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The Western Migration Of NBA Talent

Gary A. Vazquez - USA TODAY Sports

The flow of talented All-Stars moving from the East to the West has been the most important outcome of this year’s NBA offseason.

Through the first month of the NBA offseason, there has been an unmistakable change to the balance of the league. In some offseasons, a single star like Kevin Durant or LeBron James can change the league’s balance of power on their own; but this year, a group of players has created that change together.

There has been a flood of Eastern Conference talent leaving to play in the West. Former Eastern Conference All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Paul Millsap, Brook Lopez, and Jeff Teague all either left their Eastern homes via free agency or were traded to a team in the West. If you throw in Chris Paul choosing to go to Houston, then nearly every star player rumored to be changing teams not named Gordon Hayward, ended up in the Western Conference.

For years now, the East has struggled to field reliable, mid-level playoff teams and this summer will only enhance those problems. Of the four teams who lost in the first round of the East Playoffs last season, only Milwaukee has made it this far into the offseason with their best player still on the roster. With so much talent leaving an already limited Eastern Conference, the league has become as unbalanced as ever.

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Andy King - Associated Press

When you look at all of the players changing teams this offseason, the talent imbalance is clear; fourteen players will be playing with a different team this upcoming season after finishing last season with a PER of 17 or greater. A month ago, eight of those players played in the West and six in the East; today, the West has 12 and the East only two. The lone pair of remaining East representatives are 31-year-old Dwight Howard and Boston-bound Gordon Hayward.

Even once you get past that top group, the trend remains clear. This chart lays out the 25 players who changed teams this offseason and hold a career PER above 15, and their win shares from last season. The players in red are now in the West and those in blue are now in the East.

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While the West’s 17-to-8 edge says a lot on its own, the quality of those players is striking as well. While Paul and Butler separate themselves, Howard and Hayward do hold their own. But once you get past those top four players, there are nearly a dozen more West representatives before the next Eastern Conference player.

If you then only look at the players who switched conferences, the disparity becomes even more important. The top five career PERs of players who went from East to West belonged to George, Butler, Millsap, Lopez, and Teague. The five best who went from the West to East were Hayward, Darren Collison, JJ Redick, D’Angelo Russell, and Zach LaVine. This is how those two groups of five compare in a few important stats.


Last Season PERCareer PERLast Season Win SharesTotal All Stars
East -> West20.519.18.113
West -> East16.415.64.81

On its own, this disparity wouldn’t be a huge problem, but it only adds to an already unbalanced system that has existed for years. While the East is losing a handful of its few All-Star-caliber veterans, the West is adding to a surplus.

Today, 12 of the 15 highest win shares and 11 of the 13 highest VORP totals from last year are in the West. They are joined by nine of the 13 players who scored at least 25 points-per-game and seven of the 10 top assist men from last season. If you go back and look at ESPN’s #playerrank from last November, 13 of their 14 best players in the entire league are now in the Western Conference.

While tweets like that make fun of a frankly ridiculous situation, they also point to a fundamental cause. The western movement of a third of the East’s 2017 All-Stars can, at least in part, be traced back to LeBron’s nearly decade-long stranglehold of the Eastern Conference.

For seven straight seasons the East has tried and failed to beat a LeBron-led team in the playoffs and, at this point, some have probably lost hope. Those middling teams with second-tier stars have only two real options: either make the playoffs with little hope of competing for a title or trade away that star in the hopes of a more promising, LeBron-less future.

While teams like Milwaukee and Philadelphia have their path towards title contention, teams like Chicago, Indiana, and Atlanta decided to course correct. The problem became that nearly the entire conference came to that conclusion at the same time. Those few East teams with assets were reluctant to cash them in, leaving only Boston and Cleveland in the East to bid for the likes of George and Butler. The problem for the Cavs and Celtics was, as it turns out, that teams out West didn’t hold the same trepidation.

Many assumed the Warriors’ dominance would hold the same effect on the West as LeBron’s has on the East, but several teams saw an opportunity. The dramatically diminished market for these players meant their cost had fallen to just pennies on the dollar.

Four months ago no one would have thought a package of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and a pick swap would be anywhere near enough to land Butler; nor that Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis would be enough to entice Indiana for George. Minnesota and OKC saw that the league’s conventional wisdom had swung so far towards planning four or five years for the future, that winning now became undervalued.

If the rumored Carmelo Anthony deal to Houston happens over the coming weeks, the already incredible disparity will only grow. While the 2018 All-Star Game won’t quite be LeBron versus the World, it might as well be. If the rumblings that LeBron is considering leaving Cleveland next summer turn out to be more than just rumblings, then the Eastern Conference might as well just be a year-long Summer League.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

SQuiz
Before Gordon Hayward, who was the last Western Conference All Star to go to the Eastern Conference that next season?
Created 7/12/17
  1. Andrew Bynum
  2. Carmelo Anthony
  3. Kevin Love
  4. David Lee

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