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NBA PM: Will Stars Bolt From West to East?

Will NBA stars bolt to the weaker Eastern Conference going forward? Alex Kennedy asked players and agents.

Alex Kennedy

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NBA PM: Will Stars Bolt for the Eastern Conference?

When the Chicago Bulls held their free agency meeting with Carmelo Anthony last July, part of the franchise’s pitch focused on the Eastern Conference being wide open and how the star-studded Bulls could be a perennial contender in that landscape. They wanted to stress to Anthony that playing in the NBA Finals year after year could be a reality with Chicago’s talented roster and relative lack of competition, whereas making an annual title run would be much more difficult if he joined one of the Western Conference teams pursuing him.

Anthony, of course, re-signed with the New York Knicks. Then, the Cleveland Cavaliers added LeBron James and Kevin Love to become the clear-cut frontrunner in the East. Still, it remains true that the Eastern path to the Finals has significantly fewer obstacles than the Western route.

Players recognize this too, so don’t be surprised to see a number of middle-to-upper-tier players move from the West to the East through free agency or trades in the near future. Other things will obviously factor into players’ decisions too – such as the money, city, weather, playing time and much more. But all things being equal, East teams may be more attractive given how insanely competitive the West has become.

A number of players and agents who spoke to Basketball Insiders on condition of anonymity admitted as much.

“Players will consider going to the East, for sure,” one Western Conference player told Basketball Insiders. “The East is down right now and the West is a dogfight. The seventh- or eighth-seeded team in the West could possibly make the Eastern Conference Finals with how things are now.”

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea [to join an East team],” added another NBA player. “I’m pretty sure Kevin Durant is going to start it off and go home to [the Washington Wizards in] D.C.”

That’s obviously just speculation about Durant (although it is a popular theory these days), but it’s easy to see why any player might want out of the West.

Five teams in the conference won 55 or more games this season (the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs), whereas only one East team (the Atlanta Hawks) accomplished that feat.

In the East, two teams made the playoffs with a losing record (the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets), while a 45-win team (the Oklahoma City Thunder) missed the postseason in the West. If the eighth-seeded Nets were in the West, their 38-44 record would’ve ranked 12th (or, in other words, fifth-worst in the conference).

For much of the season, the Cavaliers were expected to win the Eastern Conference and face little resistance along the way. That’s exactly what happened, as Cleveland swept two of their three East opponents and lost just two games before advancing to the NBA Finals. Oh, and they did this with Kevin Love out for the postseason, Kyrie Irving sidelined for some games and playing through pain in others, and LeBron James hobbling around the court as well. That sums up the East’s ineptitude.

By the way, Cleveland was the second seed in the East with their 53-29 record, but they would’ve been the seventh seed and faced the Rockets in the opening round if they played in the brutal West.

The analytics website numberFire uses the metric “nERD” to measure team performance based on statistical analysis. nERD assigns teams a rating on a scale of 0-100, with 50 being the league average. This season, West teams had an average nERD of 53.90 compared to 46.24 for East teams. Looking at just the playoff teams, the West’s top eight had an average nERD of 64.39 compared to 54.46 for the East’s postseason squads. In 13 of the last 14 years, the West has had a higher average team nERD than the East (with 2009 being the lone exception).

nerd1

And the head-to-head numbers aren’t pretty either. Western Conference teams went 263-187 in games against Eastern Conference teams this year. This is the 15th time in the last 16 seasons (and the sixth consecutive year) that the West has had the better head-to-head record versus the East, according to Cleveland.com.

There’s also the fact that the West has many more stars. Yes, the East has LeBron James, who’s arguably the best player on the planet, as well as John Wall, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Derrick Rose (when healthy) and Dwyane Wade (although he’s clearly declining) among others. But take a look at this year’s NBA end-of-season awards and it’s pretty clear which conference has more star power.

In the voting for the Most Valuable Player award, 10 of the 11 vote-getters played in the West: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson. The lone exception was LeBron James.

