They may have been crying in Cleveland on Sunday night, but fans of the other 14 teams in the Eastern Conference had cause for celebration.
LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cavaliers and sign a four-year, $153.3-million deal with the Lakers not only makes the Lakers relevant again but completely changes the landscape in the East, where James’ presence was an insurmountable roadblock to the NBA Finals for eight years.
James has been to the Finals eight straight seasons, four with the Heat and four with the Cavs. His departure paves the way for teams such as the Celtics, 76ers and even the Raptors, if they get their act together, to reach the Finals.
The Celtics, who came within a victory of defeating James and the Cavaliers in the playoffs despite not having Kyrie Irving, now are the favorite to win the East. Westgate SuperBook gave identical 7-2 odds to the Lakers and Celtics to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy next season. Both are far behind the Warriors, who sit at 10-11.
But it’s not just the elite teams that have cause for celebration in the East. Any team with one All-Star and a decent supporting cast now has a shot to make the playoffs. With Kristaps Porzingis rehabbing an ACL tear, the Knicks don’t really have much hope, but if things break right for the Nets, they might be able to sneak in.
That’s just how bad the East is. The West now has the best teams and most of the best players. With James playing for the Lakers, six of the league’s top seven scorers from last season are in the West, with the Bucks’ Giannis Anteto kounm po the East’s only representative.
Though Knicks fans long dreamed of James playing his home games at Madison Square Garden, his departure to the West means only good things for their team. It has the potential to kick their rebuild into high gear.
The Knicks have been setting themselves up to be major players in the 2019 free-agent market. Now the addition of one quality player — say, Irving — to a team that includes a healthy Porzingis suddenly would give the Knicks enough to be a contender in the East.
Of course, the biggest impact James’ defection could have is a change in the playoff system. You’re going to hear a lot of people crying that NBA commissioner Adam Silver needs to reconfigure the playoff picture. He hinted this past season that the league might take a look at the East-West format in the playoffs. The idea of taking the top eight teams from each conference and seeding them 1-16 based on overall record continues to get kicked around. The other option, if reform is the goal, is to ignore conference affiliation completely, taking the 16 best teams from the regular season.
This would be a little shortsighted and would mess with a system that tends to correct itself over time. The relative strength of the two conferences has long been cyclical — remember when no one could beat Michael Jordan and the Bulls? — and the fact that the West is so loaded with top teams really hasn’t hurt viewership in the past couple of years.
Nor will the fact that James probably won’t make it to the Finals next season. His rebuilding of the Lakers — who are riding a five-year playoff drought, which ties the longest in franchise history — will be a compelling narrative that lasts multiple seasons. And it will be a narrative that a lot of people want to watch.
Yes, there were plenty of losers and winners in James’ free-agency move. The Cavaliers, now at 300-1 odds to win the Finals, are the biggest losers. The Lakers, of course, are the biggest winners. But the 14 teams not named Cleveland in the Eastern Conference have a chance to end up as winners, too.