Another NBA season has come and gone. With new records broken and teams reaching new heights, no team has been able to top the two powerhouses of the league. Again, in the 2017 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers played the Golden State Warriors, with the Dubs winning the series in five. With this marking the third straight year that the Cavaliers and the Warriors have faced off in the Finals, they sent a message to the rest of the Eastern and Western Conference that they are on another level, especially with both teams going a combined 24-1 in the playoffs before reaching the Finals. This message sparked a wild NBA Draft and Free Agency period that would alter the outlook of the league. Will 2018 bring about more dominance from the Cavs and the Warriors, or have teams done enough in the offseason to conquer the kings of the NBA?
Dominance in the Eastern Conference centers around one name: LeBron James. The consensus best player on the planet and maybe one of the best ever has tormented Eastern Conference teams, going to the last seven NBA Finals, whether as a member of the Miami Heat or the Cavaliers. However, several teams have made moves to challenge The King in 2018 and for years to come.
After losing to LeBron and the Cavs in five in the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s easy to forget that it was actually the Celtics who were the first seed in the conference. After proving no match for Cleveland in the ECF, Boston, who held the first pick in the draft from the Brooklyn Nets, traded down to the third pick in the draft and selected Duke SF Jayson Tatum. The Celtics made a big splash in signing Gordon Hayward from the Utah Jazz, reuniting the budding star with former Butler head coach Brad Stevens. However, after absorbing Haywards max contract, Boston had to part with depth forwards Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk. Avery Bradley was also traded to the Detroit Pistons to make cap room for Hayward. Bradley’s departure from the organization leaves a big question mark at the shooting guard position and the Celtics’ ability to defend in the backcourt as 5’ 9” Isaiah Thomas is far from an elite defender. The Celtics certainly added scoring with Gordon Hayward to go along with Thomas, but their ability to keep the opposing team from scoring will be the biggest question mark for Boston heading into the 2017-2018 campaign.
The Philadelphia 76ers have been the epitome of a bad basketball team ever since all-time great Allen Iverson left the franchise. However, with their “Trust the Process” mentality, the Sixers, may have finally figured it out. With the emergence of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric as potentially elite players last season, and the potential that comes along with Ben Simmons, the Sixers had three young and talented players to go along with capable role players like T. J. McConnell and Robert Covington heading into this offseason. Trading up two spots to grab number one overall pick Markelle Fultz certainly gives Philly an able, possibly generational point guard for the future. Also, the signing of veteran scorer J. J. Reddick from the LA Clippers fortifies the backcourt in Philadelphia. The only thing lacking in this team is winning experience. Many will wonder if the spotlight will be too big for a young and up-and-coming 76ers team if they snag a playoff spot in the East this upcoming season.
The potential and already visible skill of Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo is what gives the Bucks the possibility of making noise in the Eastern Conference. He, alongside ROTY winner Malcolm Brogdon, budding star Jabari Parker, underrated stud Khris Middleton and former 16PPG/10RPG player Greg Monroe allows the Bucks to be relevant in the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Washington has finally burst onto the scene in the Eastern Conference. After losing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes last year despite his connection with Washington D. C., the Wizards have been able to rely upon their superstar John Wall. Wall has finally blown the cap way off on his potential and talent by averaging 23.1 points per game and 10.7 assists last year. He and Bradley Beal form one of the league’s most dynamic backcourts if they can both stay healthy. They get much-needed help from standout Otto Porter Jr., who averaged 13.4 points per game last year to go along with 6.4 rebounds in an efficient season, to go with Markieff Morris and a still useful Marcin Gortat. This core group can challenge the top team in the East in the upcoming years, and the main question is if can all of them stay healthy long enough to do it. Depth may also be a concern here.
The dynasty of the San Antonio Spurs has just about faded into history, hanging on by a thread who goes by the name of Kawhi Leonard. The new dynasty of the Golden State Warriors has begun, which features them winning two of the last three NBA Championships. By adding Kevin Durant in the 2016, owner Joe Lacob has built the super team of super teams that looks to dominate the Western Conference for years to come. Their superiority over the Conference has pushed the rest of the conference to catch up.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have been searching for the pieces to regain the glory they had earlier in the 21st century. By drafting UCLA Guard Lonzo Ball and trading D’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn for center Brook Lopez, the Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka-led Lake show have put together a team that could compete in 2017. However, with the young talent they have in Ball, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram, the Lakers are looking forward to prospective free agents they could sign in the upcoming years. Now Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George has been heavily linked with the Lakers, and is believed to want to sign with his hometown team after his contract ends next summer. Los Angeles has also been linked with superstar LeBron James who may also be becoming a free agent when his contract expires in 2018. When you are a franchise with the reputation that the Los Angeles Lakers have, you are never really irrelevant. The Lakers look like they could be very close to regaining the glory they once had.
Who’d ever think that the Minnesota Timberwolves would be potentially one of the best teams in the league? With Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins finally coming into their own as future stars, the Wolves have a very optimistic future. Adding Creighton seven-footer Justin Patton in the draft gave Minnesota another young player with a lot of upside. Heading into free agency, not many were expecting the small-market Minnesota Timberwolves to make a ton of noise. However, when all-star forward Jimmy Butler was traded from Chicago to Minnesota for Zach Levine, Kris Dunn and a swap of first round draft picks, Minnesota became the hottest spot for free agents. With the Timberwolves going on to sign point guard Jeff Teague from Indiana who made an all-star appearance just two years ago, the stage is set for the Timberwolves to make a run into the playoffs this upcoming season. If they can keep this group together, who knows how deep that playoff run could be?
San Antonio Spurs
With Gregg Popovich at the helm of the Spurs, San Antonio is never really far away from challenging for the NBA title. Despite Tim Duncan retiring and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aging, the Spurs still have a top three player in Kawhi Leonard to lead the team. Alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green, San Antonio make formidable opponents for all Western Conference teams. However, with so many teams getting younger and faster, even the ageless Spurs are having to adapt, causing them to have to search for potential free agents. Despite the passing of the torch from the Spurs’ big three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, the Spurs are never far from another championship run – don’t forget the lead that they held in game one of the WCF before Kawhi went down.
The Rockets MVP finalist James Harden made significant strides under Coach Mike D’Antoni this past season. After losing to the Spurs in the second round of the NBA playoffs, the Rockets made large-scale changes to try and get over that playoff plateau that’s haunted them. By trading for all-star point guard Chris Paul for a heap of players including Sam Dekker and Patrick Beverley, the Rockets added another piece to go along with Harden. However, the combo of Harden and Paul may not be as successful as people assume. Harden flourished as a point guard last season in the D’Antoni offense. By adding Chris Paul, Houston is forced to move Harden back to playing shooting guard, where his numbers may drop from their 29/8/11 spot established last season. Also, by giving up so much for Paul, the Rockets bench took a substantial shot in its depth, which was another big reason for last year’s success. Only time will tell if the Paul-Harden relationship with generate wins on the court, and whether they have enough pieces around them to push the Houston Rockets over the edge.