[This article was updated after publication to reflect Paul Millsap’s reported decision to sign with the Denver Nuggets.]
Dear NBA free agents,
I hope this letter finds you well — all of you, from Gordon Hayward and Kyle Lowry, to Ramon Sessions and K.J. McDaniels. And considering we live in a world where Jrue Holiday just signed a $126 million contract, I’m sure you’re feeling positive about your choice of profession right now. You get to pick which team will give you a large sum of money to play basketball, and I’m here to tell you why you should pick a team from the Eastern Conference.
As you know, the Eastern Conference is trash. It has been for many years — the only time this millennium the East went over .500 head-to-head with the West was in 2008–09. The top seed in the East hasn’t had a better record than the West’s top seed since the year before LeBron left the Heat; the worst team in the league has been in the East five of the past seven years. The West hasn’t had a sub-.500 playoff team since the 1997 Clippers snuck in at 36–46, while the East has had 12 sub-.500 playoff teams since then.
And this year, the East was as bad as it’s ever been. The Celtics were the "best team" despite winning just 53 games and having a historically low point differential for a top seed, and they still couldn’t compete with the Cavs. There was one good team and a lot of chaff.
The opening salvos of the NBA offseason have made it even weaker. Indiana and Chicago traded away their All-Stars, Paul George and Jimmy Butler, to Western Conference teams for pennies on the dollar. There was talk of both players joining the Celtics or the Cavaliers. Danny Ainge was a suitor for both players, but couldn’t pull the trigger on either, holding on to future assets instead. Former Cavs GM David Griffin was reportedly working on a deal for Butler when he got fired, and the Cavs reportedly had a deal for George worked out Friday night — but Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard decided he wouldn’t trade his team’s star to an Eastern Conference opponent, ending up with a worse deal thus preserving the low level of competition out East. And Paul Millsap has left the Hawks for the Nuggets.
The West will get more stacked. The Rockets have added Chris Paul to James Harden; the Spurs had interest in Andre Iguodala before he reupped with Golden State, and would like to add someone on his level; the Thunder now have George to take some of the load off of Russell Westbrook; the Timberwolves look like an actual basketball team with an All-Star in Butler to go alongside exceptional youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, plus a point guard who can space the floor in Jeff Teague; the Nuggets added a pivotal piece to a team that missed the playoffs by just one game; and the Warriors remain the Warriors.
This is where you come in.
You can make the playoffs in the East! The Pacers and Bulls held down the last two spots last year, and just traded away their pivotally important stars for next to nothing. It’s hard to imagine either team contending. The Hawks were the 5-seed, but finished just two games clear of the ninth spot, and might not be a playoff team without Millsap. Who’s going to fill those spots? The Heat barely missed the playoffs, and after that were the Pistons and Hornets. The Pistons’ leading scorer this past year was Tobias Harris, and they’re a playoff contender now. The Hornets are Kemba Walker and late-era Dwight Howard and a bunch of guys Michael Jordan saw playing in one college game, and they’re a playoff contender now. Anybody who is not aggressively awful in the East is a playoff contender. Meanwhile, out West, there’s a team with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis that might end up as the 10th seed. Are those Timberwolves going to make the playoffs with Butler alongside the fun kids? I hope so, but I also wouldn’t bet on it.
In an ideal world, the NBA would switch to an unconferenced system and just have the teams with the best 16 records make the playoffs. It wouldn’t have made a difference this year, but several times in past years, it would have. In 2014, the Hawks made the playoffs at 38–44 while the Suns sat home at 48–34; in 2015, the Nets scraped in at 38–44, while the Thunder went fishing at 45–37.
You can be an All-Star in the East. Three spots on the squad are opening up with the departures of George, Butler, and Millsap, who alternated starting spots the last two years. Did you know Paul Millsap has been on the Eastern Conference All-Star team four straight years, and nobody even thinks it’s weird? Paul Millsap! He’s fine, but, should he really be a lock for it, no questions asked? He likely won’t make the team in the West, but in the East, he’s a no-doubter. Carmelo Anthony has had his worst seasons in over a decade for flailing Knicks teams, and he can’t miss the All-Star Game. The best player in the Eastern Conference not on the Cavaliers is quite possibly Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he doesn’t even know how to shoot a basketball. Meanwhile, out West, Damian Lillard averaged 27 points per game and couldn’t get an invite.
By rule, they have to put together an Eastern Conference All-Star team, and I have no idea who’s going to be on it. Dion Waiters? Whichever Sixers youngster manages to be healthy this year (if one of them manages to be healthy)? You might flip on the TV in February and see a damn Plumlee in the All-Star Game. Don’t let this happen. In the East, you might make the team by accident.
Do you like New York? Of course you do; every NBA player does. Well, listen to this: If you sign in the East, you get to come to New York at least four times a year and play the awful teams that play there. Why spend your time criss-crossing Texas to get walloped by the Spurs and Rockets when you could be partying at 1 OAK and beating the garbage Nets in a hungover daze?
Life is easier in the East. The good teams aren’t murderous, the mediocre teams are often bad, and the bad teams are expensive YMCA squads. You’re not going to win the Finals, but let’s be honest: Unless the Warriors or Cavs tapped you on the shoulder and offered you a minimum contract, you weren’t going to win anyway. Somebody has to win games in the Eastern Conference — and I think it should be you.