Gap in Eastern Conference grows as mass exodus of star talent heads to Western Conference

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith NBA.com

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Jul 6, 2017 4:01 PM ET

The Cavs could have a shot at a fourth straight trip to The Finals.

He’s still there, that immovable object in the path of every other team trying to make its way through the Eastern Conference come playoff time.

The Draft, trade season and free agency have done nothing to change the order of things for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Who needs a general manager when you’ve got the best player on the planet, who has played in The Finals seven straight seasons, running the show?

There simply has not been a significant enough migration of talent to that side of the NBA’s conference divide to make LeBron or the Cavaliers hit the panic button.

Sure, Boston signed Gordon Hayward in free agency and Toronto is keeping both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka in the fold. But the exodus of star talent in the Eastern Conference has been so great that the Cavaliers have strengthened their grip on the top spot without doing anything more than signing veteran shooter Kyle Korver to a new three-year, $22 million deal.

When All-Stars like Paul George (from Indiana to Oklahoma City) and Jimmy Butler (from Chicago to Minnesota) get traded, the competition level actually decreases at a time when you need multiple stars to even get into the championship conversation.

The Celtics, with Danny Ainge still armed with a treasure trove of Draft assets, could still add some intrigue to this offseason, but beyond that the pecking order in the East going into training camp is all but set.

Hayward, Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford lead a Celtics bunch that finished ahead of the Cavaliers in the standings during the regular season and could easily do it again, given Cleveland’s understanding of when the energy needs to be turned up for the postseason.

 
A look at the Celtics' new projected roster.

The Washington Wizards still have a decision to make on restricted free agent Otto Porter, who has a $106 million offer sheet from Brooklyn in front of him. The Wizards, who fell to the Celtics in seven games in the conference semifinals, have arguably the next best player in the East behind LeBron in All-NBA point guard John Wall and a future All-Star in shooting guard Bradley Beal already in place.

The Raptors, Cleveland’s victim in the conference finals two years ago, keep their core group of Lowry, All-Star DeMar DeRozan and Ibaka in place, but they’ll have to sort out the rotation with P.J. Tucker (Houston) and Patrick Patterson (Oklahoma City) among the free agent departures.

It’s outside of the top four in the East where things really get interesting.

Atlanta traded Dwight Howard to Charlotte and didn’t even offer All-Star free agent Paul Millsap (Denver) a deal, completing their tear down (they swear they are going to be competitive despite all this evidence to the contrary) and jumpstarting their rebuilding project through the Draft.

Milwaukee remains a team on the rise with All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo serving as the headliner on the longest, leanest and most athletic bunch in the entire league, a group Jason Kidd has to continue to find ways to motivate and drive up the standings.

The Pacers added Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in the George trade with the Thunder. But they also lost point guard Jeff Teague in free agency (Minnesota), ending his homecoming routine after just season, and signaled their rebuild by waiving veteran guard Monta Ellis. They’ll be hard-pressed to maintain a top eight spot with Miami, Detroit and the Kemba Walker/Howard-led Hornets all looking to get back into the playoff mix.

Dwayne Wade opted in for the final year of his deal with the Bulls, who also being their official journey into franchise makeover mode, with the additions of Kris Dunn, dunk champion Zach LaVine (coming off of ACL surgery) and Finnish big man Lauri Markkanen in the Butler trade.

The wild card this season, of course, resides in Philadelphia, where The Process seems to finally be turning a corner. No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz joins future star Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and veteran shooter J.J. Redick in a situation that, if they can survive health issues that have plagued the young core, has the makings of a potential postseason player.

In the end, though, it appears that LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will get at least one more shot to defend their title and see if they can find their way back for a fourth straight June date against the Golden State Warriors.

Because no one else in the new-look Eastern Conference has come close to doing what was needed to overtake them as the favorites.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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