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What Happened to the Eastern Conference after Michael Jordan's second retirement?

Saurabh Kumar
302   //    Timeless

Kobe Bryant Press Conference
The 1996 Draft, Kobe moving to the Lakers is where the discussion for Western dominance started

In recent years and even going back to the 2000's, the Eastern conference has always been seen as being inferior to the West. There were a couple of years here and there, where the East was pretty good, but for the majority of the last two decades, it has not been like that. We've never heard anyone say, "Wow the east is going to be amazing this year!". Even though NBA fans have said that East has been terrible for a long time, many of them don't actually know why this is is the case.

The 2000's Era, where it all started

To start things off, let's take a look at some numbers, after Jordan's last championship in 1998, the Eastern conference has won only three titles from 1999 - 2011 and those were the 2004 Pistons, the 2006 Heat, and 2008 Celtics. The 2000's era was dominated by the West and the reason for this was due to a few important factors - mainly trades, draft picks and free agent signings that all heavily benefited the teams in the West.

But for the East especially in the earlier part of 2000's, it was just awful. The conferences were so lopsided around this time and the cause of this can be traced back to the 1990's.

Let's start with the 1996 NBA draft, where the best player in the draft was Kobe Bryant who was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and then traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac. One month later, Shaquille O' Neal left Orlando to go to the West and join the Lakers. Now the Lakers formed a dynasty that would go on to win three championships from 2000 to 2002.

But because Shaq signed as a free agent, Orlando literally got nothing in return for him, so basically they were no longer contending for the playoffs. A year later, in the 1997 draft, the San Antonio Spurs drafted Tim Duncan and we see a similar situation in San Antonio too as they became championship contenders for the next 20 years.

In 1998, we saw a couple of moves that created even more powerful teams in the West while the East just kept getting worse. Right after the 1998 season ended, the Washington Wizards traded their star Chris Webber to Sacramento Kings for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe, two guys who were at the end of their careers. Webber would turn Sacramento into legitimate contenders while Washington would miss the playoffs for the next six years.

Then in the 1998 draft, the Dallas Mavericks negotiated a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks, which would send them Robert Traylor for Dirk Nowitzki. So now the Mavericks, with Nowitzki, also became a perennial contender for the next 15 years, while the Bucks missed the chance of pairing Dirk Nowitzki with a young Ray Allen.

Now throughout the 2000's, we see the Western Conference dominated the league as their superstars reached their prime. Let's not forget Kevin Garnett who carried Minnesota in the playoffs for 8 straight seasons. They got past the first round only once, but those Minnesota teams were as good as the top teams in the East at that time.

The Spurs' Big Three led by Tim Duncan

The Good Times for Eastern Conference

The East also had some of the amazing players at that time like Allen Iverson, Tracy Mcgrady, Vince Carter, Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen but most of them did not have the supporting cast to compete with the powerhouses in the West. Looking at the team records in 2003, the Detroit Pistons were the number one seed in the East but their win-loss record was the same as the sixth seed in the West.

Eventually, though there were some bright spots for the East. The 2003 and 2004 drafts brought guys like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard, who would turn their teams into contenders. Then we have other moves like Shaq going to the Heat, the Pistons, Boston's big three, Miami's big three, and the Pacers which made the East pretty good around this time.

However, in recent years, it seems the East has once again fallen off. The differences between the two conferences records are ridiculous and once again and just like the early 2000's nobody is taking them seriously.

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The 2003 East All-Star is one of the best

The Current Scenario and the Problems with the East

In fact 17 of the last 18 seasons, the Western Conference has had the winning record against the east but when we take a step back and think about this situation, it's pretty obvious why the West is so much better right now and it's the same reason why they were so much better back then too.

Most of the best players in the league were either drafted by a western conference team or traded there. Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Demarcus Cousins - all of these guys can be considered top 10 or top 15 players and they were always in the West to begin with.

Recently, we saw three All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Milsap traded to the West, so the East is even worse than before. Of course, Lebron is still in the east so they're going to have one contender for the foreseeable future and a few other teams have some great young players.

Another major issue is that coincidentally many Eastern conference teams' front offices have not done a great job. For example look at the Knicks, Bulls and Magic right now, they all made some questionable trades and decisions that have set them back for years. The Bulls and Pacers mishandled building around their star players, and now both Butler and George are gone.

The Bulls and Knicks have two of the worst front offices in the league and even their own fans would agree with that. The Magic haven't even come close to making the playoffs after trading away Dwight.

Not many people talk about them, but they've made some of the worst trades in recent memory. Like giving away Tobias Harris for Jennings and Ilyasova, then trading Ilyasova, Oladipo, and Sabonis to OKC for Serge Ibaka, then realizing Ibaka wasn't working well for their team and then trading him for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick in the mid 20's.

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There are two main reasons why the Eastern Conference has been really bad. One, the West drafted most of the best players in the last ten years. Two, the Eastern Conference has made a lot more bad decisions from their front offices. A lot of teams in the East that should be contending right now are held back by poor decisions from their GM's. but with that being said there are some teams with a bright future.

In the next few years, we might see the East becoming the dominant conference. It all depends on how well the organizations can surround their young stars with supporting cast that they need to compete for the title.

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The Future of Eastern Conference is bright if they learn how to handle their key players and improving their front offices
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Saurabh Kumar
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