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For eight years, the Eastern Conference operated free of intrigue. Whichever team had LeBron James reached the NBA Finals. Done deal.
Everything’s different now.
James is gone, taking his team’s locked-in Finals appearances with him. For the first time in almost a decade, the East is up for grabs.
This is a classic power-vacuum scenario. Leadership gets deposed—or joins the Los Angeles Lakers, as the case may be—and the remaining factions fight it out for control. It could get messy, but it’ll definitely be fun. If nothing else, we’ll finally approach the East race without a latent sense of fatalism.
Which team has the best chance to take James’ place and represent the East in the Finals? Consider these five.
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One of the best offseasons in the league has last year’s No. 5 seed in position to get significantly better. Unfortunately for the Indiana Pacers, they’re still stuck at fifth here because the top four contenders could all improve at least as much as them.
Though you could make the case that Victor Oladipo’s breakout season was partially attributable to necessity—he had to become a high-usage star because Indiana lacked creators and scorers—he’ll still welcome helpful additions.
Tyreke Evans was quietly excellent for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2017-18, averaging 19.4 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 39.9 percent from long range. He immediately becomes Indiana’s secondary creator, and the spacing he offers is a major bonus.
Doug McDermott will cut, curl and flare his way to open looks, giving the Pacers another shooting threat defenses will have to honor. Throw in growth from Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, and you have an avenue toward 50-plus wins.
Just about everyone whiffed on their Pacers prognostications last summer. An outlook this rosy may be an overcorrection for assuming Indiana was going to be so terrible in 2017-18. But there’s no denying Oladipo’s stardom, and the roster is objectively better after a 48-win showing last year.
If you’re slotting the Pacers any lower than this, you’re probably betting on the Washington Wizards, a team that won five fewer games than Indiana, added locker room toxin Dwight Howard and will depend on John Wall, who may already be in decline ahead of his age-28 season.
Good luck with that.
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What form will Giannis Antetokounmpo’s inevitable step forward take this season? Will he extend his range? Grow some more? Learn to teleport? All three?
Everything for the Milwaukee Bucks starts with their still-developing superstar. But in addition to Antetokounmpo, this year’s Bucks will be led by a real NBA head coach, as Mike Budenholzer replaces the Jason Kidd/Joe Prunty tandem that presided over a gimmicky defense and 1990s era offensive schemes.
When you consider Budenholzer’s track record with the Atlanta Hawks, highlighted by the 60-win season that earned him Coach of the Year honors in 2014-15, it’s impossible to stave off the optimism. The Bucks figure to be better organized and more intelligently deployed than they were under the previous regime.
Add to that the improved spacing afforded by signees Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, and it’s easy to imagine the Bucks getting even more out of Antetokounmpo and the rest of their capable bucket-getters. And if Milwaukee wants to give Antetokounmpo more time at the 5—which seems like a reasonable thing to do with a 6’11” human in today’s NBA—the defense could morph into a switch-everything boa constrictor.
Squint, and you can see Milwaukee approaching top-five rankings in both offensive and defensive efficiency after checking in at seventh and 17th last year, respectively.
Get anywhere close to the top five on both ends, and you’re talking 55 wins without a fuss.
In light of all that, it’s somewhat stunning that three East teams have even better outlooks than Milwaukee. Yet here we are.
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Is there a single player on the Boston Celtics who you’d take over Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons?
When you’re talking about contenders, you have to start with stars.
Philly’s stellar duo comes complete with specific and troubling imperfections, though. This is why, as you’ve probably deduced, the Celtics still outrank the Sixers.
Embiid played 31 games in his first three seasons. Though he recovered to dominate for 63 contests last year, we still can’t think about the Sixers’ ceiling without first considering Embiid’s health. It also isn’t ideal that even when injury-free, Embiid’s conditioning seemed suspect.
Simmons’ issue is outside shooting. He attempted only 11 threes as a rookie, making none. All 11 were late-clock heaves, too, so the 6’10” point forward has a lot of work to do before boasting a complete game.
