For a few years now, the East has been the least, an afterthought to battles among the Western Conference teams regarded as the best in basketball. But this season, even while the greatest player in the East, LeBron James, has migrated West, there might be a team in the Boston Celtics that presents a real challenge to the balance of power.
It was always about LeBron as his teams, whether in Cleveland or Miami, made it to eight straight NBA Finals.
The two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors might be the favorites, but the Celtics, a team that fell just short of a trip to the NBA Finals last season without two of its most accomplished stars could be the next best team in basketball. With a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, Celtics coach Brad Stevens will have the only team with the depth to match the Warriors.
That doesn’t mean the East has exactly shed its reputation as the lesser conference. LeBron’s gone, finding eight teams to top .500 seems like a stretch and the Warriors are still the Warriors. But the Celtics aren’t alone. The Raptors won a conference-best 59 games last season, fired their coach and traded away their MVP contender, DeMar DeRozan. But they acquired, for a year at least, Kawhi Leonard. The Sixers are looking to take another step forward in the process with two stars in place in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, hopeful that Markelle Fultz can join them after a troublesome start with injury and a curious loss of the ability to shoot creating a mystifying rookie season.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the wild card of the conference, combining a roster led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and the biggest addition perhaps on the bench where Mike Budenholzer takes over as coach, bringing the pedigree of his time spent with the Spurs and then in Atlanta where he won coach of the year honors in 2014-15 with a 60-win season.
After that it’s a mix of overachievers like Miami and Indiana and underachievers like the Wizards. The remade Pistons could contend for a playoff spot, along with the Nets and Bulls.
While teams like the Sixers may have reached a new phase in their process the Knicks are just at the inception still with Kristaps Porzingis out for an undisclosed period of time. The building season they have accepted means finding out what they have in Porzingis’ fellow lottery picks and preparing for a free agent chase next summer.
Down there with the Knicks are the Magic, Hawks and Hornets, all on the start of new eras with new coaches and Cavaliers, trying to figure out life after Lebron.