LeBron James entered the NBA in 2003. Fifteen seasons he’s been in the East, as part of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Miami Heat or the Cleveland Cavaliers again. The last thirteen of those seasons he went to the playoffs. Nine times he’s been to the NBA finals, including the last eight in a row. Three times he’s been an NBA champion, winning Finals MVP on all three of those occasions (2012, 2013, 2016). Now, The King has departed. He may still add to his finals tally, but it won’t be as the Eastern Conference champion. There is suddenly a large vacancy in the East. There is suddenly a vacant throne.
The Contenders: Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors
Three teams stand out as the most likely to challenge for the Eastern Conference title, with all three coming from the Atlantic Division. The Celtics are deepest and are coming off an incredible season that got them within one win of the finals. That in itself wasn’t remarkable, as they entered the season a likely contender. What was remarkable, was that they did it without their two biggest stars. Gordon Hayward had signed from the Jazz in the off-season, but in the opening game of the season suffered a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle in his left leg. Kyrie Irving then missed the playoffs due to a left knee injury. Yet those injuries may have a silver lining. Rookie Jayson Tatum suddenly found himself thrust into a significant role, and prospered, while backup guard Terry Rozier found himself playing increased minutes. With Hayward and Irving back in the fold, plus the accelerated development of Tatum, Rozier and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics now have a deep roster seen by most as favourites to win the East.
The 76ers are the bookies’ second favourites, despite a relatively young roster built around last year’s Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and centre Joel Embiid, who’s played just 94 regular season games since being drafted in 2014. Those two are the fruits of Sam Hinkie’s rebuilding process, but it’s the development of last year’s #1 pick who will be the key to their success. Markelle Fultz had a bizarre rookie year, with a mystery shoulder injury keeping him sidelined for the majority of the season, while he also battled shooting yips that would have sent shivers through many a weekend golfer. Fultz will begin the season as the starting point guard and if he proves he’s rediscovered his offensive game, then the Sixers are in a good spot. If not, they look short of a true third star to propel them further than last year’s conference semis.
While we’re on the topic of bizarre seasons, Fultz is perhaps the only one to come close to that of Kawhi Leonard’s 2017-18 season. A mystery quad injury kept him sidelined for most of the season, sparking a disconnect between him and the Spurs. That eventually resulted in him being traded to the Raptors, with DeMar DeRozan the key piece going the other way. The Canadian side were the top seed in the East last year, but for the third season in succession were knocked out of the playoffs by LeBron and the Cavs. Leonard was a genuine MVP contender just two seasons ago and with LeBron gone, could emerge as one of the two best players in the conference. That will be dependent on his health however, as well as whether he can (and wants to) recapture his peak Spurs form.
The Wildcards: Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers
The Bucks are probably the biggest mystery in the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is attracting buzz as a potential MVP candidate and is the player with the potential to rival Leonard as the best player in the conference. The ‘Greek Freak’ is coming off a season where he averaged 26.9 points and 10 rebounds a game, while also upping his shooting percentages. The Bucks made some savvy moves in the off-season to bring in veterans Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez, while new coach Mike Budenholzer may be the biggest acquisition of them all. He’s had past success as coach of the Hawks, taking them to the Conference Finals in 2015, and will be an upgrade over the Jason Kidd / Joe Prunty combination from last season. Another leap from Giannis, improvement on the defensive end and a big contract year from Khris Middleton could see this team leap into the East’s elite.
The Pacers were a surprise package last season, with most writing them off as only fringe playoff hopes after Paul George was traded away. However, Victor Oladipo made a leap to become an All-Star, carrying the side to the playoffs as the 5th seed. They very nearly toppled the Cavaliers in the first round, losing in 7 games, with each of their losses coming by four points or fewer. Their off-season included signing Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn to bolster their depth, but the big question mark will be whether fourth year big man Myles Turner can make a leap. If he makes strides and Oladipo’s All-Star season was no fluke, then this side has a chance to make the conference finals.
The Battlers: Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets
Four doesn’t go into three, but these are the teams likely to be fighting for the remaining playoff spots. The Wizards need John Wall back to full health, as he and backcourt partner Bradley Beal remain the key to this team’s success. Austin Rivers gives them depth in the backcourt, while Dwight Howard comes in to anchor the team defensively. They’re a side largely treading water though and it’s hard to see how they improve significantly, but they’ll likely be too good to miss the playoffs. The Pistons get their first full season with Blake Griffin, who will partner up with Andre Drummond to form a formidable frontcourt duo. Griffin’s health will be key, having played less than 70 games in each of the past four seasons. The Heat continue to thrive on the back of being well coached by Erik Spoelstra, and have a team full of solid veterans. Dwyane Wade is likely in his last season, while Goran Dragic is the team’s default star. They’re another side reliant on health though, with Wade and Hassan Whiteside the biggest concerns. The Hornets will be there or thereabouts as All-Star Kemba Walker leads the way, but they’re a side lacking any other real stars. Nic Batum is coming off a down year, while acquisition Tony Parker’s best years are well behind him. Malik Monk will be looking for a second year leap, while Miles Bridges is an intriguing rookie who could provide some offensive spark.
A Year Too Soon: Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls
Kiwi GM Sean Marks has done an incredible job of rebuilding the Nets, despite inherting a practically bare cupboard of draft picks. They’re a team built around guard DeAngelo Russell and Swiss Army Knife type players like Caris LeVert and Rondae Holliss-Jefferson, while Jarrett Allen is a promising, athletic big. Their core looks set to soon be playoff bound, but there’s no real incentive for them to win just yet. They finally get their own first round pick in the next draft and you’d think they prefer that to be a lottery pick. With cap room to try lure a top free agent next off-season (and big market appeal), I expect the Nets are probably happy with another year of developing their young core and targeting 2019-20. For the Bulls, their rebuild looks a little more advanced. Lauri Markkanen was a pleasant success as a rookie, but will miss the first month or so with injury. Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. will add frontcourt depth, while their young backcourt of Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn have plenty of potential. In a weak East it’s not impossible to see them making a run at the playoffs, but another lottery pick and a year’s further development is best case scenario.
The Rest: Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks
The Cavs season was always going to hinge on whether LeBron stayed. He didn’t and they’ll now look to Kevin Love as their star player. If he can recapture some of his form from his Timberwolves days, then they may be nuisance value. However, their first round draft pick is headed to the Hawks if it’s outside the top 10, which provides plenty of tanking incentive. The Knicks will be without Kristaps Porzingis indefinitely, so you’d imagine this season is seeing what they have in rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, and other youngsters like Frank Ntilikina, Mario Henzonja and Noah Vonleh. A high draft pick and chatter that Kevin Durant may sign there in the off-season is probably the only thing for Knicks fans to be optimistic about. That’s more than the Magic, who will be regretting their impatience around Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris. Both have blossomed since leaving, while the Magic remain mired at the bottom of the East. Re-signing Aaron Gordon is a sign they may have learned their lesson, while Jonathan Isaac and rookie Mo Bamba will help them develop a young, hyper athletic trio of bigs. As for the Hawks, the best case scenario for this team is Luka Doncic being a total bust for the Mavericks. They traded away the chance to draft him and build their team around him, instead opting for Trae Young with the eventual 5th pick. Young, John Collins and Taurean Prince look to be the nucleus of a young team going forward, but they’re almost certainly headed for one of the worst records in the league.
Playoffs – Celtics, Raptors, Pacers, Sixers, Bucks, Heat, Wizards, Pistons
The rest – Hornets, Bulls, Nets, Cavs, Magic, Knicks, Hawks
Raptors beat Celtics in Eastern Conference Finals
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