It appears to be the result of a sinister conspiracy, or maybe a curse brought about by the basketball gods, or just plain crummy luck. Whatever the reason, this particular phenomenon definitely benefits LeBron James and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, who of course need all the help they can get this season, right?
The issue is franchise players. Look around the Eastern Conference and ask yourself: Where are they?
Should anyone need additional proof that the Cavs are holding a significant advantage over the East as the regular season approaches, there it is. The glaring lack of abundant top-10 players is seriously hurting 14 other teams in the conference as those teams prepare to deal with mighty No. 15. The Cavs have LeBron, no introduction needed, and Kyrie Irving, who put himself in top-10 conversation last June on the strength of the biggest shot in recent NBA history.
Elsewhere in the East, there is Paul George … and two or three others on the bubble. That’s it. A convincing argument can be made that the Warriors have more major impact players than the entire East conference combined (not counting Cleveland).
If it’s true that teams cannot win championships without at least one star, and only the 2004 Pistons might quibble with this, then the Cavs are the only hope in the East. All other teams are playing for the right to get beaten by Cleveland in the East finals, or come up short in the NBA Finals if they get that far. No stars equal no chance.
Which again begs the question: Where are they? And this: What happened?
In no special order, the reduction in stars can be traced to these factors: The advancement of age, poor draft decisions and positions, injuries, and young players who haven’t arrived yet. They’ve all conspired to make the East much lighter on top-shelf talent and, at least from an image standpoint, the weaker of the two conferences.
The last two years, with the exception of LeBron, no player in the East made All-NBA first or second team. That’s 19 of the 20 best players coming from the West. And if you include the last four years, 34 of 40 spots on those teams were occupied by the West.
Here, we’ll try to examine the issue closer to understand why the lack of A-list players in the conference means the Eastern flag remains the Cavs and LeBron to lose in 2016-17:
Raptors: Have you seen another career arc like Kyle Lowry’s? He couldn’t beat out Mike Conley in Memphis, had a decent run but was nothing special in Houston, and soon after arriving in Toronto the Raptors tried to trade him to the Knicks (they foolishly declined). And since then, wow. A Philly-tough point guard transformed himself into a rock for the Raptors and helped them win 56 games, made the All-Star team the last two years and earned a spot on the Rio Olympic team. Likewise, DeMar DeRozan slowly became a top backcourt partner and just made a killing on the free agent market. Together, they can keep the Raptors in the mix in the East and finish with the best record in the regular season should the Cavs deem it unimportant and rest LeBron and others in April. But taken separately, are Lowry and DeRozan what you’d consider franchise players? All-Stars, yes. But that’s probably their ceiling. And Lowry turns 31 this season; while he’ll likely play well in what represents his contract year, his very best career stretch has probably already occurred.
Dwyane Wade: As much as the Heat valued Wade for everything he has done for that franchise, they refused to give him a deal more than three years. They knew that Wade, with a body that remains suspicious, is in his twilight and his days of carrying a club are over. At his best, Wade was easily top-10 in the league and history will likely rank him as a top-five shooting guard all-time. But this is about right now, not 2006-12.
Carmelo Anthony: His scoring dipped to its lowest since his second season and he shot 43 percent, also among his career lows. Last season was memorable for all the wrong reasons, as the Knicks missed the playoffs and 'Melo was 12 months removed from knee surgery. He’s still a lethal scorer and NBA general managers voted him as one of the players you’d want to take the last shot. He’s also 32, never won anything special in the NBA and is no longer the future in New York; that would be Kristaps Porzingis.
Dwight Howard: When he left the East four summers ago, he was MVP-caliber. Now that he’s back in the East, he’s barely All-Star caliber.
Danny Ainge: The Celtics GM is in a weird situation. He has a team capable of winning 50 games and maybe the division, but without a superstar will likely only go so far. He’s armed with a pair of future first-round picks from the rebuilding Nets, but no guarantee they’ll fetch a potential star. If he plays his hand right, Ainge can package one of those picks with a current Celtic to fetch a devalued star — think Jason Kidd going from the Suns to Nets 15 years ago — or simply sit tight and hope one of those picks gets the star that puts the Celtics over the top. Even if that happens, that player will need a few years of seasoning; will the Celtics still be solid by then? Ainge must hope he has better lottery luck than Rick Pitino, who lost out on Tim Duncan.
Sixers luck: Speaking of luck, how about the Sixers? After all the tanking, they couldn’t get Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid (who might be special down the road) had two lost seasons and Ben Simmons has a bum foot. Philly thought it would have a star, or maybe two, by now. Instead, their dreams are in a holding pattern.
Derrick Rose: Had Rose stayed healthy following his MVP season, he might be the Chris Paul of the East — an aging yet still effective point guard capable of taking over games and leading his team to the playoffs annually. But, no.
Chris Bosh: This is another rather unfortunate case of a very good player being shortchanged by medical issues. The stage was set in Miami for Bosh to be the player he was in Toronto, given the departure of LeBron and with Hassan Whiteside around to do the inside dirty work. But if he ever continues his career, which seems iffy given his blood clots, it won’t be in Miami. There will be some who believe Bosh was never a franchise player, even with the Raptors, but believe this: He’s headed to the Hall of Fame someday.
Greek Freak: There’s a list of players who might be stars someday — or maybe not — and Giannis Antetokounmpo, only 21, is high on it. He’s a unique player who, at 6-foot-10 with wingspan, can play multiple positions including point guard. Still, he hasn’t proven it yet. First things first: Become an All-Star. Then take your team to the playoffs every year.
Paul George: Along with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron, he could be the best two-way swingman in the game, an impact player on both ends. He was on superstar training wheels when the Heat had the Big Three but George is all grown up now, despite his leg injury. But: Does he have enough help in Indy? Winning 50 games might not be a problem, but contend for a conference championship? Only if new point guard Jeff Teague comes up rosy in his money year, and second-year forward Myles Turner takes a big leap, and Al Jefferson turns back the clock. Even then, beating LeBron four times in seven games could be a reach no matter how well George plays.
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