A look at which NBA players have signed new contracts during this year’s free agency period.

They went West, looking for a better opportunity and financial prosperity – even though one group, the Golden State Warriors, had all the gold.

Will those explorers perish? Or will they prosper?

The NBA will find out in the 2017-18 season as teams in the Western Conference grow stronger and try to offer a bigger challenge to the Warriors, who swept each opponent in the West playoffs and lost only once during their dominating 16-1 run to their second championship in three seasons.

Early in NBA free agency, the message is this: Players and teams are not running from the Warriors, preferring to compete with them and try to knock them off their perch atop the Western Conference.

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The Indiana Pacers traded All-Star forward Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder, pairing him with MVP Russell Westbrook.

Guard Chris Paul saw a better chance to get deeper into the playoffs and orchestrated a trade to the Houston Rockets, setting up an All-Star backcourt of Paul and James Harden.

Guard Jeff Teague left the Pacers and reached a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who just acquired All-Star forward-guard Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls before free agency began and reached a deal with free-agent forward Taj Gibson.

Point guard Jrue Holiday stayed with New Orleans Pelicans, forward Blake Griffin re-upped with the Los Angeles Clippers and free-agent forward Paul Millsap landed in the West with the Denver Nuggets after spending the past four seasons with the Atlanta Hawks.

While it appears the path to the Finals and conference finals is more difficult in the West, there has not been a massive migration East.

The disparity between the West and East is nothing new though it seemed like the East was gaining ground the past couple of seasons.

But two All-Stars and one former All-Star just switched to the West, and if you think there were All-Star snubs in the West last season, wait until the 2018 All-Star Game in Charlotte. The West snubs will form a solid starting five to compete with the East’s top five.

The Warriors are still the favorites to win the NBA championship, but the collective goal among the other Western Conference teams is to make it more difficult through a grueling regular season.

Now, not every major player has headed or stayed West.

All NBA eyes are on Utah Jazz free agent small forward Gordon Hayward, who visited with the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics over the weekend and is expected to meet with the Jazz on Monday.

Will the ever-changing landscape push Hayward to the East where teams are not as loaded? Or is the gravitational pull of staying where he helped build a playoff team too irresistible? Plus, the Jazz, who traded for guard Ricky Rubio, can offer more years and more money than any other team. We’ll find out soon if that’s enough.

Shooting guard J.J. Redick crossed the Mississippi and reached a one-year deal, $23 million deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, opting to be part of that franchise’s fast-tracked rebuild.

Point guard Kyle Lowry and forward Serge Ibaka agreed to stay with the Toronto Raptors. But that’s status quo. The Raptors will be good, but they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs.

All roads in the East to the Finals travel through Cleveland and LeBron James. No team in the East has done enough to supplant Cleveland in the East. James is looking at a situation that makes his eighth consecutive Finals appearance more likely.

And while the West is better and deeper, is the NBA headed for Warriors-Cavaliers Finals for the fourth consecutive season?

It’s a long season with several variables, including injuries, but it’s refreshing to see teams go after the Warriors now instead of planning for the future.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt. 


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