As every media reporter has been reiterating, LeBron’s move to the LA Lakers has created a ripple effect all across the league. Kawhi Leonard has set his sights on Los Angeles, none of the Lake show’s young stars are safe, and the Eastern Conference is wide open. The Celtics and the Sixers emerge as the clear front runners, but there are a few other teams who could vie for contention. Surely, the Raptors feel less pressure to force a full rebuild, and other teams will be sure to capitalize on the opportunity to have a clear-cut opportunity at making the finals. Here are the contenders of the East:
Boston Celtics: Boston has achieved a great mix of grooming home-grown talent and picking up pieces along the way. Even without re-signing Marcus Smart, Boston currently features nine players on their roster who should get regular minutes (Irving, Hayward, Horford, Tatum, Morris, Brown, Rozier, Baynes, Williams). This kind of depth mixed with star power poises the Celtics to achieve immense success in both the regular season and the postseason. The Celtics’ postseason success this past season while lacking their two best players only further accentuates the excitement reverberating throughout New England about where this team is headed in the near future. These guys are the favorites to make the finals from the East.
Philadelphia 76ers: So young, yet so promising. Considering the fact that the Sixers refuse to include Fultz in trade talks, my guess is that Philly is confident that the formal first overall pick can make up for lost time. With plenty of cap space to make noise in the offseason, Philly needs to act quickly if they want to add another talent to join the likes of Embiid and Simmons. However, with their entire core locked up through the 2019-2020 season, they’re in no rush to splash cash this offseason, especially with such a talented free agent class expected in a year. Considering their success last year, coupled with their youth, NBA pundits would be doing a disservice if they were not to label the Sixers as the Celtics’ biggest rivals heading into 2018.
Toronto Raptors: In some peoples’ eyes, the Raptors are in great position heading into 2018. All of the players who contributed to their immense regular season success last season are returning, and save for Delon Wright, are locked up for two more years. However, to those who choose to look at their situation with the glass half empty, Toronto has been pigeonholed financially in a way that would only be alleviated by getting rid of a star. They have limited flexibility in terms of free agency and would struggle to change their roster whatsoever. Their main priority needs to be getting rid of Serge Ibaka’s contract, but they could choose to use the opportunity of a LeBron-less East to test their luck with riding out their roster.
Washington Wizards: The Wizards are getting Demarcus Cousins. The Wizards are getting Demarcus Cousins. I’m just going to keep repeating it until it actually happens. The entire NBA needs to remember their 2017 success as a means of understanding that they are one player away from getting out of the East. Otto Porter can make the argument that he is worth every penny that he is getting paid, but not on a team like the Wizards. Porter isn’t a role player per se, but he simply fills out a specific role on the floor; no matter how efficiently this role is carried out, they shouldn’t be paying him this kind of money. If a sign-and-trade for Cousins is carried out by the Wiz and Pelicans, a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached that sends D.C. into full-on contention for the Finals crown. Even without this kind of acquisition, Washington will present a threat to any team on any given night, especially with their backcourt depth.
Indiana Pacers: The reason the Pacers did so well this past season is because of their team chemistry. Each player was asked to fulfill a specific role, and they nailed this to a tee. Indiana will go for bigger-name free agents and will also look to sign players to bargain multi-year deals, but they should hold off on going win-now mode for one more year. The focus will be to continue grooming Oladipo into a bonafide NBA star, and to see that Myles Turner turns into a star in his own right. Indiana will have only five players on their books in 2019 as of now (Oladipo, Sabonis, Leaf, Anigbogu, McDermott), which gives them a ton of flexibility. Look for them to spend big next offseason, but to take the conservative route and still try to contend with their current personnel this upcoming year.
