Things looking up in the East
For years now, the NBA's balance of power -- East to West and vice versa -- has drawn all sorts of inexplicable and undue attention. As if it's wrong for things to tilt one way or the other in sports as opposed to, y'know, our daily lives and relationships.
Gimme a break. In most arenas, there is no balance of power. One side has it, the other side flinches. You name it -- management-labor, gas pump-motorist, pizza-dieter, teenager-parent, wife-husband -- you have to admit that, invariably, the power stays in one place. Acknowledging that is half the battle, especially if you're the one wielded upon rather than wielding.
Yet with the NBA, we pull out micrometers and slide rules every year to gauge the gap at any given moment between the 15 teams collectively known as the Eastern Conference and the 15 that represent the West. It offends, I dunno, our sense of fair play if too many good teams seem to be stacked up on one side of the league compared to the other. It's like we're strapped into a window seat on the 13th plane lined up on Runway A, agitated that there are only two jets awaiting takeoff on Runway B.
At that point, cognitive dissonance takes over, that urge to seek equilibrium and impose order: Hey! That's not right. Those guys in the tower are messing up. Somebody needs to fix this! Never mind that, eventually, all 15 flights will safely depart and reach their destinations, and that a delay for runway traffic ought to rank near the bottom of air travel worries these days. Something just feels off, so we pull out our scales, often as blindly as Lady Justice.
Fine. In service of this refusal to accept in a sport we follow what we routinely shrug off in our day-to-day existence, I can report, after careful study and precise measurements, that the East is inching closer to the West for the 2008-09 season. The balance of power is, yes, shifting, at a rate somewhere between climate change and the breakneck, from-act-to-Internet time lapse of an A-Rod rumor.
Let's sift through the evidence:
Exhibit A: Elton Brand agrees to a five-year, $80 million contract with the 76ers.
When healthy, Brand is one of the NBA's few legit 20-10 men, an anchor player for a franchise eager to elbow back in as third wheel to the league's retro rivalry (Celtics-Lakers). Joining Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller in a core of stars, and bumping fellows like Louis Williams, Willie Green, Thaddeus Young and Samuel Dalembert each down a slot, in some order, in the rotation, Brand makes the Sixers better and deeper. He also is a grown-man leader in an NBA short on them, and let's cut him slack on those charges of Carlos Boozer-like duplicity: Brand did hard time with the post-Jordan Bulls teams and the Clippers, actively choosing to play for neither team. This time, he finally had a choice. Boston suddenly has a new threat to contain.
Exhibit B: Jermaine O'Neal goes to Toronto, while T.J. Ford gets swapped to Indiana.
On paper, this seems like a wash for the East. Not if both teams end up stronger than they were. O'Neal, oft-injured and so sensitive, is at the put-up-or-shut-up stage of his career; if he has it in him to complement and draw defenders away from Chris Bosh, now's the time to do it.
Equally important, the Raptors can flip the keys full time to Jose Calderon, in whom O'Neal saw a toughness, a "swagger,'' when they had dinner Tuesday night. That clears up the muddle at point guard that, at one time last season, had Calderon voluntarily taking a seat on the bench because Ford was less comfortable as a sub. It was a classic stop-hitting-yourself-in-the-head-with-the-hammer-because-it-feels-good-when-you-stop moment.
With Indiana, however, Ford is an upgrade in speed and even durability to Jamaal Tinsley, and Jarrett Jack (acquired from Portland in a separate deal) burns to prove the Trail Blazers wrong. Georgetown rookie Roy Hibbert is touted as team president Larry Bird's center of the future, and the trade promises payroll flexibility to a young Pacers team eager to grow together.
Exhibit C: Washington re-signs Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison.
The Wizards and their star guard even were fiscally responsible in doing so. In leaving the last $16 million on the table, Arenas said after he agreed to stay, "I looked at it like this: There is nothing I can do for my family with $127 million that I can't do with $111 million.'' So this is more about what he, Jamison and Caron Butler can do for their team, which was so messed up by the end of last season that it played better when Arenas sat out than when he participated. If losing three consecutive first-round series to Cleveland doesn't qualify under the NBA tradition of knocking at the door of contender status, nothing does. Except maybe for the fact that the Cavaliers keep getting through that door first.