War­riors’ path gets tougher, Cavs’ even eas­ier

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - tim.bon­temps@wash­post.com

Golden State steam­rolled through the West­ern Con­fer­ence this spring, with the ad­di­tion of Kevin Du­rant to a team that had won an NBArecord 73 games the pre­vi­ous sea­son mak­ing the War­riors ev­ery bit as dom­i­nant as ex­pected.

The run to their sec­ond NBA ti­tle in three sea­sons leaves the West’s 14 other teams with a choice: de­lay try­ing to con­tend un­til Golden State be­gins to fall off — and who knows when that will be — or ramp up ef­forts to com­pete with the War­riors. The past few weeks have made clear the way the West has re­sponded.

First it was Jimmy But­ler get­ting traded from the Chicago Bulls to the Min­nesota Tim­ber­wolves on draft night to play along­side Karl-An­thony Towns and Andrew Wig­gins. Then it was Chris Paul get­ting traded Tues­day to the Hous­ton Rock­ets, where he will be paired with James Harden, be­fore Paul Ge­orge was stun­ningly sent to the Oklahoma City Thun­der late Fri­day, giv­ing Rus­sell West­brook the co-star he lost when Du­rant left a year ago.

Sud­denly, the star-rich West­ern Con­fer­ence has added two more all-stars from the East — and that doesn’t in­clude Paul Mill­sap, an all-star with the At­lanta Hawks in each of the past three sea­sons who is ex­pected to sign with the Tim­ber­wolves, Den­ver Nuggets or Phoenix Suns in the next few days.

The arms race for the West is in full swing. And the Eastern Con­fer­ence — other than the Cleve­land Cava­liers — again looks hope­lessly over­matched.

There has been plenty of talk in re­cent weeks that Le­Bron James, who will be back in free

agency a year from now, would con­sider head­ing West to play for the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers, po­ten­tially with Ge­orge as a run­ning mate. But why would James — one of the smartest play­ers to step onto a court, not to men­tion one of the most pow­er­ful — will­ingly walk into the cru­cible of the West­ern Con­fer­ence play­offs when he can con­tinue to have ba­si­cally an un­ob­structed path to the NBA Fi­nals in the East?

The more sur­pris­ing thing is that no one else seems will­ing to take that same mind-set. Per­haps Gor­don Hay­ward, the all-star for­ward for the Utah Jazz, will choose to head east. He met with the Mi­ami Heat on Satur­day and is meet­ing with the Bos­ton Celtics on Sun­day be­fore re­con­ven­ing with the Jazz on Mon­day and mak­ing a de­ci­sion.

But what if Hay­ward stays in Utah? Sud­denly three more al­ls­tars would be in the West, with none go­ing to the East. And sim­ply the prospect of mak­ing the West­ern Con­fer­ence play­offs — let alone ad­vanc­ing deep into them — be­comes daunt­ing.

The War­riors still will be the heavy fa­vorites to re­turn to the NBA Fi­nals with Du­rant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Dray­mond Green. Then comes a tier of teams in­clud­ing the Rock­ets, Thun­der, Jazz (as­sum­ing Hay­ward stays) and San An­to­nio Spurs, who un­doubt­edly will win an­other 50-plus games be­cause that’s what they do.

Then there is an­other glut of teams, in­clud­ing the Tim­ber­wolves (who could even move into a higher tier if Mill­sap goes there), Jazz (if Hay­ward leaves), Los An­ge­les Clip­pers, Port­land Trail Blaz­ers, Mem­phis Griz­zlies, New Or­leans Pel­i­cans and Den­ver Nuggets all fight­ing for the spots in the back half of the con­fer­ence play­off pic­ture.

Even the teams at the bot­tom of the con­fer­ence — likely the Dal­las Mav­er­icks, un­less they, too, strike big in free agency, along with the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Lak­ers — all should be bet­ter, re­gard­less of how many times they lose ugly games against su­pe­rior teams above them in the stand­ings.

Com­pare that to what’s hap­pen­ing in the East. The Celtics had dreams of pair­ing Hay­ward and Ge­orge in Bos­ton to make a run at the Cava­liers but in­stead may strike out on both — and then have to face an un­com­fort­able de­ci­sion on what to do with Isa­iah Thomas when his con­tract ex­pires next sum­mer. The Toronto Rap­tors are ex­pected to keep both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka (who hap­pen to be rep­re­sented by the same agent, Andy Miller), but that leaves them with a core mostly headed in the wrong di­rec­tion. And the Wash­ing­ton Wizards, de­spite the wishes of John Wall, did not land Ge­orge and still have the un­cer­tain fu­ture of Otto Porter Jr. to deal with — and couldn’t beat the Celtics last year, any­way.

Af­ter that? Three of the four re­main­ing play­off teams in the East — the At­lanta Hawks, In­di­ana Pac­ers and Bulls — are shift­ing into full re­builds. And oth­ers with seem­ingly de­fined ceil­ings as lower-tier play­off teams — such as Mi­ami, the Detroit Pis­tons and the Char­lotte Hor­nets — are set to re­place them. The New York Knicks, Brook­lyn Nets and Or­lando Magic all re­main in re­builds, and while the Philadel­phia 76ers are brim­ming with young tal­ent, it seems like it will be at least a year be­fore they’re a le­git­i­mate fac­tor in the East — as­sum­ing their tal­ented young play­ers, such as Joel Em­biid and Ben Sim­mons, can stay healthy.

all that, it’s hard to see how James can do any­thing but laugh at his com­pe­ti­tion for the next few years, hav­ing a leisurely waltz through the play­offs — bar­ring in­jury, of course — and to more Fi­nals trips for as long as he re­mains in the East or un­til ei­ther a team such as the 76ers or Mil­wau­kee Bucks grows up or one such as the Celtics or the Wizards can add a few more pieces (for in­stance, the Wizards get­ting their hands on Wall’s col­lege team­mate, DeMar­cus Cousins, next sum­mer).

Mean­while, the West play­offs will be the NBA’s ver­sion of the Hunger Games, with each se­ries hav­ing the po­ten­tial to be­come a to­tal slugfest — even if the War­riors are deemed to be a sig­nif­i­cant step ahead of the pack.

Such is life in the NBA’s West­ern Con­fer­ence, where teams have de­cided that they aren’t go­ing to cede ground to the War­riors. In the process, they are com­bin­ing to leave the East in the dust again.

EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES

Gor­don Hay­ward is one all-star who is con­sid­er­ing teams in the Eastern Con­fer­ence, meet­ing with the Heat and the Celtics.

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