There’s no question the majority of top-tier talent is in the Western Conference, which has a deep roster of teams capable of winning 50 games. But that was the case last season, too, and look what happened.
Giannis Antetokounmpo lifted the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA’s best regular-season record, earning MVP honors over the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, and then Kawhi Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to a shocking title upset over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Of course, now the Leonard has migrated west to join the Los Angeles Clippers, that could tip the balance of power further, but the Eastern Conference might have more surprises in store.
In Philadelphia, the 76ers “Process” is almost complete. Discontented Jimmy Butler took his moody attitude to Miami and was replaced by underrated Josh Richardson, and the Sixers added veteran All-Star power forward Al Horford to a great starting lineup that already includes All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons along with top three-point shooter Tobias Harris. If Horford’s maturity rubs off on Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers will be the class of the East.
The Bucks leaped to prominence in their first season under coach Mike Budenholzer, and they had a solid offseason by locking All-Star wing Khris Middleton into a long-term deal to pair with Antetokounmpo and point guard Eric Bledsoe. Brook Lopez thrived at center under Budenholzer and was extended, and the Bucks added key veterans Kyle Korver and Robin Lopez, but the loss of guard Malcolm Brogdon was a severe blow.
Brogdon joins the Indiana Pacers, where he will be part of a formidable backcourt tandem when Victor Oladipo makes an anticipated midseason return from a ruptured quadriceps injury. Forward Domantis Sabonis should take a larger role, and the Pacers also added high-scoring guard Jeremy Lamb.
The surprise team in the East has to be the Nets, who pulled off a free-agency coup with the signings of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, and added stretch power forward Taurean Prince in a trade. By preserving most of their young core of Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, the Nets figure to be the deepest team in the East. Durant has been ruled out for the season while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, but if he returns for the stretch drive to the playoffs in March or April, this team could go deep.
Last season, the Celtics seemed poised for the next step, but Irving admitted he was distracted by his grandfather’s death and lacked chemistry with young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. That shouldn’t be a problem with free agent Kemba Walker now running the show. As for the champion Raptors, it was tough to say goodbye to Leonard even though he left a nice parting gift. Now, the frontcourt of Pascal Siakim and Marc Gasol is the focal point.
Look for the Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat to battle for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and power forward Aaron Gordon head a deep Magic roster, and the frontcourt duo of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond gives the Pistons the edge over the Heat despite the addition of Butler.
Best of the East
Best team: Philadelphia 76ers – The 76ers lost Game 7 to Toronto in the second round of the playoffs only when Kawhi Leonard hit a miraculous buzzer-beater. But the trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Al Horford will produce an Eastern Conference title this season.
Best player: Giannis Antetokounmpo – The Bucks star was named NBA MVP last season and took his team to Eastern Conference Finals. He’s averaged a double-double the past two years plus at least 1.4 blocks, 1.3 steals and 4.8 assists. No one compares.
Best duo: Embiid and Simmons – On a combined basis, they average 44.4 points, 22.4 rebounds and 11.4 assists. In addition, they are tremendous on defense in terms of Embiid’s shotblocking and Simmons’ height to stop smaller guards.
Best defender: Al Horford – Horford, who moved from the Celtics to the 76ers, is a tremendous defender. Between Horford’s defense at the four position and Joel Embiid protecting the rim, the 76ers will have the best defensive tandem in the NBA.
Best rookie: RJ Barrett – With No. 1 pick Zion Williamson in the West, the Knicks' No. 3 overall pick will be the top rookie in the East. Barrett tied Williamson at 22.6 points per game at Duke, had 7.6 rebounds to 8.9 and 4.3 assists to 2.1.
Best bench: Nets – It starts with perennial sixth man candidate Spencer Dinwiddie at point guard and continues with either DeAndre Jordan or Jarrett Allen at center. Nets also added veterans Garrett Temple, David Nwaba and Wilson Chandler and have holdovers Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa.
Best coach: Kenny Atkinson – Yes, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer deserved coach of the year last season after moving from Atlanta and leading Bucks to the best NBA record. But Atkinson developed the Nets core that attracted Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Jordan.
Logan's NBA Finals prediction: Clippers over 76ers
Top 8 teams in the East
1. Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers saw Jimmy Butler migrate to Miami, but added Al Horford in free agency and got Josh Richardson in the Butler deal. The additions of Horford and Richardson give them the most imposing starting five in the East.
2. Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks lost to Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals, but still have NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, All-Star Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. They added Kyle Korver, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews to form a deep bench.
3. Brooklyn Nets: The Nets hit the jackpot with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. Durant has been ruled out while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, but if he returns in time for the playoffs, they are a major contender. If Caris LeVert is healthy, watch out.
4. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers lost Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young in free agency, but added Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and TJ McConnell. Victor Oladipo will be back from injury at some point, and Domantas Sabonis is ready to emerge as a true star.
5. Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker replaces Kyrie Irving with the hope of creating chemistry with young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But Celtics also lost Horford, who will be difficult to replace. Now, it’s on Tatum, Brown and Gordon Hayward to step up and produce.
6. Toronto Raptors: The defending NBA champions lost Kawhi Leonard, but still have Pascal Siakim, plus Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry and a bench that includes Serge Ibaka and Fred Van Vleet. But there is no way to replace Leonard.
7. Orlando Magic: The Magic have All-Star Nikola Vucevic, and Aaron Gordon is on verge of All-Star status. Since coach Steve Clifford arrived, the defense has improved, and they added Al-Farouq Aminu to Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba in the frontcourt.
8. Detroit Pistons: The Pistons start with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, two powerhouse players, and they acquired Derrick Rose. The Pistons also added forwards Tony Snell and Markieff Morris.