In our solar system, the sun dominates all. There is, as Shakespeare once said, nothing like the sun. But a close second to the sun, in exerting influence far and wide, is the planet Jupiter. It is no exaggeration to say that our solar system is what it is, including the only currently known environment for life, because of Jupiter’s influence on the rest of the system.
Among Jupiter’s influences is the effect of its massive gravity. Chief those effects is the relatively clear space in the center of our solar system. The powerful Jovian pull played a primary roll in sweeping out much of the random debris that once floated around Earth’s orbit–stuff that, if left where it was, probably would have killed us all sooner rather than later.
That astronomical story has a parallel, in the NBA of all places. In the Association, the solar system is the Eastern Conference, and Jupiter is named LeBron James.
We hear a lot these days about the woeful state of the Eastern Conference. It has become fashionable to bemoan its lack of winning teams, to express outrage that a team with a sub-.500 record will make the playoffs. Check that: with two teams currently in playoff spots despite being well below break-even, it is a virtual certainty that only six winning teams will reach the postseason this year in the East. Let the bellowing reach its crescendo.
The funny thing is, those same voices who complain the loudest about the sad state of Eastern affairs are often the same ones who sing the highest hosannas in praise of the one player most responsible for that same state: LeBron James.
“Thus, by the gravity of his presence, LeBron James has been the Eastern Conference’s Jupiter–sweeping out of the space around him all the best players..”
Do you doubt that blame for the sadsack East should be laid at James’s feet? Take a look at the table below, showing the number of winning teams (records ≥ .500) in the Eastern Conference going back to the 1988-89 season:
|Year||# of East Teams with ≥ .500 record|
|2011||7 (LeBron’s first season in Miami)
|2004||6 (James enters the NBA)
First, a couple of points. For all the bemoaning, things aren’t that bad. Yes, several recent seasons have seen sub-.500 playoff teams, but that not just a recent trend. Multiple seasons in the ’90s featured losers in the playoffs, not just in the East (’91, ’92, and ’95) but also in the Western Conference as well. The NBA has always had seasons where a few turds slipped into the soup, so to speak. It happens.
But it should also be pointed out that, in the East, it became a regular occurrence after 2003. Hmmm…what might have happened in the NBA around then? (Strokes chin thoughtfully…) Oh, right! The 2003-04 season was–wait for it–LeBron James’s rookie season.
Notice the relative paucity of winning teams in the East after James showed up. Notice too that, despite the occasional piece of trash littering the playoffs, the years prior to LeBron’s advent did not show a similar deficiency.
Is it always like that when a great, transformational player enters the league? For comparison, check out the years 1993-1996 above (marked with asterisks); those are Shaquille O’Neal’s first four years with Orlando. As dominant as the Diesel was, other Eastern teams did not simply wilt in his presence; teams like the Pacers, Knicks, and most notably the Bulls put up a fight and held the Big Aristotle at bay until he departed for the Lakers. It’s also worth noting that, in Shaq’s first six seasons in L.A., only his first (1996-97) saw any losers in the Western Conference playoffs. In fact, during the Lakers’ run of three straight championships, nothing but winning teams made it into the playoffs. Indeed, in 2000-01, ten–count ’em, TEN–Western teams finished comfortably above .500, including Seattle in 10th place at 44-38!
So why, then, has the East tanked under King James’s reign? Here are a a couple of theories:
• It takes a gang to beat LeBron. As long as James has been around–exclusively in the East, so far–other conference teams have had to go to prohibitively difficult lengths to field a team that could beat him. Look at the Eastern champions during LeBron’s ascendancy; besides the ’07 Cavs, you had the 2006 Heat (who pulled the trade to get Shaq) and 2009 Magic team (featuring Dwight Howard at his peak, plus a roster of guys having career years), along with the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics of 2008 and 2010.
Having the best center in the Association always helps, but few clubs can ever boast that advantage. Even more challenging can be putting together a “Big 3” of All-Stars who are available and will fit within your salary cap. Even the ’90s Bulls featured only Jordan and Pippen; their teammates were supporting players, however good the team overall might have been. The Spurs have had Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, but that grouping was exceptionally fortuitous; the latter two were late round picks who blossomed into great players. That sort of luck doesn’t happen very frequently–all the more so when you’re a GM who needs to try to make luck happen in order to beat a conference rival that has LeBron James. Of course, such moves are difficult to make because of…
• Lack of player movement. If you can sign a bunch of All-Stars to go toe to toe with James and his running mates, more power to you. But the NBA is not built that way. There’s relatively little player movement in the Association, especially when you’re talking about star players. Even LeBron’s move to the Heat–the collusion that brought him and fellow top players Wade and Chris Bosh together–was the product of fortuitous circumstance: concurrent free agencies meeting a team with lots of salary cap space. Few other players and teams will see such stars aligning for them anytime soon. Of course, the moves that made “The Heatles” not only brought three of the top 15 players in the league onto one team; it depleted two other teams–two other Eastern teams–of their top players. There’s only so much talent to go around.
And, generally, it doesn’t go. Just glance back at the biggest free agent signings of the last several years; before this past off-season, the biggest fish to get fried was Howard–who signed with the thoroughly Western Conference Rockets. The two biggest free agent signings in the East are arguably the biggest free agent busts of the last 15 years: Deron Williams with the Nets (after the trade that sent him to New Jersey/Brooklyn) and Josh Smith, since banished from Detroit.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Most NBA free agents re-up with their teams, who can pay them the most money. Even if an emancipated player wants to go to another team, why move into LeBron’s neighborhood, where you will have little shot at a title? At least if you join a team in the West, you don’t have to climb the highest mountain to play in the finals. That hasn’t been a safe bet in the East lately, unless you’re riding LeBron’s coat tails.
Thus, by the gravity of his presence, LeBron James has been the Eastern Conference’s Jupiter–sweeping out of the space around him all the best players. Most of the really good teams are out West, well beyond his orbit.
But there may be a ray of hope. It’s possible that things have finally begun to change, and for that we may be able to thank…LeBron James. With his move back to Cleveland, James may have reined in the force of his gravity. Contrary to recent history, this past off-season saw major free agent signings focused in the East: Pau Gasol with the Bulls; Luol Deng to Miami; Lance Stephenson to Charlotte (though even he probably doesn’t understand that move these days); and Thabo Sefalosha joining and solidifying a now very good Hawks team.
There’s still a paucity of truly good teams in the Eastern Conference, but those signings are signs of life, indicating that the groundwork has been laid for future improvement. Should James and his Cavs not win the title this year, it will signal that there is opportunity to be had in the East. Indeed, one can comfortably predict that next season will see no sub-.500 teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Soon enough, the tide will turn in the East. For while Jupiter remains a mighty presence–both in the solar system, and through his analogue in the Association–there is ultimately a limit to the giant’s gravity. Eventually, even the mightiest force among us reaches the point where it has moved all that it will move.