NBA East preview: LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers still rule

LeBron James in the second quarter against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. / Jim McIsaac

The Eastern Conference doesn’t have as compelling stories as the Western Conference or as many strong teams or stars, and probably doesn’t house the next NBA champion.

The Cavaliers, Celtics, Raptors and Wizards are expected to be the East’s four best teams, just like last year. Does anyone beat the Cavaliers? The Celtics may have narrowed the gap after picking up ex-Cav Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

“I think Boston is far better equipped this year to match up effectively against Cleveland than they were last year,” ABC analyst and former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said.

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But if they meet in a seven-game series, who is picking against LeBron James and the Cavs? James will do everything to make sure Irving, who forced a trade from Cleveland to “maximize my potential” and “do what was best for me,” doesn’t beat him or the Cavs.

If Cleveland avoids major injury and new Cavalier Isaiah Thomas (hip) is healthy for the second half and playoffs, James has great odds of leading his team to an eighth-straight NBA Finals.

The Knicks, Nets, Hawks, Bulls, and Pacers have no established stars and are rebuilding. But there’s one team on the rise (Milwaukee) and another that could be (Philadelphia).

The Sixers are 75-253 over the past four years, so it’s been difficult to “Trust the Process.” But this is the season it could start to pay dividends if the Sixers can stay healthy — and that’s a big if.

Joel Embiid only played 31 games last year after missing his first two seasons, but he looked like he could be special. Ben Simmons, who missed all of his rookie year last season with a foot injury, is a gifted player with terrific vision and passing ability, especially for someone 6-foot-10.

The Sixers landed the No. 1 pick in a trade with Boston and took Markelle Fultz. They also have No. 3 pick from 2015 Jahlil Okafor and last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up Dario Saric.

“They’re a really good team,” Van Gundy said. “If Embiid stays healthy, they’ll make the playoffs.”

Simmons’ play in the preseason was eye-opening. The Sixers could have a franchise player in this point guard in a big man’s body.

“Oh my god, I don’t want to see that for the next 15 years,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said after facing Simmons in the preseason. “That kid, they’re not talking about him enough. Wow, he’s a big-time talent.”

The Sixers could be a team of the future. But the Eastern Conference, as it has for the past seven seasons, still belongs to LeBron James and his team.