For the first time since 2010, LeBron James will not represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. The King has taken his talents to Venice Beach, and there’s a new generation ready to take his throne. The bottom of the conference is terrible, but there’s plenty of talent at the top. Boston is adding a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a young team that went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without them, while Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid should be even better in their second full season together in Philadelphia.
After four straight years of Golden State vs. Cleveland in the Finals, there’s legitimate drama about who will come out of one side of the bracket. The Celtics and 76ers aren’t overwhelming favorites the way the Cavs were with LeBron. Perennial underachievers like the Raptors and Wizards have fresh hope, while young teams like the Bucks and Pacers could take big steps forward without James’s presence to block their rise. For all the talk of scrapping conferences in the All-Star Game, there are more than enough elite players on those six teams alone to field a great squad.
Some may be even better by the trade deadline. Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, and Kemba Walker could all be on the move over the next few months. Golden State’s dominance means there isn’t as much incentive for teams in the West to trade for them, since all three could be free agents next summer. It’s a different story out East. There are no guarantees that the Warriors will make it through the first three rounds of the playoffs healthy, so the team that meets them in the Finals could have a better chance than people realize.
Here’s a deeper look at the six teams in the East with the best chance to reach that point:
It’s hard to blame the Celtics for sitting out this offseason. They are loaded. They got to see their projected starting five of Kyrie, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford for only five minutes last season before Hayward’s devastating ankle injury, and that group looks a lot scarier now after strong playoff performances from Tatum and Brown. All five can be primary options on offense, and Boston has a deep group of role players coming off the bench, plus a coach (Brad Stevens) who can push all the right buttons.
The biggest concern for the Celtics will be keeping everyone happy. How will Kyrie and Hayward feel about smaller roles in the offense? Will Tatum and Brown take a step back to accommodate them? If Marcus Smart, a restricted free agent, comes back on a one-year qualifying offer, will he be OK as a defensive specialist? Terry Rozier is up for an extension on his rookie contract, and he’ll go back to running the second unit after averaging 36.6 minutes per game in the playoffs. Balancing all those egos will be a different challenge for Stevens, who has made his name getting the most out of overachieving teams.
The 76ers weren’t close in the sweepstakes for LeBron or Paul George, so they rolled their cap space over to the summer of 2019, their last chance to add elite talent in free agency before they have to start paying their own young players. Assuming Embiid stays healthy, they should be a more appealing destination next time around. Philly was ahead of schedule last season, and almost everyone in its rotation has room to grow. Embiid is 24, and Simmons will turn 22 in July. There’s no ceiling on how good the Sixers can become.
Short-term spark plugs Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova are gone, but the holes in their games were exposed in a second-round loss to the Celtics. New acquisition Wilson Chandler is a better two-way player than Belinelli, and Nemanja Bjelica is more well-rounded offensively than Ilyasova. The big question hanging over Philadelphia is the shooting stroke of Markelle Fultz, the no. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. He shot 41.3 percent from 3 on 5.0 attempts per game in one season in college, and the 76ers will be almost impossible to defend if he can regain even a trace of his outside shot.
No team was happier to see LeBron go to the West than the Raptors, who have lost 10 consecutive playoff games to him. It’s hard to be too optimistic about Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s ability to lead a team in the postseason, but Toronto may not need them to. They have pulled off the rare double of developing a young core while remaining relevant, and their young players will push for even bigger roles this season. OG Anunoby won a starting spot as a rookie while recovering from a torn ACL that ended his college career, and athletic big man Pascal Siakam could join him in the starting lineup.
The Raptors re-signed Fred VanVleet, a second-year player who had the highest net rating (plus-12.1) of any of their rotation players. For comparison, Lowry was seventh in net rating. DeRozan was 10th. Former head coach Dwane Casey, now in Detroit, was a fairly conservative influence who didn’t want to make too many changes to the starting lineup. It will be interesting to see if Nick Nurse, his former assistant coach, will be more willing to empower the team’s youth. Toronto’s history of playoff failures don’t mean as much to players who weren’t even in the league when Lowry and DeRozan made the franchise relevant in 2014.
No team has more low-hanging fruit to pick than Milwaukee, which hit a ceiling under the coaching regime of Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty. They hired former Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer, and there are two stats from last season that jump out when comparing the performances of the Hawks and Bucks. Milwaukee was fifth in the NBA in corner 3-point percentage allowed (41.7 percent) and 25th in percentage of their shots taken from 3 (29.7 percent). Atlanta was 21st in the former (38.1 percent) and sixth (36.3 percent) in the latter. The Hawks were one of the least talented teams in the league, but they still did a much better job of taking away high-percentage shots from their opponents and emphasizing those shots than the Bucks.
Despite all their coaching drama last season, the Bucks took the Celtics to seven games in the first round, which looks better now than it did at the time, given how close the Celtics were to the Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo (25.7 points on 57 percent shooting, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game) and Khris Middleton (24.7 points on 59.8 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game) tore up a Boston defense that stifled Simmons and Embiid in the second round. If Budenholzer, who consistently developed young players in Atlanta, can maximize Jabari Parker, a restricted free agent the Bucks could retain, and young stretch big man Thon Maker, Milwaukee could be an interesting sleeper.
The Pacers, like they usually do, have stayed under the radar over the past week, handing out modest contracts to Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott rather than using their cap space to chase bigger names. Evans, still only 28 despite entering his 10th season in the NBA, is coming off a bounce-back season in Memphis, where he averaged 19.4 points on 45.2 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game. He’s the secondary scorer and playmaker Indiana needs to complement Victor Oladipo, who became one of the best players in the NBA last season.
The Pacers’ ability to compete in the East will depend on the development of their two young big men: Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Both only 22, they are inside-outside threats on offense who can play all over the floor on defense. However, each is more effective as a center, so the question for head coach Nate McMillan is whether he can develop a scheme that allows them to thrive next to each other. The Pacers don’t have much time to figure it out: Turner is up for an extension on his rookie deal this summer, and Sabonis will be next summer.
Washington has the talent to compete with anyone in the East. That has been the case for most of the John Wall–and–Bradley Beal era, yet the team hasn’t won 50 games in the regular season or advanced past the second round in the past six years. The Wizards have been consistently worse than the sum of their parts, and their three additions (Dwight Howard, Jeff Green, and Austin Rivers) aren’t known for maximizing their talent, either. There’s a sense of complacency that goes all the way to the top in Washington.
The hope is that Marcin Gortat, an aging center and vocal critic of Wall, was holding them back. Howard, for all his off-court issues, is significantly better than Gortat. The Wizards also have an interesting group of wings and combo forwards (Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, Green, Kelly Oubre Jr., and first-round pick Troy Brown Jr.) who could allow Washington to play small for large stretches of the game and open up the floor for Wall and Beal. Whether head coach Scott Brooks will even try outside-the-box lineup combinations, though, is a different question.