At least since the end of the Bulls reign in the late 1990s, the power of the NBA has resided in the Western Conference. It isn't just the multiple championships won by the Lakers and Spurs (8 of the 11 titles since the Bulls run ended), but it's also the quality in the top half of the conferences, with a win total approaching 50 often required to make the playoffs in the West, while under .500 teams regularly making the playoff bracket in the East.
I've been wondering in recent days whether circumstances are conspiring to begin reversing this process this summer. Follow my argument over the jump.
Let's start with free agency. This is an unprecedented summer for free agency involving top end players, as we all know. While the majority of the high profile free agents are already Eastern Conference players (James, Wade, Bosh, Johnson), there are a couple of top players that are currently on Western teams (Boozer, Stoudemire).
It seems likely to me that, not only will the eastern players stay east, but that if the western conference players move, it is likely that they move east as well. Why? Because the teams with cap space and appealing environments are all in the east: Chicago, Miami, New York, New Jersey, and Washington. The only possible exception to this is the Clippers, but I haven't seen any major free agent connected with L.A.s second team.
Finally, we consider Dwayne Wade's comment that the top free agents will get together to discuss their options. It's clear that the major FA's would like to pair themselves off if at all possible to maximize their chances to put together super-teams. I'm not too sure about this strategy, because if they all go to 2-3 teams, the competition is going to be brutal, but imagine a situation in which LeBron goes to Chicago with Rose and Noah, Wade recruits Stoudemire down to Miami and they add a 3rd piece, and Johnson and Bosh wind up in New York, with Gallinari, and they turn Eddy Curry's expiring contract into a point guard.
That's 3 pretty good teams, with Orlando still holding Dwight Howard and apparently endlessly willing to pay the luxury tax. You might think that under those circumstances, all the other teams in the east would punt trying to compete at that level, and that is certainly possible. However, it seems unlikely to me, for a few reasons. First, history, That didn't really happen in the West in the face of the Spurs-Lakers battles. The Suns stepped up under D'Antoni. The Mavericks endlessly tried to win. The Jazz stayed competitive. The Blazers rose from the ashes. The Kings were on the doorstep for a few seasons. It all resulted in a brutally competitive Western Conference where making the playoffs was an actual achievement.
Further, the draft. As it stands today, the first 3 picks in the draft are held by eastern conference teams. That could jump start any or all of them into competitiveness if their picks pan out. The 76ers just hired Doug Collins; they didn't do that for him to preside over a loser for the next 4 years while they try to get their act together. The new Nets owner clearly isn't going to be passive, especially given the imminent move to Brooklyn. Similarly, Ted Leonsis in Washington is a sharp guy who has presided over the rebirth of a successful NHL team; I suspect he'll make good decisions with the Wizards as well.
Given all of these factors, if things break right this summer, we might look back on it as the summer that ushered in a new era of competition in the eastern conference.
Meanwhile, let's glance west. The Lakers are in the Finals again, but there are clear signs of erosion throughout the conference. The Spurs are aging, and it appears their window has now closed with this group. The Suns are aging as well, and if Stoudemire leaves, they are in trouble. Mavericks: aging with Dirk and Terry. Utah is always competitive, but have real cap/tax problems, Denver might have peaked last year in the WCF appearance and Melo is an FA next summer. Houston is relying on the return of the injury prone Yao. The Lakers...I think this might be their last gasp of greatness with Kobe. There's a lot of mileage there. Obviously, there will be good teams; OKC looks poised to take more steps toward the elite, Portland could clearly take another step forward if they manage to get healthy for a couple of years. We thought a couple of years ago that NO was going to emerge, but they have gone backwards and have a really tough money situation.
It isn't going to flip overnight. But it wouldn't shock me if we look back in 5 years and say this was the summer that that the worm began to turn on where the dominant basketball is played in the NBA.
What say you?