NBA’s balance of power again shifts West, which bodes well for Boston and Philadelphia
First game: LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings at Arco Arena on Oct. 29, 2003, in Sacramento.(Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)
Soaring over Tim Duncan: LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes in for a slam dunk over Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 3, 2006, at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.(Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)
NBA playoff debut: LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers tries to get a shot off over Michael Ruffin of the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2006 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.(Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)
First MVP in 2009: Fans show support of LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers as he holds up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy after being named the 2009-10 NBA MVP prior to playing the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.(Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)
The decision: Eric Murosk stands in a large crowd of fans assembled outside the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich hours before LeBron James was to arrive in Greenwich, Conn. Free agent NBA player LeBron James announced live on ESPN from there that he will be playing for the Miami Heat in the coming season.(Christopher Capozziello / Getty Images)
The decision: LeBron James attends the LeBron James Pre Decision Meet and Greet on July 8, 2010, in Greenwich, Conn. Proceeds from the $2.5-million event were donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.(Larry Busacca / Getty Images)
First championship: NBA Finals MVP LeBron James of the Miami Heat holds the championship trophy after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on June 21, 2012, at the American Airlines Arena in Miami.(Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images)
Block party: LeBron James of the Miami Heat blocks the shot of Tiago Splitter of the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter during Game 2 of the 2013 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena in Miami.(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)
Return to Cleveland: A Cleveland Cavaliers fan reacts to the news of LeBron James’ return to Cleveland on July 11, 2014, in Cleveland.(Angelo Merendino / Getty Images)
Pinned: LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers blocks a shot by Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland.(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)
The back-to-back NBA champion Golden State Warriors are the rulers of the league until proven otherwise.
But there has been a seismic shift in the balance of power in the NBA after LeBron James decided to join the Lakers in the uber-competitive Western Conference, leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers tattered and an Eastern Conference up for grabs.
Does James, who agreed to a four-year, $154-million deal on Sunday, alone make the Lakers title contenders?
James had reigned supreme in the East the last eight seasons, taking the Miami Heat and the Cavaliers each to four consecutive NBA Finals.
Now that he has bolted, the pathway out of the East should be easier for the talented Boston Celtics and rising Philadelphia 76ers.
“I think there are a bunch of outstanding teams in the Western Conference. Obviously, the champs will be favored,” said Mark Jackson, the venerable NBA analyst for ESPN and ABC. “But we saw last year it wasn’t an easy road for them and the West has only gotten better since then.
“With LeBron gone, it absolutely opens the door in the East. I mean, the door was shut for eight years. So it opens the door. Everybody sounds like they are ready to take the jump. The question is who is going to take the jump. It’ll be real interesting. I think with a healthy Kyrie Irving, I think the Celtics are the favorite. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to translate. I think it’s wide open in the East.”
The Warriors have a star-studded group with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson as well as free-agent center DeMarcus Cousins, who agreed to a one-year deal Monday.
The Rockets have two stars of their own in James Harden and Chris Paul, who agreed to re-sign on Sunday. They will be hurt by the loss of Trevor Ariza, a reliable defensive stalwart and three-point shooter who agreed to a one-year deal with the Phoenix Suns.
Paul George agreed to re-sign with Oklahoma City and will form a dynamic trio with guard Russell Westbrook and forward Carmelo Anthony.
Rookie Donovan Mitchell led the surprising Utah Jazz to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season.
Portland, New Orleans and Minnesota were also playoff teams along with San Antonio while Denver finished at 46-36, one game out of the eighth spot and three out of third.
“The power has definitely been in the West more so the last few years,” free-agent guard Jamal Crawford said.
It has been assumed by many that the Lakers with James will join the top powers in the league sooner than later.
“It puts them in the discussions with anybody,” Jackson said. “I don’t think they are done. So that’ll be the interesting thing to me. You bring back Caldwell-Pope. He has toughness and size and versatility at that position. You’re going to get Lance Stephenson, who has toughness size and a guy that can make plays also. I don’t think they are done. If they can go and add even more, whether it be Kawhi (Leonard) or whoever else, they are certainly a legitimate championship contender.”
James essentially delivered the Cavaliers a championship over the defending-champion Warriors in 2016, but Cleveland lost to them in 2017 - ’18. Without James, the Cavaliers are expected to struggle in the East.
The Celtics get back Irving (left knee) and Gordon Hayward (broken left leg) from the injured list and will team them with savvy veteran Al Horford and rising young stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to a team that lost to James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
The 76ers have stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on a team that lost to the Celtics in the semifinals. Toronto, which led the East with the second-best record in the league at 59-23, can’t get past the second round of the playoffs.
“To me, it’s Golden State and then right under Golden State is going to be Boston,” Phoenix Suns forward Jared Dudley said. “I think Boston with what they bring back, with Hayward and Kyrie to go along with Tatum and Brown, just them four alone, you went up.
“But basically, no one cares about the Eastern Conference. Everyone respects Boston and everyone thinks Philly is too young. The West is so stacked that they might reform the league and say, ‘Hey, we want the top teams in the playoffs.’ LeBron James coming to the Lakers did that.”
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