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Rising in the East

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Obviously, the East has been the weaker of the two conferences for some time now.  And whereas these things tend to be cyclic (as David Stern keeps reminding us), it has gotten progressively worse and not better.  And I'm not so much talking about the NBA Finals - the Pistons are formidable, the Heat grabbed a title a couple seasons ago, and the Celtics look worthy this season.  It's the rank and file that's embarrassing.  The West has had 6 and 8 and 10 top quality teams for years now, while the East has one or two, at most three.  With seemingly no end in sight.  Until now.

Pau Gasol may have saved the Eastern Conference.

After the Grizzlies gave Gasol to the Lakers, making them the favorite in the West, other Western Conference powers have overreacted with deals of their own.  The Suns and the Mavs have each made a tradition of winning 60+ games the last few seasons.  But by dealing for the 'All Stars of 1996' (the Suns for 35 year old Shaquille O'Neal, the Mavs in a pending trade for 34 year old Jason Kidd) they are moving dangerously close to the end of their relevancy.  

The NBA is a zero sum game.  If one team has a stable of good talent locked up, by definition those players aren't on any other teams.  The Suns have been making moves for several years now that would eventually cause their downfall.  They've given away most of their top draft picks simply because they didn't want to pay them.  With O'Neal and Nash in their 30's and no young talent to pick up the slack, they may only have one more winning season in them.  Amare Stoudemire is good - but Leandro Barbosa won't be able to get him the ball the way Nash does.  So although they didn't lose 'young' talent in the O'Neal trade, they've lost enough in recent seasons that their fate appears sealed.

The Mavericks on the other hand are about to send their point guard of the future (24 year old Devin Harris) and 2 first round picks to New Jersey for a guy who is shooting 36% this season.  I love Jason Kidd - I think he's a great player and the Mavs could well win a title this season with him.  But he's almost 35, and he's arguably not as good as Harris now, let alone next season or the season after that.  Nowitzki and Howard will make a great duo for some time yet, but one wonders what the team around them will look like when Kidd is gone and there are no picks left.

Not that the Eastern Conference will necessarily be the beneficiary of the decline of the Suns and the Mavs.  The Lakers look set for a while.  And the Jazz and Hornets and Blazers look like the young teams that may be ready to step into the upper echelon.  But Miami and New Jersey are certainly happy to be rid of those mammoth contracts dragging them down, and can now start the re-building process.  Maybe the Suns and Mavs can call them for some tips when they have to start in two seasons.