With LeBron Exiting Eastern Conference, Which Team Emerges in the East?

By Michael Vesci
Jul. 05, 2018

When LeBron James opted out of his contract in Cleveland and then decided to sign on with the Lakers, the power of the Eastern Conference suddenly shifted. No longer will it be the Cavs running things in the East as the representative in the NBA Finals, a new team will likely emerge come next season. But the question is which team will it be? Fans of teams from the East will get to witness young stars like Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Gordon Hayward (as long as he can stay healthy coming back from injury), Kyrie Irving, and more during the NBA Playoffs.

While these are names we have seen in the playoffs in previous years, we have yet to see them play in the Eastern Conference Finals with an NBA Finals bid on the line. Except for Irving who was a part of the Cavaliers for three of their four NBA Finals appearances on a LeBron James-led team, he was injured this past postseason when the Celtics made it to the Conference Finals. So next June when the NBA Finals get underway, who could we see emerging as the team from the East?

Boston Celtics

The Celtics had the Cavaliers on the ropes in the Conference Finals this past May before LeBron James carried Cleveland to a Game 6 victory at home and Game 7 victory on the road. Boston essentially shot themselves out of Game 7 on their home floor but it is important to remember that they were not at full strength. The absence of Kyrie Irving due to his knee surgery and Gordon Hayward from his Opening Night broken ankle certainly left the Celtics in a tough spot. But they thrived in the regular season, finishing second in the conference at 55-27, and seeing the emergence of many of their young players.

In the absence of Irving and Hayward, Boston saw second year player Jayson Tatum make huge strides in his development, Marcus Smart continued to impress and give the Celtics a boost when he was healthy, and Terry Rozier stepped up his game as the year went on to eventually become a playoff starter. As the year went on, Rozier had seen more time on the floor as a starter and that carried over into the playoffs where he averaged 16.5 points per game during Boston's playoff run. These three players only scratch the surface of what the Celtics did during the season last year with young talent and role players. With the return of their two superstars this fall, the Eastern Conference better watch out for this team.

Toronto Raptors

Another year, another early elimination from the playoffs for the Raptors. This time it resulted in the firing of their head coach Dwane Casey who ended up being NBA Coach of the Year. Casey helped lead the Raptors to the Eastern Conference's top seed and a franchise-record 59 wins before eventually being swept by the Cavs in the second round. Cleveland has been the Raptors krytopnite for years, but so has Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan not showing up around playoff time. In the series versus the Cavs, DeRozan averaged 16.7 points and Lowry averaged 17.7 points, but the Raptors were blown out in two of those games and were forced to make a spirited run at the end of Game 3 that fell short due to a LeBron James buzzer beater. The only game that was truly close throughout was Game 1 which ended in an overtime win for the Cavs.

Lowry and DeRozan will still be around for the Raptors this season as Toronto will look to overcome their past playoff issues. They also still have thier long-range shooters like CJ Miles and Fred VanVleet that can knock down threes for them as well which is key. Down low the services of Jonas Valanciunas are still present, he is a player who catches fire down the stretch and carries that momentum into the playoffs for the Raptors. The only real question mark this team has is their new coach, Nick Nurse who was named head coach in mid-June. Nurse was Casey's assistant for the past five seasons, but has yet to coach at the NBA level. He does have experience in the formerly known NBA D-League as a two-time champion as head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, but it will be interesting to see if he can succeed in the NBA. If Nurse's system is one that works for the Raptors, we could be seeing them emerge from the East next season.

Philadelphia 76ers

A team that has trusted the process for years finally began to reap its benefits last season. The Sixers emerged as the three seed in the Eastern Conference after ending the regular season on a 16-game winning streak to surpass the Cavaliers and finish 52-30. They drew the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs, a team they dispatched of easily in five games before being taken out in five games by the Celtics in the second round. Philadelphia is a young, exciting team that has stuck by their head coach Brett Brown through the tough years and is just two seasons removed from a 10-72 record. With Joel Embiid emerging as a superstar when healthy, Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons making waves in the league, and the hopeful development of Markelle Fultz the 76ers have a bright future ahead of them.

Besides the young talent, veterans like three-point shooter J.J. Redick who will be returning next season and Eran Ilyasova who is currently a free agent rumored to be returning to the Milwaukee Bucks helped out the younger players. Veteran leadership and guidance is crucial to a team's improvement, something Ilyasova and Redick provided for Philly last season. Furthermore, the Sixers are attempting to find a trade for Kawhi Leonard to come to Philly next season which would bolster their roster even more. While it is still unlikely he goes to the Sixers, it is always a possibility and would further change the game in the Eastern Conference. But given the current state on the Sixers and their roster, they have the potential to take the next step forward in their return to the top of the mountain in the NBA. Keep cheering Philly fans, the Process is almost complete.

Washington Wizards

My final team is sort of a dark horse pick to emerge from the East. While it is highly unlikely that the Wizards are able to make a trip to the NBA Finals, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility for them if they can right the ship. Washington is an interesting team, they have some pieces that could help lead them deep into the playoffs, but they never have been able to really put it together. The Wizards took a small step back this season, going 43-39 to finish eighth in the East after finishing fourth at 49-33 the previous year. John Wall and Bradley Beal lead the way for this team and cannot afford to keep wasting years of their prime as they look to capture an NBA title. While the Wiz did backtrack a bit, they were without Wall from February until the end of March with a knee injury. If Wall can stay healthy, chances are the Wizards can win a few more games than last year.

Additionally, Washington traded away Marcin Gortat who was beginning to decline to the Clippers for Austin Rivers which will help the Wizards with depth at the guard position. To replace Gortat, the Wizards plan on signing Dwight Howard once he clears waivers tomorrow which will help fill the center position that was left vacant with the trade. Like I said when discussing the Howard signing, "If by some stretch of the imagination Howard is able to get over his past issues with teammates and find a way to work efficiently with John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington, the Wizards will be in good shape at the center position. However if those past problems continue to resurface on his new team, it could do more harm than good for the Wizards as they could see another year of John Wall and Bradley Beal's prime slip away." Howard's talent is still there and he could be a valuable piece for the Wizards, Washington's lineup is improved from years past and this could be their shot to take the Eastern Conference by storm.

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