On the Rise:
Milwaukee Bucks: This team likely has the most questions to answer this offseason than any other team on this list. Giannis is locked up, but Bledsoe’s situation is questionable, and Middleton will likely opt out and ask for a payday next offseason. Jabari Parker doesn’t know where he’ll be playing yet, and Milwaukee clearly needs more talent to be where they want to be. The Bucks will continue to shift around their roster, and should be looking for short-term help to drive them over the hump. They’ll have to make some trades, first, in order to clear out some cap space for game-changing players. Dellavedova, Henson, Bledsoe and Snell seem to be the most viable trade candidates.
Detroit Pistons: Detroit is looking to put an end to their mediocrity. Dwane Casey’s hiring clearly shows that the Pistons are looking to head in a new direction, and their dominating frontcourt poises them to get back into the playoffs. They still don’t have enough to be vying for title contention, but with Drummond and Griffin committed until 2021, they have plenty of time to figure it out. The question remains whether they’ll settle for mediocrity in the coming seasons or make some moves to clear out cap space for better players. With plenty of free agency to go, we will see what they choose to do.
Eastern Conference Standings Projections
1. Boston Celtics
Boston’s roster is head and shoulders the most talented pool of players in the East. Given the lack of talent in this conference, they could wind up sending four players to the All-Star game: Tatum, Brown, Irving and Hayward. This would be a significant development, as their only all-star last season was Al Horford, illustrating their depth. Danny Ainge’s move this offseason should be to not move a muscle – unless it is to re-sign his players.
2. Toronto Raptors
I’m not a huge fan of this Raptors team, but given that they demonstrated huge regular season success with the same roster, they should be able to replicate these results to a slightly lower degree. If I’m a member of Toronto’s front office, I would just ride out this roster in hopes that a LeBron-less east means a clear path to the Finals.
3. Washington Wizards
The success that I see the Wizards having is completely predicated on their potential acquisition of Demarcus Cousins. Still, despite having three All-NBA caliber players on the same roster if Boogie were to make a move to DC, it would take some time for him to gel with his new teammates in the capitol. Look for them to have greater postseason success than regular season success.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
I’m not completely sold on Philly’s “process” just yet. I have a feeling that they’ll fail to attract any of the major free agents this offseason and settle for gambling on Isaiah Thomas to return to form, but this is a gamble that I hope pays off. The Sixers’ regular season success last season came because of an end-of-season win streak mostly against teams in tank mode, racing for the best draft pick possible. Unless Ben Simmons can find a jump shot and Embiid can stay healthy, I see them finding the same amount of success as last season. We’ll have to wait for them to take the jump.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks will go as far as Giannis takes them. They underperformed last year, but I expect the Greek Freak to be one of the league’s front runners for MVP. They should be making moves to improve their roster this offseason, and could look towards the services of Dwight Howard to improve their frontcourt and possibly Dennis Schroder to provide competition for Bledsoe. Very excited to see how the Bucks do.
6. Indiana Pacers
Indy ought to be excited about how their team is shaping up. Their roster can only grow, but their pure lack of star power puts them this low on the list. I’d liken them to the Spurs in the sense that despite the fact that they need more talent, their players fit very well on their roster, and they should perform well enough to earn a playoff spot. Look for Indy to make a few more offseason moves; hopefully, for Tyreke Evans.
7. Detroit Pistons
With the softening of the East, the Pistons will actually feel no pressure to win now, because their big stars are locked up for a few more years. They have the talent to test their frontcourt in the postseason, but should be focused on offloading Jackson, Leuer and Galloway to make room for other pieces. Detroit could very well be on the rise very soon, but they’ll have to wait to break into the very best of the East.
8. Brooklyn Nets
Here’s my wildcard pick. The eighth spot in the East is as wide open as can be, and the Cavs and Heat look likely to miss out on the playoffs after making it this past season. Miami is Brooklyn’s biggest competition, but their cap situation limits their activity this offseason, and Dragic continues to get older. The Nets have a solid young core that doesn’t get paid much, so it wouldn’t be surpised if they picked up a few more pieces to edge out a playoff spot in the East. This could be the year that D’Angelo Russell breaks out and maximizes his potential.