The NBA’s Eastern Conference went from LeBron James and everyone else to an absolute gauntlet in just a few short years.
Russell Westbrook, a nine-time All-NBA selection and NBA MVP not long ago, is the latest to join the East. Westbrook found himself in a blockbuster deal Wednesday as the Houston Rockets traded the 12-year NBA veteran to the Washington Wizards in exchange for point guard John Wall and a first-round pick.
Wall, obviously, is no slouch. He is a five-time NBA All-Star who also has been selected to an All-NBA team in his career.
But he is no Westbrook.
The Rockets surely will benefit from a future first-round pick, which was a nice added piece in return, but it’s hard not to believe the Wizards got exponentially better in short order with this acquisition.
That’s not great for the rest of the Eastern Conference. And it’s not great for the Boston Celtics, specifically.
For what feels like forever, the Wizards never posed a real threat to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Sure, they had a dynamic tandem in the backcourt with Bradley Beal and Wall, but they never found the clutch playoff performances to get them over the hump.
Three of Washington’s last four postseason berths — 2016, 2014, 2013 — resulted in second-round exits, the most recent of which was by the Celtics. The Wizards’ other playoff season came in 2017 when they were the No. 8 seed and swept by the top-seeded Toronto Raptors.
More recently, NBA fans will remember the Wizards as the team who finished 10th in the East last season and 11th in the conference the year prior.
Could Westbrook, Beal and stretch forward Davis Bertans get them past that threshold? It’s certainly worth a shake up.
Again, while both players are productive, there’s an entirely different level between All-NBA and NBA All-Star. Westbrook is the former. He’s better, and stays on the court more than Wall, who hasn’t played more than 41 games in either of the last two seasons.
The Celtics have seen first hand the difference in the two players.
Westbrook, for example, has played against the Celtics 21 times in his 12-year career, which has been spent entirely in the Western Conference. During those games, the UCLA product averaged 26 points while recording just shy of seven assists and seven rebounds per contest.
Wall, on the other hand, has started all 26 games he’s played against Boston during his nine years. He’s averaged seven points less than Westbrook (19.2), but benefitted from three more assists (9.3).
Again, Washington landed a better player.
And now the Eastern Conference features NBA superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Westbrook along with stars like Jimmy Butler, Trae Young and the Celtics’ own Jayson Tatum.
… So much for the Weak East.