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The East Has Fallen Off the Map

The East Has Fallen Off the Map


News Alert: N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver has announced the dissolution of the league’s Eastern Conference on grounds of terminal lack of competitiveness and profound irrelevance.

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers will headline the newly created More or Less Competitive Conference, joined by Indiana, Toronto, Milwaukee and perhaps Villanova University.

The Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls will be relegated to the EuroLeague, the most competitive of the Old World conferences. The Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons will join the lesser EuroCup league, as will the Charlotte Hornets pursuant to a court order severing Michael Jordan from all team decision-making.

The asteroid hole in the Earth called the Cleveland Cavaliers will be assigned to the Central Asia Basketball Association, and Silver regrets that the team’s mid-February swing through Kazakhstan-Tajikistan-Turkmenistan will impose inevitable burdens.

The New York Knicks will be dissolved, Madison Square Garden razed, and salt sown into 33rd Street earth for 1,000 years. The Rangers can find ice somewhere else.

LeBron James’s decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers puts an exclamation mark on a two-decade-long migration of highly talented players toward the West Coast. Families in covered wagons and gold prospectors once moved west toward the setting sun. Now, tall and talented people board flights and head that way.

Western Conference dominance is a principle as well established as gravity. Seven winners of the league’s Most Valuable Player Award are still active in the N.B.A., and all of them labor for Western Conference teams. Four of the last five N.B.A. champions hail from the Western Conference. The only exception came in 2016, when James conducted a séance and raised his Cavaliers from the three-games-to-one dead and beat the Golden State Warriors.

Western Conference teams have won 12 of the last 18 championships. Every player on the last four All-N.B.A. first teams now plays on a Western Conference team.

Mine is not intended as East Coast caterwauling. I reserved that for my Knicks until I came to realize that there is no God, or at least not one who cares to help James Dolan.

Imbalance is a fact of N.B.A. life. Basketball fans girdle the globe, and the internet and a thousand cable N.B.A. channels have rendered loyalties mutable. In Norway, a couple of Scandinavian fans once asked me if I could send them a few Warriors jerseys — such threads are prohibitively expensive in downtown Oslo. A few years back I sat in the marbled-cool shadows of the Amber Palace outside Jaipur and talked Spurs hoops and Popovich with a couple of Indian teenagers.

Still, perhaps because I sit in sweaty New York City rather than on a rise overlooking the glimmering Pacific, this imbalance strikes me as unfortunate. The reign of the Warriors symbolizes western dominance. I much enjoyed the Warriors’ first championship team, as it played a brand of basketball that was fresh and beautiful and cut across the sky like a zephyr. Kevin Durant is a wondrous talent, but when the Warriors added this 7-foot star, who can do a 360-degree spin and drain 25-foot jumpers without a second thought, the team began to feel like a platter overladen with rich cakes.

The news this week that DeMarcus Cousins, the 7-foot center, has joined the Warriors on a one-year contract registers as too much, cubed.

Some argue, in the aggrieved tones of courtiers, that to question Warrior dominance is a sign of impoverishment. Doncha appreciate greatness?

This is silliness. Any great sport is defined by its greatest rivalries. Yankees-Red Sox is blood sport and great fun, as is Cubs-Cardinals or Braves-Mets (I acknowledge this rivalry existed more so in the fevered reaches of the brains of Mets fans).

As a New Yorker, I grew up praying fervently that the Boston Celtics would lose every game they played. Yet I loved the spit-in-the-eye N.B.A. finals clashes between the Celtics of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson and the Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. By the end of those series, I almost did not care which team won.

The action has moved for the immediate future to the Western Conference. And there’s beautiful hooping to be found, from the elegant San Antonio Spurs to the Utah Jazz (my favorite oxymoronic team name) and the splendid Donovan Mitchell. Then there are the Houston Rockets, whose odd combination of ball-dominant guard stars, James Harden and Chris Paul, and all those hard-working role players, pushed the Warriors to the seven-game limit in the conference finals. Had Paul not pulled his hamstring, the N.B.A. championship trophy might now sit in Houston.

The Lakers are an odder deal, not the least because James arrives at a new team with work crews on his heels, set to rehabilitate the joint. When he returned to Cleveland, he hinted that he would be content to play sensei to the young talent, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins and Dion Waiters. Within a couple of weeks, all save Irving were calling moving companies.

The Lakers already have added JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson, the N.B.A.’s own king of oddness, and Rajon Rondo, whose court sense is brilliant, whose personality is a prickly pear and whose jump shot is nonexistent. Young Lonzo Ball is still on the roster, lugging behind him the dead weight of the always talking LaVar Ball. This could be a blast, and it could be a bad acid trip.

Maybe the Celtics will surprise us. Maybe Jayson Tatum will take a jump into the stratosphere and Irving (knee) and Gordon Hayward (ankle) will come back healthy, mow through the Eastern Conference and upset those loaded Warriors.

Maybe.

Me, I’m planning to take in that Cavaliers-Astana game in Kazakhstan next January. With luck, the Cavaliers will pull it out.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of one former N.B.A. player and the surname of another. They are Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish, not Denis Johnson and Robert Parrish.

Email: powellm@nytimes.com



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