The Eastern Conference remains a hot mess, and LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers wouldn’t have it any other way.
If it feels like James has run an entire Conference into the ground with his historical dominance, it’s because he has; as a young phenom and a lone star on his first go round with Cavs, the infamous title years with the Miami Heat, or the redemption run with the latest iteration of Cavaliers, James has owned the East, and will continue to do so indefinitely.
Advancing to six consecutive Finals series’ and decimating an entire conference for years is a feat in itself, but James’ single greatest act to date may be convincing the rest of the Eastern Conference that they are not as far back as it seems.
Every year, countless teams talk themselves into believing they’re only one player away and, with a lucky break or two, they could usurp LeBron from atop of the conference. Every year, teams try. All have failed.
The result is a conference suffering Stockholm syndrome, one that James can walk over at will, with more teams having losing records than winning. And so the cycle goes.
Therein lies the genius of James. He beats your team into a pulp, ensuring his side comes away with the win, but will leave you with just enough breath that you convince your own self that you were ever so close.
You weren’t. And you never will be.
Instead of recognizing the constant roadblock James and his teams have been, challengers have continuously loaded up on so-so free agents whose newly-signed contracts outweigh any potential benefits their individual play brings.
As the salary cap has expanded, so to have dreams of dethroning the King.
The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors have used calculated trades and sound planning to build quality teams. Both squads would be welcome adversaries to the Cavaliers in a seven-game series, but neither have entered elite status just yet.
The Chicago Bulls signed notable names, including Rajon Rondo and James’ former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade, yet they continue to squander games in the fourth quarter and remain below .500.
Similarly, the New York Knicks signed several high-profile reclamation projects, including Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings and Joakim Noah, to pair with Carmelo Anthony and sophomore sensation Kristaps Porzingis. Despite Rose’s insistence that a new superteam had formed in the Big Apple, they’ve been anything but.
Past foes the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks have remodeled their starting units, which in turn has led to previous identities lost and a slide down the East standings.
Armed with max cap space and a not so subtle desire of luring hometown hero Kevin Durant to join John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards didn’t even get a meeting in the Durant sweepstakes, instead being forced to settle on Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s emergence into a top-10 player has lifted the Milwaukee Bucks from mediocrity to future challenger, but years still remain between the Bucks and title contention, even if they’re on track to be the East’s next best story.
Try as they might, the remaining 14 teams in the Eastern Conference have failed to form a true threat able in testing James’ legacy. That task has not been made any easier, with a key change to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which has now been ratified by both players and owners, potentially slowly the activity of the free agent market.
An addendum to the Designated Player Veteran Exception has been designed to reward players with 7-to-9 years of completed service, by allowing their incumbent teams the ability to sign their players to new lucrative contracts — both extensions or in free agency — that equate to 35 percent of the salary cap, an amount currently only reserved for players with 10 or more years experience.
Importantly, this exception will only be available to players who remain with the team that drafted them, or have been traded during the first four years of their contract to another team. The exception will only be valid to players who have met the defined performance related criteria, with only the game’s best being able to meet such measures.
At present, many of league’s biggest names have already met the criteria of the new exception, and will be in line for huge deals as soon as the 2017 off-season, as explained in detail by Albert Nahmad of HeatHoops.com.
Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and DeMarcus Cousins, to name a few, will be eligible for new contracts under this exception.
Designed to reduce insistence’s such as Kevin Durant choosing to sign with the already dominant Golden State Warriors, the league office has financially incentivised its star players to remain with their current teams, and has given franchises additional tools to do so.
Should the market play out as such, more star players will elect to remain with the current team, making it to more difficult for rival teams to sway a collection of stars to one team. Those teams planning on convincing the game’s elite to leave their current franchise for greener pastures will now have a much tougher sell, with less money and leverage to offer than ever before.
While it still may be theoretically possible to build a super-team via free agency, the process has become more difficult and will require players to sacrifice exorbitant sums of money. As such, those teams nestled in the second tier of the Eastern Conference will feel the gap between them and the Cavaliers grow larger.
For example, if the Boston Celtics were hopeful of securing Paul George as their final key addition, they would need George to have no interest in signing a five-year, $200 million-plus extension with the Indiana Pacers, who can offer George such an extension as early as this summer.
With such a lucrative offer potentially on the table, not only does George stand to make more money by staying put, the Pacers also benefit by having their marquee player avoid free agency. In this scenario, the player is financially rewarded for opting to stay with his current team and the franchise receives comfort and control knowing their franchise player will avoid being swept up by a rival in free agency.
Of course, George could still join the Celtics. In order to do so, however, he’d need to be content with walking away from nearly $90 million in guaranteed money, all while accepting a deal with one less year on the term, less of a percentage of the cap, and with smaller incremental yearly raises. Notably, players cannot be signed-and-traded to a new team using this exception, therefore providing even more security for franchises at the negotiation table.
So who will this this affect out East? Any team targeting star players who intend to use cap space via free agency.
One team that will feel the pinch is the Chicago Bulls, who had engineered their cap situation to ensure they would have ample money to spend on a max free agent in 2017. Once the new CBA is set in place, it will be interesting to see how the Bulls navigate through a changing free agent climate.
Blake Griffin would be an ideal fit for the Bulls at power forward, however, should Griffin qualify for this exception, the Los Angeles Clippers could offer Griffin a huge extension to remain home with the Clippers. If that were to transpire, there is no plausible way the Bulls could lure Griffin to Chicago without the five-time All-Star suddenly deciding that money, and a lot of it, was no longer a priority.
Should the league’s biggest names begin to remove themselves from free agency bidding by signing huge deals with their current teams, those who have budgeted to use cap space to improve their roster may be forced into pouring all their dollars on fringe All-Star talent, unproven players with upside, or role players.
With the Eastern Conference already weakened and desperate for a talent infusion, the NBA heavily investing in keeping its stars rooted to their current teams could lead to less player movement and greater difficulty in improving rosters through free agency.
With the balance of power clearly stacked in favor of the Cavaliers, not needing to worry about an emerging contender built through free agency would be an added luxury to an already envious position.
Should teams out East fail to sway free agents from other teams in order to combat the dominant Cavaliers, James and Co. will continue to reign supreme for years to come, leaving the best of the rest fighting for second place while James continues to enhance his legend even further.