Through bad luck, foolish trades and big-time defections, the NBA Eastern Conference has become a punching bag and a bad punch line in the...
WASHINGTON — Through bad luck, foolish trades and big-time defections, the NBA Eastern Conference has become a punching bag and a bad punch line in the years since Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls in 1998.
The East has been called the “Leastern Conference,” the “NB Double-A” and the junior varsity. Despite Detroit and Miami winning league championships in two of the past four years, the perception of the conference failed to improve.
After pingpong balls determined that Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas forward Kevin Durant, the two best college players last season, were headed to the Pacific Northwest, and the San Antonio Spurs pounded the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the chances for an East Coast revival this decade appeared hopeless … until last week, when Kevin Garnett — a 10-time All-Star for Minnesota — lifted a green Boston Celtics jersey.
The blockbuster trade that sent Garnett from the Timberwolves to the most storied franchise in league history potentially changed the pecking order in the East, turning the Celtics into an instant contender. It was the pinnacle of a summer in which several elite players have moved East.
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“I don’t think it’s the junior varsity anymore,” said Rod Thorn, New Jersey president of basketball operations. “The East got a lot tougher.”
Seven-time All-Star Ray Allen was traded to Boston from the Sonics; Zach Randolph was dealt from Portland to New York; Jason Richardson was shipped from Golden State to Charlotte. Rashard Lewis, perhaps the hottest commodity in free agency, left the Sonics to sign with Orlando.
“It’s going to be a real fight over here this year,” Thorn said. “Garnett is one of the best players in the league. Allen is one of the best offensive players in the league. Lewis is an All-Star.”
On his NBA.com blog, Washington guard Gilbert Arenas said, “The rest of us in the Eastern Conference got to get our grind on now.”
The East retained some top free agents, such as Detroit’s Chauncey Billups and New Jersey’s Vince Carter.
“The East is healthier than it’s been in a few years,” Thorn said. “It was only a matter of time. That happens when you’re in the doggone lottery every year.”