Our great ancestors along with the NBA hierarchy uttered the same message – go west, young man! Even though the Golden State Warriors look poised to dominate the western conference once again, superstar players still chose to join that conference during the off-season. Paul George was shipped to OKC, Jimmy Butler landed in Minnesota, and Paul Millsap elected to sign in Denver. Blake Griffin chose to stay in LA after his teammate, Chris Paul was traded within the conference.
Only Gordon Hayward was brave enough to jump from the west to the east – a conference haunted by LeBron James for nearly 15 years. With the possibility of 2017-18 being James’ final season in the east, several teams will try to build towards a future of conference domination. Some teams are ready to take a run at James and the Cleveland Cavaliers this year, while others would be wise to wait for his departure.
There are far too many pretenders in the east with far too few actual contenders. The Miami Heat became the first team in league history to recover from 19 games under to finish the season with a .500 record. Can Erik Spoelstra and company parlay that run into a hot start this season? The Charlotte Hornets have enough firepower in Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum to qualify for postseason play. But, will the addition of Dwight Howard help them pull off a playoff upset?
Contrary to what most basketball pundits believe, the Washington Wizards could be even better than the Boston Celtics this season. If they stay healthy, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see Washington claim the #2 seed in the east. Is there anything scarier for James and the Cavs than a happy and hungry John Wall? Wall earns the nod as the second-best player in the conference, and was just rewarded with a new $170 million deal to stay in DC. After pushing the Celtics to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, many believe the time is right for the Wizards to take that next step. Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter could likely put up a better fight than the Celtics if they face off with the Cavs in the eastern conference finals.
Year after year, the Celtics attack the off-season with an eye on the future. This July was more of a mix of the future and present though. Boston traded away the first overall pick to Philadelphia, but landed prized free agent Gordon Hayward just days later. With a plethora of assets and depth – roster includes Hayward, Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum, Boston has more than enough talent to compete with the Cavs. The Celtics were not exposed against Cleveland in the playoffs; rather the gap between the Cavs and everyone else in the east was showcased. Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens have always been aware of this gap and their need of an all-world player. They will be amongst the conference’s best this year, while focusing on being the team to beat in the post-James era in the east.
While LeBron and Wall hold the titles of best two players in the east, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is ready to be mentioned in the same breath. Last year, Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. But surprisingly, the fourth-year pro did not do everything by himself. Jabari Parker continues his ascent to one of the league’s best power forwards – he averaged 20.1 PPG last season. And, Malcolm Brogdon became the first ever non-first round pick to earn rookie of the year honors. With declines expected from the Hawks, Pacers, and Bulls, Milwaukee will have a good look at a top-four finish in the east.
Behind the Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors have been the eastern conference’s most consistent team for the past four seasons with win totals of 48, 49, 56, and 51. They also averted disaster this off-season by re-signing both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. Consistency has never been the issue with the Raptors. It’s the lack of star-power that continues to haunt this team. They have a good roster, but not a great roster that’s capable of competing with Bron and company come playoff time. The Raptors are always able to hold on to their own stars, but they face the same recruiting problems that exist in the east outside of Cleveland. If Bron vacates the Cavs, will this Raptors’ team still be a contender when the 2018-19 season rolls around?
Too soon? Maybe. But truth is, this team will be too exciting to ignore in 2017-18. They are young and they can score, but will that translate to 40-plus wins? Joel Embiid was a rookie of the year candidate last season despite playing in only 31 games. In all likelihood, the 76ers will feature two ROY candidates once again this year with top-pick Markelle Fultz and last season’s prize, Ben Simmons. The one-year deal for J.J. Reddick suggests that this team thinks it can challenge for a playoff spot at the very least this season. The 76ers’ model is incredibly similar to Boston’s, but they are a few years behind in the timeline. Hungry Philly fans are finally trusting the process now that they boast a team full of potential studs. While this group needs to learn how to win playoff basketball games, it is definitely possible that they find regular season success right away.