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.
They agreed to deals with veterans Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson and as well as agreed to re-sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They’ll join the Lakers’ young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
“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.