The Eastern Conference just underwent a major shakeup this offseason as eight-time reigning champion LeBron James defected for Hollywood and the 59-win Toronto Raptors acquired superstar forward Kawhi Leonard in exchange for DeMar DeRozan. How will these moves affect the landscape of the Eastern Conference?
1. Boston Celtics
Even if LeBron James had stayed in the East, the Celtics still would have been the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Boston pushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals without All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Add those two along with star big man Al Horford and young up-and-comers Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and the Celtics are still the class of the East.
2. Toronto Raptors
Dealing for Leonard has catapulted Toronto into the second spot in the East. Toronto won a franchise-record 59 games last season, but were no match for LeBron James. The Raptors have always been a good regular season team; however, they have always folded in the playoffs. General manager Masai Ugiri knew the team wasn’t good enough to win big, so firing coach Dwane Casey and trading the face of the franchise was a bold move that should work in Toronto’s favor, at least for this season.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Had the Sixers acquired Leonard, they may have surpassed Boston for Eastern Conference favorites. There were no fireworks in Philadelphia as the team only re-signed sharpshooter J.J. Redick while losing fellow snipers Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. In addition to losing those two, Nemanja Bjelica spurned Philadelphia after agreeing to a contract. The Sixers are in great position going forward with two of the best young players in the game in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. They’re just not quite there in 2018.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee has the best player in the conference in Giannis Antetokounmpo; therefore, it is at least a threat to the top three teams. Milwaukee had a quiet offseason, but did hire Mike Budenholzer as its coach while drafting Donte DiVincenzo in the first round. The “Greak Freak” complemented by Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe gives them a puncher’s chance to make the Finals
5. Indiana Pacers
The surprise of the 2017-18 season was the emergence of the Indiana Pacers and Most Improved Player winner Victor Oladipo. Indiana made some upgrades adding Tyreke Evans and Kyle O’Quinn, which adds some veteran leadership to a young team. If Victor Oladipo can replicate his magical season, then Indiana could make some noise in a weak Eastern Conference.
6. Washington Wizards
The Wizards have one of the more talented teams with the All Star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Washington also added Dwight Howard while swapping Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers. Those moves don’t seem like they will make a huge difference for them, but Washington is talented enough to scare anyone in the East in a seven-game series.
7. Miami Heat
The Heat stood pat this offseason bringing back the group who lost to Philadelphia in five games. Unlike the Heat of years past, this iteration is filled with hard-nosed, blue-collar players instead of stars. Erik Spoelstra is still a good coach and guys like Goran Dragic, James Johnson, and Dwyane Wade, if he returns, should allow Miami to make the playoffs again.
8. Detroit Pistons
Last January, the Pistons pulled off a desperation blockbuster deal to bring in Blake Griffin from the Clippers. Griffin’s fit with Andre Drummond is suspect, and he has major health issues throughout his career. Still, in the Eastern Conference, the Pistons have enough talent to sneak into the playoffs.
9. Chicago Bulls
Only a year after trading franchise cornerstone Jimmy Butler, the Bulls look like a team building toward a sustainable program. The team made a number of moves in the offseason that added young talent to the roster despite some risks. Retaining Zach LaVine and signing hometown kid Jabari Parker allowed Chicago to have elite young scorers without surrendering assets. They selected Wendell Carter Jr. in the NBA Draft, and he should complement fellow big man Lauri Markkanen very well in the frontcourt. Even if Chicago doesn’t make the Playoffs this year, it is still an exciting young team.
10. Charlotte Hornets
This may not be the best place for Charlotte as the team looks like it is once again destined for mediocrity. Michael Jordan elected to hold onto point guard Kemba Walker instead of trading him in the final year of a team-friendly contract. The Hornets are loaded with nice role players earning way too much and let go of Dwight Howard. The team now has four below-average big men being paid a combined $48 million next year.
11. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers lost arguably the greatest player ever for nothing this summer and are left with nothing but Kevin Love, Collin Sexton, and some truly terrible contracts. As evidenced during the NBA Finals, Cleveland was carried solely by LeBron James, but with Kevin Love and shooters, Cleveland could still win 30-35 games.
12. Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are finally out from under the cloud of the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade from five years ago. Despite not having any real assets, the Nets pulled off some nice moves to acquire draft picks and young players like D’Angelo Russell, Caris Levert, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Brooklyn also took on overpriced veterans like Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, and Kenneth Faried who could add some wins as well. Kenny Atkinson is a good coach and will prevent Brooklyn from being the laughingstock of the conference.
13. New York Knicks
One thing that can be said this offseason about the Knicks is that they didn’t do anything stupid. New York learned its lesson from Joakim Noah and Tim Hardaway Jr., and refrained from giving out bad contracts. Kristaps Porzingis is still a question mark with his torn ACL. The Knicks could be careful and shut him down, let Kevin Knox develop, and go all out for a star-studded 2019 free agency.
14. Orlando Magic
The Magic fulfilled their primary goal of retaining Aaron Gordon and drafted big man Mo Bamba with the sixth pick in the draft. The Magic are not a good team by any stretch of the imagination, but if the players are developed, it could build something nice for the future. Also, please stop playing Aaron Gordon at the three.
15. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks made a very risky move trading back two slots, forgoing the opportunity to take European phenom Luka Doncic, and instead choosing Trae Young. Young is the ultimate boom or bust prospect, while Doncic is one of the more sure-fire bets in years. After years of consistent success with players like Al Horford and Paul Millsap, expect another miserable season in Atlanta.
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