In a way, those concerns almost make the case for ranking the 76ers higher. It’s so easy to isolate their problems and, in theory, fix them. It’s kind of like the Sixers and Celtics are drag racing, and we know the Celtics are going to get off the line on time, rev up to a healthy top speed and finish without issue. The Sixers might hit the gas late and catch on fire at some point, but their top speed might be higher.
The priced-in risk is all that prevents Philadelphia from ranking second. When everything works, as it did after the All-Star break last year, the Sixers are flat-out elite. In that span, Philly went 22-5 and posted a net rating of plus-10.7 that smoked Boston’s figures of 15-8 and plus-4.1.
Yes, the Sixers could have had a better summer. They didn’t land a star. Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors reeled in Kawhi Leonard, and the Celtics will add a healthy Gordon Hayward. Still, there’s a non-zero chance Markelle Fultz becomes Philly’s big addition. If he hits the ground running and suddenly reminds the world why everyone but Danny Ainge believed he was the clear No. 1 prospect in 2017, it’ll be like the Sixers signed a developing star.
And if Fultz is as good as previously advertised, the Sixers will boast a three-headed monster.
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Full disclosure: I was going to cop out and rank the Celtics 2A to the Sixers’ 2B.
But I am not a coward, so the Celtics occupy second place alone.
They’re here largely because they took James’ Cavs to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year without Hayward or Kyrie Irving.
There’ll be kinks to work out with those two back on the floor. Hayward must fit into a far different situation than the one he signed up for. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown emerged last year, and both could improve enough to be straight-up better than the 28-year-old vet this season.
There’s also the issue of Irving’s health after another knee surgery. Heading for free agency in 2019 and rejoining a roster that already seems to have anointed Tatum as its top option, Irving and his clear preference for offensive primacy could face some struggles.
Slice the whole thing up thinly enough, and you can find plenty of potential problems. That’s true of any good team.
Stepping back a pace to take in the whole picture, though, reveals the Celtics to be exceptionally deep, brilliantly coached, laden with young talent and emboldened by last year’s shorthanded playoff run. That’s enough to distinguish the Celtics from a Sixers team that depends on Embiid’s health and might not get a single made three-pointer from Simmons or Fultz all year.
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Everyone’s in the bag for Boston, so this is going to seem controversial. But unpack the thinking, and it really isn’t.
The Raptors won 59 games last year, the most in the East. Their net rating was plus-7.6, which topped the Sixers by 2.2 points per 100 possessions and the Celtics by 3.9. By almost any measure you’d like to use, Toronto was the Eastern Conference’s best team in 2017-18.
And now it has Kawhi Leonard, who, if healthy, is the best player in the conference.
So, how does the best team adding the best player deserve anything other than the top ranking among conference contenders?
The way to tear Toronto down is to focus on health. If Leonard isn’t right, you can burn these rankings and never speak of them again. This is a bet that Leonard returns to form as a top-three MVP finisher.
Consider, too, that there’s an inherent matchup-based logic to these rankings. If a team is the top contender, it has to beat the other ones, right? Well, if the Raptors can now assign Leonard to Tatum, Simmons or anyone else in a win-or-go-home playoff series, doesn’t that give them an enormous advantage?
OG Anunoby, who profiles as one of the best young shutdown artists in the league, now gets to lock up the opponent’s second-best scorer. Nobody in the East matches the Raptors’ potential to suffocate opposing offenses.
Kyle Lowry could slip. Serge Ibaka already has. But starting with Anunoby and continuing to Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam, Toronto has ample room for organic improvement—probably more than enough to offset veteran decline.
The Raptors have a top-flight bench, no longer have to waste playoff touches on DeMar DeRozan 18-footers and figure to improve overall on both ends. Again: The best team in the East got better. This isn’t rocket science.
If you aren’t persuaded by reason, consider the cosmic balance angle. Won’t it be fitting if the Raptors fill the James power vacuum after being so devastatingly tormented by the King, who iced them three straight times in the playoffs? If the universe has a sense of equity, the Raps are owed something.
That something should be a Finals appearance.