where King James abdicates the throne, these The Greek Freak and The Unicorn are going to be fierce competitors to be the next to take a seat on it.
And they won’t be the only ones. There is still the mystery of Markelle Fultz and the question of what a fully unleashed Joel Embiid might look like and also how much of a LeBron-facsimile the 76ers have in Ben Simmons. Ironically, it appears that after years of tanking, Philadelphia needs to hit on some combination of two out of three of these dudes to call it a success. Yet each one has severe injury history, and let’s not get into the opportunity costs related to drafting Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.
By they way, “unleashed Embiid” probably looks something like this…
Don’t sleep on the Pacers and Nets, who both have intriguing (re: fun to watch but don’t expect wins yet) building blocks in Myles Turner, Victor Olidipo and Domantas Sabonis; and D’Angelo Russel, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Allen Crabbe respectively.
It’s not all young faces making waves either. There are the experienced players Kyrie Irving (who is still only 25-years-old) has absolutely deaded the talk that he can’t lead a team without LeBron with Boston overcoming the horrific loss of Gordon Hayward, and relying heavily on a pair of young wings with star potential in Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum. The Pistons are seeing a rebirth of Andre Drummond, who at 24, has improved his free throw shooting to such a degree that he can viably be played in crunch time without crippling his team. With Drummond anchoring the frontcourt defense, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, Avery Bradley and Reggie Jackson can be thrown at pick and roll teams just the way Stan Van Gundy envisioned.
The Wizards, Raptors and Hornets are all playoff caliber teams with good but not great talent that will work to keep pushing them up against the floor of the higher tier. If the Wizards can swing the Boogie trade that Bill Simmons and his ilk have campaigned on for years, Washington might actually embrace the team.
Much like the discussion surrounding his conference, this article begins and ends with LeBron. At 33, this man is having yet another MVP caliber season and doing things the world has never seen. His Cavaliers are looking more like the Browns as of late, but we know that for a team of this caliber the regular season is only a set up for the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference has some quality depth and more than enough talent to be excited about both for this season and seasons to come. As Sam Cooke famously sang, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come.”