Evaluating the strength of the two NBA conferences has been a relatively easy task for about the last 15 years. It has not a question of which conference is better; it has been a question of, just how much better is the West than the East?
While the Leastern Conference has snuck in a couple championships during the last few years––courtesy of LeBron James and the Miami Heat––the depth of the conference overall has paled in comparison to the West (or Bestern Conference, if you want to keep with rhyming, qualitative nicknames).
After the arms race of every offseason, the East hopes that it has made enough big moves to close that gap, but each year, it seems like a new team steps up, ready to be a giant disappointment in a new and exciting way, from the Knicks to the Nets to the Heat.
So will this be the offseason when the East pulls even with the West? It’s hard to say. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, clearly the two best teams in the conference by the end of the playoffs, basically stood pat and decided to run things back with their same squads, although Chicago did hire Fred Hoiberg to replace the departed Tom Thibodeau. And the Atlanta Hawks, last season’s number-one playoff seed, lost DeMarre Carroll to the Toronto Raptors, and he was their best player during the Eastern Conference Finals when Cleveland swept Atlanta.
One thing you actually can say is that the conference should be improved overall this year, even if one of those teams mentioned––or the Washington Wizards, last year’s other top-four team in the East––takes a step back. There are a host of teams ready to take their spot. Some of the teams are works-in-progress, maybe a year away from competing or thinking about being a year away from competing, but some smarter spending should lead to progress for a few teams next year. Here’s a look at a trio of (potentially) greatly improved teams from a year ago in the East.
Key moves: Re-signed Khris Middleton; Signed Greg Monroe; Drafted Rashad Vaughn; Traded for Greivis Vasquez from Toronto
The Bucks didn’t have to make a ton of moves this offseason to improve a lot. In fact, they moved pretty quietly, agreeing with Middleton in the early hours of free-agency negotiations, then snatching Greg Monroe while other interested teams were more fixated on chasing bigger names.
Keeping Middleton around was necessary for Milwaukee, as he was their best perimeter scorer last season and the perfect fit for Jason Kidd’s pan-positional basketball system, since he can easily play three positions thanks to his length and shooting ability. He’s still only 23 years old, and with a sharp mind for the game, there’s a good chance he continues to improve. Plus, he has been vocally enthusiastic about the team and city, which is a big deal for smaller market teams.
Meanwhile, Monroe gives the Bucks a proven scoring presence that they completely lacked last season when they were among the bottom-five teams in the league in offensive rating at 100.5, according to NBA Stats. That will change with Monroe, who is a beast on the block, willing to put in the work and get 20 points a night. He has been stuck in difficult playing situations for the last two seasons in Detroit, so he should benefit greatly from being the central scoring presence on a team that needs it. Even better, no team is better-suited to hide Monroe’s deficiencies on defense than Milwaukee, who has enough team length to reach the moon and back.
You never know what you’re going to get from rookies, but Rashad Vaughn was a pretty good shooter during his lone season at UNLV and has been billed as a quality gunner all-around during the draft process, off the dribble or off the catch. The Bucks need shooting to improve their spacing around Monroe and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Vaughn doesn’t have to make a ton of threes, just enough to command defensive respect and open up the floor a little bit, to be an asset off the bench for Milwaukee.
Last, trading a first-round pick for Greivis Vasquez is hard to defend, since he has been an underwhelming starter throughout his career. However, it’s a clear sign the Bucks are aiming to take a big step forward, since Vasquez is an established veteran who can shoot and distribute.
Key moves: Signed DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, and Bismack Biyombo; Traded Vasquez to Milwaukee for a future first-round pick, Drafted Delon Wright
The Raptors face-planted into the playoffs last season, falling out of the top half of the East to lose home-court advantage just before the playoffs then getting swept by the Wizards in the first round. It was an embarrassing showing, and GM Masai Ujiri aggressively tried to change that this offseason.
First, he stole Carroll away from the Hawks by paying him at a $15 million per-year clip when Atlanta was busy trying to deal with Paul Millsap’s max offer sheet from the Orlando Magic. It’s a bit of an overpay, but Carroll is a defensive stud who can shoot the three and provide strong leadership and experience. All of those skills would have been valuable assets when Toronto was stumbling late last season.
Then, he took a chance on both Joseph and Biyombo. Joseph has played sparingly though impressively at times without Tony Parker for the San Antonio Spurs the last few seasons. The way Gregg Popovich deploys his lineups makes it hard to glean much from Joseph’s on/off numbers, but he’s shown the ability to play in this league, and that, along with his age and Spurs pedigree, make him a good flyer for the Raptors as a backup point guard.
Biyombo’s utility is simple: he gives you nothing on offense and protects the rim at elite levels on defense. The Raptors have a lot of firepower in smaller lineups, so Biyombo could suit them as a designated defense-only big guy in those situations.
Key moves: Re-signing Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, and Luol Deng; Signing Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire; Drafted Justise Winslow
When you’re Pat Riley, you’re always Pat Riley, which means good things just happen to you always. The Heat had a blessed offseason, convincing the perennially underpaid Dwyane Wade to stick around on a one-year, $20 million deal and still managing to keep Goran Dragic and Luol Deng around. Miami was intent on keeping the former, while the latter was a nice surprise. The three of them will all start for the Heat next season, along with Chris Bosh, who will be returning after missing most of last season due to a blood clot near his lungs.
At the draft, March Madness darling Justise Winslow fell right into Riley’s lap, and the Heat boss wasted no time in taking him. Winslow measured a bit undersized at the combine and hasn’t shown a consistent jumpshot, however, based on those characteristics, there’s no better mentor for him than Wade. He also showed great poise in March, so there’s a chance he could be a decent bench contributor for the Heat.
Even if he’s not, Miami beefed up that area as well, inking Green and Stoudemire to cheap veteran deals for a chance to compete. Both bring scoring punch and the ability to get up and down the floor for a team that still likes to run. They don’t make the Heat any less-creaky in terms of age, but if this team can even stay remotely healthy, they’re going to make some noise in the East next season.