LOS ANGELES — LeBron James thinks it’s about him, and maybe he’s right.
“Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals,” James told The Athletic, “because they ain’t gotta go through me.”
Maybe he’s right, maybe not. Either way, the wild merry-go-round of trade deadline activity has made the Eastern Conference the more interesting of the NBA’s two conferences, by a distance.
The struggle for supremacy is real and immediate. James’ departure from Cleveland did open things up and now there is breathing room for a new giant of the East to emerge, and no shortage of hungry teams elbowing each other for the opportunity.
Such bold efforts have generated non-stop intrigue, while the Western Conference, for all its swath of talent, often has the feel of a collective waiting room, with countless teams marking the days until the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty fizzles out.
Not so on the other side of the country, where it is officially “go” time. Let’s remember what went down, because things got a bit hectic over the past week.
The Philadelphia 76ers officially blew time on The Process, adding Tobias Harris and other parts in a move that screamed “let’s win now.” If Harris was more of a celebrity name it would have made even more of a splash. Regardless, Philly got a guy who could count himself moderately unfortunate to have been jilted by the All-Star selectors and who unquestionably is a top-20 player in the league.
Toronto got busy by upgrading at center with Marc Gasol. Milwaukee is all about cohesiveness, but added a strong complementary piece in Nikola Mirotic, while Indiana landed Wesley Matthews to help offset the blow of losing Victor Oladipo for the season. And though Boston was idle, holding fire during the trade window served a purpose in itself.
On the other side of the country? In truth, nothing more than a pouty little standoff between the New Orleans Pelicans and James’ Los Angeles Lakers, that had the ultimate effect of Anthony Davis going absolutely nowhere.
The Warriors, as is the habit of teams that already are far better than everyone else, sat back, smiled, and said “how cute” at all the deadline goings-on. The Denver Nuggets, three games back, did nothing of note. Nor did the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Portland Trail Blazers got themselves Rodney Hood. The James Hardens, otherwise known as the Houston Rockets, got Iman Shumpert but probably regard their finer achievement as having ducked under the luxury tax.
And the Los Angeles Clippers reacted to being on the bubble of the playoffs by shipping off their best player, Harris, to Philly, in return for considerations whose efficacy will be determined by time.
This isn’t to say that the East suddenly is the better conference, because it isn’t. The West’s teams were 441-399 combined on the season heading into Monday’s games and Harris swapping coasts isn’t going to shift that by himself. But while the left side of the country has a feel of “waiting for the playoffs” to it, the other flank is more “can’t wait for the playoffs” – and a whole lot of associated buzz.
It is an important development for the league, for whom the lopsided feel of the conferences was becoming a headache, especially when it looked like the gap was only set to widen.
The free agency shake-up of the coming summer could tilt things further, dramatically so if Kevin Durant decides to up sticks and head for the New York Knicks. Double that if Davis defies his dad’s wishes and somehow lands in the clutches of Boston, the primary reason why the Celtics waited to act this time around.
But there is plenty to look at right now. The back part of this season will see a bunch of matchups that could have serious repercussions come playoff time. Expect to see the Bucks and Raptors duke it out for the top seed as things wind down, while the 76ers and Celtics will like their chances of lifting above the Pacers – and each other.
No more easy rides through the East, from where James made the Finals eight years straight with Cleveland and Miami. The supposedly weaker conference just became a thorny gauntlet and it’s going to be fun to watch.
Maybe it is because of James and his disappearing act. Whatever the reason, it is about time.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno