The king is dead, long live the king!
Okay, no one has actually died, but as far as the Eastern Conference is concerned, LeBron James‘ migration to the West has left the throne vacated.
After eight consecutive years of stopping teams dead in their tracks in the playoffs, James’ reign has come to an end. But as one monarchy crumbles, another is ascending to take its place.
Even before LeBron made his decision to leave Cleveland, it was clear the Boston Celtics‘ time had come – pushing the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward made that more than evident.
Now fully healthy, the Celtics’ collection of talent and depth is second only to the defending champions residing in the Bay. Between Irving, Hayward and Al Horford, Boston have three legitimate veteran All-Stars, while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are rapidly rising through the stratosphere as budding stars in their own right.
The bench has starter-calibre players in Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes, and with wunderkind Brad Stevens at the helm, the questions over fit and chemistry aren’t expected to linger as the season goes on.
Boston are in the catbird seat to supersede LeBron in both the present and future, but they’re not the only show in the East.
The best player in the conference still resides elsewhere, with that honour now belonging to Kawhi Leonard.
Disgruntled in San Antonio last season, Leonard has a fresh beginning with a contender – albeit one he didn’t chose – to prove he’s still a top-five player in the league when healthy.
The upgrade from DeMar DeRozan to Leonard makes the Raptors a contender for this season, but beyond that is anyone’s guess as his stay north of the border may be nothing more than temporary if he still has wandering eyes in free agency next summer.
The other team that completes the top tier of the East is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are hoping the continued development of phenoms Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can make up for the ground they lost in the offseason as their two main competitors got better.
Philadelphia had oodles of cap space to work with, yet couldn’t land a star as James picked the glitz and glam of Hollywood, while Paul George didn’t budge from his spot in Oklahoma City.
The 76ers are banking on last year’s number one overall pick, Markelle Fultz, to join the party after he sat out nearly his entire rookie season with a mysterious injury and what appeared to be a confidence issue. If he looks like the prospect he was coming out of college, Philadelphia could have a ‘big three’ of their own brewing, but that’s a big ‘if’ considering Fultz’s slow start to his career.
Behind Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia are a host of teams that are playoff-worthy, yet uninspiring in the context of contending for a title.
The Washington Wizards improved on paper with the signing of Dwight Howard, but adding his personality to that contentious locker room may be the equivalent of throwing a stick of dynamite into a group of powder kegs.
In Indiana, the Pacers may have the best squad outside the top three, with role-player-turned-star Victor Oladipo leading a cast that has the potential to play spoilers and surprise once again.
Leonard may be the best player in the conference at the moment, but his hold on the title is tenuous with Giannis Antetokounmpo breathing down his neck. The Milwaukee Bucks star is garnering MVP hype for a reason as he heads into his sixth season after improving his numbers year after year. And with Mike Budenholzer now guiding the young Bucks, better coaching may finally unlock Milwaukee’s potential.
The Miami Heat, meanwhile, remain nothing more than plucky challengers, barring a trade for Jimmy Butler which may or may not happen.
After that, the conference drops off to the .500 level teams and the franchises who are still in tank mode.
The East can’t hold a candle to its counterpart in terms of competitiveness and drama, but what it does have it going for it is the sense of a new beginning at the top.
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