Despite Champion Lakers, NBA Seeing Power Shift From West to East
But those in the East are getting tired of having sand kicked in their faces.
Yes, the Western Conference still has won nine of the past 12 NBA titles and 10 of the last 11 seasonal inter-conference battles. Yet there finally is starting to be some chortling in the East.
After losing the conference regular season match-up for nine straight years, the East finally broke through in 2008-09 to win 51.3 percent of the games between the conferences. The West came back to win 54.7 percent of the battles last season (it didn't help that New Jersey and New York, in trying to clear salary-cap room, weren't trying to win). But this summer has shown the East could end up being the dominant conference this decade.
Of those generally believed to be the top eight free agents, seven signed with East teams. Five (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce) stayed in the East and two went from West to East (Amar'e Stoudemire from Phoenix to New York and Carlos Boozer from Utah to Chicago). The only one to end up with a West team was Dirk Nowitzki re-signing with Dallas.
"It looks likes there's a definite shift in power,'' John Hammond said at the NBA Summer League. Hammond, the general manager of the East's Milwaukee Bucks, re-signed free-agent guard John Salmons and got free-agent forward Drew Gooden from the West's Clippers. "You can say that the world championship is still in the West (with the Lakers) so that gives them the ultimate credibility.
"But I think it's obvious that you had two significant players (Stoudemire and Boozer) come from the West to the Eastern Conference and the other major free-agent players stayed in the East. And you had the first three picks in this year's draft out of the Eastern Conference (Washington's John Wall, Philadelphia's Evan Turner and New Jersey's Derrick Favors). I think time will tell, but it seems to me like a shift in power from West to East.''
Boston coach Doc Rivers believes the power shift has been going on for a few years. The rivalry certainly has been more competitive since the West won 63.3 percent of the inter-conference games in 2003-04 and then won 56 percent or better in each of the four seasons after that.
"I thought it had shifted," Rivers said recently. "I don't think anybody in the West knew that ... We're adding more (talent to the East). The East is going to be a monster."
Even San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose team has won four of the past 12 titles and going a combined 16-6 in the Finals, couldn't offer a strong rebuttal about Rivers saying the East has become the dominant conference.
"They're certainly a lot better in the East than they were five years ago," Popovich said. "From that sense, it definitely has changed and become more even because there was a time when there wasn't much going on in the East. So that's definitely not the case anymore. So there's a lot of truth to what Doc says. Maybe not as far as what he thinks. But he's pretty damn close."
One could make an argument that, with Orlando, Boston and a retooled Miami, that the East has three of the NBA's top four teams. In case you've been busy hiking Mount Everest, the Heat last week corralled all three of the top free agents, re-signing Wade and luring James from Cleveland and Bosh from Toronto.
And no doubt Atlanta likes to think of itself as one of the top four or five teams in the East. The Hawks re-signed Johnson, although they haven't done anything else of significance.
But the Lakers have won the past two NBA titles and certainly haven't gotten weaker. They've added Steve Blake, a point guard to take some of the burden off Derek Fisher, who recently re-signed and turns 36 next month. And center Andrew Bynum figures to be much healthier following offseason knee injury.
By that doesn't mean Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person, who headed the team's summer-league outfit, is talking much trash about the West in general.
"The West has been dominant," Person said. "But I think with those guys (Stoudemire and Boozer) going over to the East, it does make it more competitive. The East is maybe a little bit stronger than the West during the regular season."
Of course, the Lakers probably won't care too much about the East unless they get to a fourth straight Finals. And they actually might not mind the West being a bit weaker overall, resulting in fewer teams to challenge them for conference supremacy.
The treks by Stoudemire and Boozer from West to East probably won't result in the Knicks and Bulls entering the East elite but it hurts two traditional West powers. The Suns have had to retool after losing to the Lakers in the West finals. The Jazz also had two other key free agents bolt (Wesley Matthews to Portland and Kyle Korver to Chicago) but did at least find an impressive replacement for Boozer in acquiring Al Jefferson from Minnesota.
While Houston will be better after getting center Yao Ming back from injury and Oklahoma City and Portland are still up and coming, perhaps Dallas has been the only West team this summer to have done enough to to join the Lakers as a serious NBA title contender. The Mavericks acquired center Tyson Chandler from Charlotte for next to nothing to help them battle the big Lakers.
Dallas could have taken another step, but free-agent forward Al Harrington elected to sign with Denver instead. Still, the Mavericks have their full mid-level exception of $5.765 million remaining, and don't count out owner Mark Cuban from using it creatively in a further attempt to challenge the Lakers.
What it all comes down to though is this: Does it really matter how much the East has improved if the Lakers win another crown next season? Take it from a former Laker, even if he's now coaching in the East with Cleveland.
"I think the East will be definitely better," said Scott, whose Cavaliers had the NBA's best regular-season mark the past two seasons under Mike Brown but now are an afterthought after the departure of James. "Chicago got better. Miami got better. It's definitely going to be more of a challenge, but I don't think I can say it's been a shift in power ... The last two years the Lakers are the champions and they still to me feel kind of head and shoulders over everybody."
Well, there was one thing brought to Rivers' attention about the Lakers winning the title last month that he just might start using. Although the Lakers were the West's No. 1 seed, they needed seven games to defeat the No. 4 Celtics.
"I like that," Rivers said.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter@christomasson