ORLANDO — As the Heat wait to hear Gordon Hayward’s decision, the Eastern Conference continues to weaken.
Even before the start of free agency, Indiana traded four-time All-Star Paul George to Oklahoma City and Chicago traded three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. Since free agency began, Paul Millsap has left the Hawks to sign with the Nuggets.
Just with those transactions, the Heat have a chance to move past the Pacers, Bulls and Hawks in the East’s power rankings. After finishing as the ninth-best team in the conference last season, that would probably be enough to push Miami into the group of eight East teams that make the playoffs even if the Heat just brought back last season’s core.
But what if Miami ends up with Hayward? He would be one star to jump from the Western Conference to the East, and it would likely propel the Heat into a group of teams battling for the No. 2 spot in the East.
The Cavaliers are still considered the class of the Eastern Conference. But if the Heat land Hayward, there wouldn’t be much separating Boston, Toronto, Washington, Milwaukee and Miami from the second to sixth-best teams in the East.
It’s a totally different story in the Western Conference, as it keeps growing stronger. Along with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, there are the Thunder that now feature the duo of Russell Westbrook and George, there are the Rockets that added Chris Paul next to James Harden, there are the Timberwolves that added Butler to their young core of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and then there are always the Spurs.
Ultimately, this could be what drives Hayward out of the West and to Boston or Miami. Even with LeBron James still in Cleveland, the easier road to a deep playoff run is in the East.