In the voting for the three All-NBA teams, 12 of the 15 players selected were from the West: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan. The only East players were LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Pau Gasol.

In voting for Defensive Player of the Year honors, the top eight vote-getters were from the West: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut, Tony Allen and Tim Duncan. There wasn’t a single East player who received a first-place vote.

In the voting for the two All-Defensive teams, eight of the 10 players honored were from the West: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Andrew Bogut and Tim Duncan. Jimmy Butler and John Wall were the lone East players who were honored.

This doesn’t even include other West household names such as Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Damian Lillard and Dirk Nowitzki among others. And let’s not forget that the West’s pool of stars may continue expanding in a few years, as 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins continues to develop and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor could join the conference since the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers have the top two picks in the 2015 NBA Draft.

The difficult road to a championship is an understandable reason for a player to switch conferences, but the number of stars could influence that decision too. It’s harder for a player to build their brand or earn individual accolades (which often trigger contract bonuses) when they’re surrounded by so many star-caliber players. One agent who has prospects in the 2015 NBA Draft is privately hoping his clients don’t end up out West for this very reason.

“Players absolutely want to be in the East,” said one NBA agent who asked to remain anonymous. “[The conference disparity] affects the All-Star teams too. I want my kids in this year’s draft to get selected by Eastern Conference teams.”

Also, with the NBA’s salary cap set to rise significantly next summer due to the new television rights deal, just about every team will have substantial cap space. That means players will have plenty of options to team up in the East if that’s where they’d like to go. Some star players have already casually discussed the possibility of forming a new super-team together once the cap rises, according to league sources, and it’s possible that squad could decide to assemble in the East for strategic reasons.

Even though we could see some notable players cross the country in the near future, don’t expect a mass exodus from the West. As one player noted, that wouldn’t solve anything.

“I could see players leaving the West, but not if too many stars to go the East,” said the player, who has played in both conferences. “If too many stars switch, then the East is really tough and you have the same problem. Personally, though, I believe the top 16 teams should be in the playoffs instead of going by conferences.”

This idea to ignore the conferences and just allow the teams with the best records into the postseason has been discussed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and it seems that he’s strongly considering it.

“Ultimately we want to see your best teams in the playoffs,” Silver recently said to Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area. “And there is an unbalance and a certain unfairness. There is a proposal… where the division winners would all automatically go into the playoffs and then you’d seed the next 10 best teams. I think that’s the kind of proposal we need to look at. There are travel issues, of course, but in this day and age every team of course has their own plane, travels charter. I don’t think the discussion should end there. And as I’ve said, my first year I was studying a lot of these issues and year two is time to take action. It’s something I’m going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it’s an area where we need to make a change.”

It’s worth noting that not all agents believe quality players will start fleeing Western Conference teams due to the competition from both teams and individuals. This agent feels that, in most cases, players are much more concerned about themselves when they’re weighing their free agency options (and several other league sources echoed this sentiment as well).

“I think players will always go where they can personally benefit the most,” said one NBA agent, who spoke off the record. “They’ll focus on what’s best financially first, and then on basketball second. Even if the money is equal, I think they’d go to the team where they can play the most. I think money and playing time will always impact a player’s decision more than whether they’re in the East or West. The one exception is the veteran who has money and is chasing a ring; I could see him favoring East teams.”

One executive pointed out that we may not see players make the switch from the West to the East until LeBron James retires. James has now been to five straight NBA Finals, so while there are fewer contenders at the top of the East, getting past James is very difficult (just ask the Bulls).

At the end of the day, factors like the money, city, market size, playing time, weather, management, teammate relationships and lack of state income tax will always impact a player’s move.

However, it’s possible that a team’s conference could play a role (even if it’s just a slight one) in the decision-making process going forward. Just as the Bulls brought it up in their pitch to Anthony, teams that are looking for any possible edge in recruiting will certainly include this among other things as they attempt to land free agents.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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