Cavs will rule the East, but Wild West has the big guns

Russell Westbrook (in blue) gets the better of Tyus Jones (left) and Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves in a pre-season game on Oct 7. Westbrook played a pivotal role for the Thunder last season.
Russell Westbrook (in blue) gets the better of Tyus Jones (left) and Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves in a pre-season game on Oct 7. Westbrook played a pivotal role for the Thunder last season.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is somewhat ironic that, heading into its 70th consecutive season, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is facing another spell of talent imbalance between its two conferences.

Back in its inaugural 1946-47 season, in its original incarnation as the Basketball Association of America, it had only 11 teams - and most of them were situated in the eastern part of the United States.

The furthest-west franchise were the St Louis Bombers in the middle of America, with owners unwilling to set up teams in California and Texas for fear of incurring high travel costs.

Flash forward to now, as the 2015-16 season begins today (tomorrow morning, Singapore time), and most of the title-contending teams are located in those two Western Conference states instead.

Defending champions Golden State Warriors call Oakland, California, home; the revitalised San Antonio Spurs have been the best of three good Texas teams for more than a decade; and even the often-terrible Los Angeles Clippers have become serious challengers in place of their rebuilding neighbours, the Lakers.

All this means that the Eastern Conference, once again, is dogged with the moniker "Least-ern Conference". Only one side among the 15 East teams can safely be deemed as title contenders: LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.

Three other franchises - the Chicago Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat - look good for deep play-off runs. However, each has a big flaw - whether it is Derrick Rose's durability or the Hawks' lack of a go-to scorer - that will hamper their title aspirations.

The other 11 Eastern teams are mired either in poor management (New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks) or interminable rebuilding cycles (Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons), which make joining the franchises unappealing for many top NBA players.

On the other hand, James' presence immediately makes Cleveland the "hot" place to go for free-agent players. Because he is an intelligent and unselfish basketballer, players on the market want to play on his team, as opposed to playing for a ball-hog like the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony.

That means the Cavs were able to sign veterans like Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson to fill in the necessary roles in the team and propel them towards another title shot.

James has already got his team-mates to join him for pre-training camp workouts to get a head start on all other teams. No doubt, the NBA Finals loss to the Warriors in June still hurts.

"Every year you lose in the Finals, it gets worse and worse to get over," he said earlier this month.

"I will take all the pain that comes with competing for the championship at the end of the day. We can build off last year, the chemistry we had, and get better every single day. That will give us the best possible chance to play into June."

Here's the good news for him. Being in such a poor conference means that the Cavs should be able to clinch the top seeding in the East without having to go all out for all of the 82-game regular season.

The same cannot be said for the West players. It can be argued that things have become brutally unfair.

Last season, Russell Westbrook had a breakout year, carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder all by himself after key player Kevin Durant suffered an injury-riddled season.

After earning an All-Star Most Valuable Player award in February, he played 11 games in which he scored more than 35 points and recorded nine triple-double games - including four consecutive, the first time a player has done it since Michael Jordan in 1989. He eventually won the NBA top scorer title with a 28.1 points-per-game average.

The injury-hit Thunder finished 45-37 - a win-loss record that would have been good enough to be the sixth seed in the East. In the West, they finished ninth, one place out of the play-offs.

Poor Westbrook. Here is the lesson in competing in the West: One-man shows are never going to turn out right in the end. The best West teams right now - the Warriors, the Clippers and the recharged Spurs - have plenty of weapons in their arsenal.

Reigning NBA champions Warriors are far more than just the sharp-shooting prowess of Stephen Curry - the all-around talents of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green are just as vital to their success. Even so, they are not sure bets to retain their top-seed status in the West.

The Clippers, already loaded with a formidable trio in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, keep adding great role players, the latest being veteran - but still effective - stars in Paul Pierce and Josh Smith.

But all the pre-season signings paled in comparison to what the Spurs did in adding Texas native LaMarcus Aldridge to their squad.

Instantly, the former Portland Trail Blazers star centre provides an inside scoring presence like Tim Duncan did in his prime. Duncan can then save his legs for the play-offs, where his savvy and leadership qualities are most needed.

Together with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, as well as the evergreen brilliance of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, one can easily see the Spurs returning to the NBA Finals.

Even Westbrook will not be alone, with a healthy Kevin Durant and defensive stalwart Serge Ibaka back for another title tilt.

Another well-known lone ranger, the Houston Rockets' James Harden, has a new sidekick in Ty Lawson to help shoulder some of the scoring and play-making abilities.

The Western Conference is indeed shaping up to be a gruelling slugfest of NBA big hitters. Meanwhile, "King" James sits in wait in the East, determined to write the first successful chapter of his 30s (he turns 31 on Dec 30).

It may be an unbalanced league, but the NBA is far from being a bore in its 70th year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Cavs will rule the East, but Wild West has the big guns'. Print Edition | Subscribe