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NBA Saturday: The Declining Eastern Conference

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Lost amidst the Woj bombs and flashy moves during what is already an offseason packed with surprises — a mere 19 days after the Golden State Warriors won a second NBA championship in three seasons — is an ominous subtext for the East. With the Chicago Bulls trading franchise centerpiece Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to the draft and the Indiana Pacers shockingly sending Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder mere hours before today’s start of free agency, the Eastern Conference is experiencing a major talent drain.

That exodus of talent from the East to the West may not be over. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported before the start of free agency that a source close to Paul Millsap says the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves have emerged as frontrunners for the free agent power forward who made four All-Star appearances with the Atlanta Hawks. Sacramento and Phoenix are also in the mix, according to Isola’s tweet, so a move to the West could be in the works for another of the Eastern Conference’s best players.

If Millsap truly is Minnesota-bound, his former Hawks teammate Jeff Teague already beat him to the spot by agreeing to a three-year, $57 million contract with the Timberwolves, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Teague adds to the pile of former All-Stars moving West. Wojnarowski also broke the news this morning that Jrue Holiday has agreed to a five-year, $126 million deal to remain in New Orleans with the Pelicans. Holiday represented an opportunity for the Eastern Conference to get a former All-Star back from the West, but that door is now closed.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, who broke the George trade, subsequently went on SportCenter to present a possible explanation for why the East is getting beat up during the current offseason. The George trade, which sent former Indiana Hoosier Victor Oladipo back to Indianapolis along with Domantas Sabonis, left many scratching their heads. The Boston Celtics were rumored to have made a massive offer for George, including multiple first round picks and one or more starting players. However, Shelburne said she heard the Pacers didn’t want to trade George to an Eastern Conference rival.

Boston and Chicago’s loss has been Timberwolves coach and GM Tom Thibodeau’s gain as he seeks to surround young centerpieces Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins with veteran stars. Thibodeau has already made a case as the early frontrunner for executive of the year, and he may not be done. Minnesota currently lacks the cap space to offer Millsap a max contract. Thibodeau got the Wolves closer to achieving that space by trading Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz yesterday for a top-14 protected first round pick in 2018, as reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon. Longtime Timberwolves beat writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune Jerry Zgoda tweeted a suggestion for how Minnesota could finish the job:

If Minnesota is truly that desperate to open space for Millsap — and Atlanta is ready to move on from him — the Hawks would be wise to make sure those outgoing assets are headed to Atlanta. Aldrich has two years remaining on his contract but only about $2 million of that is guaranteed for 2018-19. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk could likewise attempt to pry promising Serbian power forward Nemanja Bjelica away from the Timberwolves. Bjelica has struggled with injuries in his two seasons in Minnesota but won EuroLeague MVP in 2015. Such a scenario could be Atlanta’s last chance to avoid losing Millsap for nothing as it did with Al Horford in free agency last summer.

With Chicago, Indiana and possibly Atlanta on the decline, there could be a 50-win team that misses the playoffs in the West and a fifth or sixth seed in the East with a sub-.500 record next season. One beneficiary of the drop off for those Eastern teams could be the Charlotte Hornets, which missed the playoffs last season. Two of the biggest issues for the Hornets were the lack of athleticism and rim protection at the center position and the lack of reliable production from backup point guard Ramon Sessions. The Hornets justifiably declined Sessions’ team option, as reported by Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. The team might see a major upgrade at the position from former Kentucky gunner Malik Monk, who could be one of the steals of the draft.

Be sure to bookmark Basketball Insiders’ Free Agency Diary and Free Agency Tracker to see if the trend continues of top talent heading to the Western Conference. This imbalance between the conferences is a frequent topic of debate regarding the state of the NBA, and 2017 free agency has only made the divide greater.

Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.

About Buddy Grizzard

Buddy Grizzard

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.