Jimmy Butler and the NBA’s boldening Eastern Conference

Jake Elmslie – Sports Editor

There have been two adages going around in the National Basketball Association’s circles for the better part of the last half decade. First, toppling the Golden State Warriors as champions is going to be nigh impossible until ether their current core breaks up or one of their key players sustains a significant injury. Secondly, the eastern conference pales in comparison to the west.

Since the offseason two moves in particular have reflected a shift in mindset among certain teams in how they have chosen to deal with the mountain of Golden State and the futility of the eastern conference, a conference many were handing to the Boston Celtics following the exodus of Lebron James to Los Angeles.

The first of these was the trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors took a large risk trading for the disgruntled former finals MVP. Toronto had won 48 plus games each of the last five seasons with their Kyle Lowry-Demar DeRozan core. However the organization recognized that they were most likely never going to have a chance at a championship with this iteration of the team and thusly they risked alienating fans by trading DeRozan, a homegrown four time all star, for Leonard, a player they could not guarantee would even suit up for the Raptors. Early returns on this gamble have been excellent, the Raptors currently hold an Eastern Conference best 12-4 record and look to be contenders in the conference down the stretch.  

Secondly, and far more recently, was the Nov. 12th trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers sent the Timberwolves two starters in Dario Saric and Robert Covington as well as a regular rotational piece in Jerryd Bayless in exchange for Butler. While none of the players Philadelphia traded would be considered building blocks they have also taken a sizable risk, gutting their rotation in exchange for an all star caliber player.

These moves both involve teams being unwilling to accept the status quo and their standings in the leagues hierarchy. Both represent risks, the trading of valuable assets in exchange for a single season of a talented player. However within the current landscape of the NBA these sorts of risks are necessary and the teams willing to take them are possibly deserving of praise.

It is easy for a franchise to accept being a perennial playoff team, never quite good enough to truly contend for a championship but good enough to always be in the mix once playoffs roll around. For many organizations, especially those in small markets this is a profitable position to be in, a solid team will draw sizable crowds and playoff games bring in significant extra revenue.

The Raptors could of easily rested on their status as such as team but instead they opted to swing for the fences and bring in Leonard. Similarly the 76ers could have chosen to wait for their young stars to develop but instead opted to bring in Butler to enhance their team now. They recognized bringing in a player of Butler’s stature is multiple times harder than replacing a few above average starters or rotational pieces. For teams hoping to contend with Golden State and it’s assortment of all stars and MVP caliber players engaging in a talent arms race is necessary to have a chance at success.

These teams taking a more aggressive approach to team building has radically improved the quality of competition in the eastern conference. Now while it still does not look like there is a team ready to challenge Golden State set to emerge from the east it is hard to deny that bolder NBA personal departments help to improve the quality of the product for all basketball fans.