LAS VEGAS — LeBron James has spent most of this wild offseason in the NBA far away from the fray.
The four-time MVP was in a beachside bar in a remote, sun-splashed locale last week, slowly puffing on a cigar and trying to match Michael Jackson’s high notes as the late pop singer’s hit “Off The Wall” floated in the background.
Those images beamed from the social media accounts of arguably the world’s greatest basketball player portray a man seemingly free of worry. Or, at the very least, free of the worry that another team in the Eastern Conference will stand in the way of his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
One by one over the past two-plus weeks, as James has rapped with his daughter, thrown an epic birthday party for his son and laughed with his mom, top players in the East have migrated West. From blockbuster trades to big free agency signings, teams in the Western Conference have made it clear this summer they don’t intend to stand idly by while the Golden State Warriors construct a dynasty.
Though Gordon Hayward, an all-star forward, left Utah and agreed to join the Boston Celtics on July 4, almost all of the massive talent shift in the NBA has happened in the West. Star point guard Chris Paul left the Clippers only to join James Harden, the runner-up in the MVP race, in Houston. The Minnesota Timberwolves made an aggressive move to get Jimmy Butler from Chicago. One year after Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State, the Thunder added another star in Paul George.
“It’s kind of crazy when you look at it now,” Nuggets guard Gary Harris said of his conference collectively donning more armor. “It’s going to be fun with how competitive it’s about to be with the teams we have.”
The good news for the Nuggets? By agreeing to terms with free agent Paul Millsap, Denver will have corralled its own migrating star. The power forward, an all-star each of the last four seasons in Atlanta, provides the Nuggets with a durable, consistent and versatile frontcourt veteran to add to the team’s emerging young core. Millsap led the Hawks to the playoffs each year he was in Atlanta, including a trip to the Eastern Conference finals following a 60-win season in 2015.
“I think of all the signings that took place so far, the Millsap signing was the one I was most excited about,” NBA TV analyst Stu Jackson said. “He truly is a very good fit in terms style of play, a fit in terms of personnel and how I anticipate he’ll be utilized. Any time an organization can get a player of his level and, as importantly, a professional of his level, you’ve bettered yourself.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers didn’t mince words when asked about the mass movement to the Western Conference.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I was hoping all these free agents would go to the East. Everybody’s coming to the West. I don’t get it. I think Gordon Hayward is the smartest one. He got out of town and went to the East. I really don’t understand the logic of this, but it is what it is. It’s just going to be a hard conference.”
The question is whether the Nuggets, who missed the playoffs by one game last season, have bettered themselves enough relative to the reloading conference to crack the postseason field for the first time since 2013.
The Warriors resigned Steph Curry and Kevin Durant — winners of a combined three of the last four MVP awards — and will be the unanimous favorites to reach the Finals for a fourth consecutive season. The Rockets, by adding Paul, could provide a serious threat. The Spurs figure to be among the conference’s best teams as Kawhi Leonard continues to emerge as perhaps the best two-way player in the league. The Westbrook-George pairing should vault the Thunder, already sixth in the West last season, into the upper tier of the conference.
With the Clippers (fourth in the Western Conference last season) losing Paul and the Jazz (fifth) bidding farewell to their best players, the pecking order could get murky after that. But there are no shortage of emerging contenders who have been preparing themselves for an opportunity to slow Golden State’s quest for a bigger ring collection.
“I felt like last year the balance of power overall was starting to get movement toward the Eastern Conference,” Jackson said. “These things tend to be cyclical. I thought, ‘Maybe the pendulum will start to shift.’ But after this free agency, gosh, it’s going back the other way with full force. It has really motivated teams to enter the arms race to ultimately not only defeat the Warriors, but just to make the playoffs. If you look at it right now, there are probably 12 teams in the West that you could make a case that they are a surefire playoff team. So it’s going to be tough.”
Harris, who was part of the group that made the winning pitch to Millsap, sees a conference that has added firepower and detects an advantage with his squad: room for internal growth.
“You could start to see it at the end of last season,” Harris said Friday after watching the Nuggets’ summer league team from a courtside seat. “I’m looking forward to seeing everyone take strides into the upcoming season. It’s going to be tough. No one said it would be easy. We just have to continue putting in the work … and be ready to compete every game.”
James blew a puff of smoke in the air from that barstool last week and typed a caption into an Instagram post.
“Enjoying the fruit of my labor I guess!!” he wrote.
It’s the Nuggets and other teams chasing the Warriors in the crowded and reloaded West that have to do the worrying now.
Westward ho!The majority of the moves involving high-profile players have resulted in big boosts to Western Conference teams. Here’s a look at where some of the biggest transactions since last month have sent players, with their scoring average from last season:Player … Avg. … Old team … New team … MoveChris Paul … 18.1 … L.A. Clippers … Houston … Sign and tradePaul George … 23.7 … Indiana … Okla. City … TradeJimmy Butler … 23.9 … Chicago … Minnesota … TradePaul Millsap … 18.1 … Atlanta … Denver … Free agentJeff Teague … 15.3 … Indiana … Minnesota … Free agentDanilo Gallinari … 18.1 … Denver … L.A. Clippers … Sign and tradeGordon Hayward … 21.9 … Utah … Boston … Free agent