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The East Is Where the Wild Things Are

The Eastern Conference is sparing no expense to try to take LeBron James’s vacant crown. With Jimmy Butler now in Philly, the “Leastern Conference” is suddenly filled with some of the best, most compelling teams in the NBA.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Giannis Antetokounmpo contorts his face as if the question pains him. Inside the visiting locker room at Staples Center after an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday afternoon, a reporter wonders whether the Milwaukee Bucks’ hot start to this season—a 10-3 record, a top-three defense and offense, and second place in the East—is sustainable. The confusion Giannis had just expressed over the Bucks’ poor spacing in the game is gone, giving way to unabashed confidence. He nearly scoffs at the inquiry. “Oh, yeah,” Antetokounmpo says. “No doubt.”

Ben Golliver, Sports Illustrated

Giannis does admit that Saturday’s close game felt weird to him. Again, he doesn’t mince words. “Because we’ve been blowing teams out,” he says.

He’s not wrong. Milwaukee’s average margin of victory this season is 17.6 points, and its point differential is a league-leading plus-11.9. On Thursday, it was the Bucks, not the Warriors, blowing their opponent off the floor at Oracle Arena. And on Sunday, they beat the Nuggets in Denver on the second night of a back-to-back. This is the Bucks’ new reality. They are no longer just a middling team in the Eastern Conference; they are one of the squads that the middling East teams are chasing.

But as good as the Bucks have been, they’re not running away with the conference either. The Raptors currently lead the entire NBA at 12-1. The Celtics, despite an ugly start on offense, may still have the most talented roster in the conference. And on Saturday, the Sixers vaulted back into conversation. Just as the Bucks were waking up in Los Angeles before their game against the Clippers, Philadelphia agreed to trade for Jimmy Butler in exchange for a package centered on Robert Covington and Dario Saric. It was an aggressive move with clear intentions: The time to win is now.

In the wake of LeBron James’s exodus to the West, the rest of the East has seen the light at the end of the tunnel and they’re bolting for it. The Bucks have taken a leap in Mike Budenholzer’s system. The Sixers are making a bet on Butler being their third star. The Raptors made a high-risk gamble on Kawhi Leonard, and the Celtics are stocked thanks to prior bold acquisitions (from which they’re still reaping the benefit).

“Even the Pistons can beat us,” Bucks center John Henson said Saturday. Well, probably not the Pistons. But, overall, he has a point. There’s room for competition in a conference that used to be a practice run for James. And if the past year of transactions is any indication, the arms race to take his vacated crown after eight straight years will be as compelling as the games.

As bold as the Sixers’ decision was to swap two critical figures of the Process for an older superstar who has clashed with his past two organizations, they may not be done shaking things up. Losing Robert Covington and Dario Saric means Philly will be back on the market in search for shooting for the second straight year. The Sixers were able to find a solution via buyouts last season and could do so again if someone like Kyle Korver or Trevor Ariza shakes free. Or they could go the more extreme route and use Markelle Fultz to find someone who fits the starting lineup far better than their shooting-averse former no. 1 overall pick.

The East could ripple from there: If the Celtics fall behind the Raptors, Bucks, and Sixers, maybe Danny Ainge fires up the Trade Machine looking to cash in on Terry Rozier or one of his precious future draft assets. Masai Ujiri is always active, and with the Raptors only assured one season of Kawhi Leonard, maybe he deals from his incredibly deep roster to ensure he maximizes his title window. Even the Pistons could get into the mix. Detroit, at 6-6, isn’t on the level of Toronto or Boston, but it took on more risk than any of them by dealing for Blake Griffin’s monster contract last year; what does it have to lose by mortgaging even more of its future?

The West has been where all the competition was for years; the idea of abolishing conferences and seeding the playoff teams 1 to 16 has made it all the way up to the commissioner’s office in large part because average East teams make it over West teams with far better records all the time. But as the search in the West for a capable Warriors challenger becomes the cloudiest it’s been since 2014-15, the East has quietly become the conference of right now. The Trail Blazers have the same record as the Bucks, but star power dictates postseason success, and the East now has four teams that can each send two or more players to the All-Star Game, with organizations behind them capable of maximizing their potentials. Even teams currently scraping the bottom of the East can project themselves in that mix through one good summer: The Knicks are banking on landing a max free agent this summer, and the Nets, finally free of their draft debt, may be able to open up two max slots. The East has been rebuilding for years and now it’s reaping the benefits.

LeBron used to squash any hope these teams had by flipping the switch come playoff time. Now that he’s gone, East teams are taking advantage of their new opportunities like a teammate of Russell Westbrook after being traded to a new team.

The race among the conference’s top teams should be even more fascinating from here. Just don’t ask Giannis how it all plays out. “I’m not gonna [make] predictions,” he said when asked whether he thought the Bucks were a top-three team in the East. “I’m not gonna put pressure on my team.”

Antetokounmpo won’t have to. The rest of the top of the East will do it for him.