The talent imbalance between the Eastern and Western Conference, which has existed for years, got even greater when LeBron James moved to Los Angeles this summer. With nearly all of the East’s talent concentrated in the Atlantic Division, the rest of the conference might feel even more barren as the regular season plays out.
Which teams got better and which ones got worse? And who will be heading to the N.B.A. finals now that there are options to win the conference beyond “LeBron’s Team.” Here’s a team-by-team look at the Eastern Conference:
If not for some poor shooting in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals — and a guy named LeBron James — the Celtics would have been in the N.B.A. finals last year. As a follow-up, they not only retained key free agents like Aron Baynes and Marcus Smart, but added back Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving after both missed the postseason.
It’s no wonder Boston was picked to win the East by 90 percent of the general managers in the N.B.A.’s annual survey. If there’s a reason to fret, it would be whether there are enough minutes in the game to maximize the team’s redundancies at wing with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Hayward all being worthy of heavy usage.
Irving is a Most Valuable Player Award candidate, but the Celtics’ fate will hinge just as much on how the wings are balanced, and whether or not an aging Al Horford has another superstar season in him.
If the Celtics slip, at all, the 76ers will pounce.
Joel Embiid has worn out his welcome in some social media circles but seems to be just getting started on the court, where he is already the N.B.A.’s best center. Ben Simmons more than held his own as a slightly-discounted (and significantly younger) version of LeBron James — the focus on Simmons’ lack of 3-point shooting is more than a little petty since the rookie averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists a game — and thanks to solid contributions from players like Dario Saric, Robert Covington and J.J. Redick, the team weathered the storm of Markelle Fultz’s crisis of confidence.
The bad news for other teams in the East is that Fultz seems to be coming around. Wilson Chandler should be a good veteran addition and even if Zhaire Smith is a bit too green to contribute much as a rookie, the 76ers, barring the health issues the team has dealt with in the past, should improve on last year’s breakout season.
A 59-win team that was the top-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season added Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, a pair of players molded in the San Antonio Championship Factory. Despite that, they seem like a distant third-best squad in their own division. That’s how talented the Atlantic is this year.
The biggest issue, of course, is that no one knows what to expect of Leonard. If he is the Leonard of the 2016-17 season, the fans in Toronto may quickly forget the name DeMar DeRozan, who was sent to San Antonio in the Leonard trade. If Leonard is the injured malcontent of 2017-18 then the Raptors blew up a really solid team for nothing. They would then have salt rubbed in the wound as Leonard would almost assuredly sign elsewhere after the season. They are a playoff team either way, but the good version of Leonard would make them the dark horse of the East.
You have to look hard, but the Nets have quietly built a fun team, even if there is no clear superstar. D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Allen Crabbe all have positives at guard; Caris LeVert is a breakout contender in a group of forwards that also includes Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Ed Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarre Carroll; and the team believes they have a franchise center in Jarrett Allen.
Sean Marks has not been afraid of making moves in his tenure as the Nets’ general manager, so that depth could soon turn into a star or two, but if the team stays as-is, and hits some attainable development goals, they could push for the eighth seed in the East.
New York Knicks
In reality, this is not the season where the Knicks should push to contend for much of anything. Kristaps Porzingis is working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Frank Ntilikina is still in search of his offensive game, and the rest of the team is allergic to defense. Coach David Fizdale gets a second shot to prove that his popularity as an assistant in Miami was no fluke, and this will be a true test of whether the team’s well-regarded general manager, Scott Perry, can protect his coach from the team’s owner, James Dolan.
Kevin Knox is a legitimate candidate for rookie of the year, Mitchell Robinson seems like he was an absolute steal in the second round of the draft, and Allonzo Trier, currently on a two-way contract, seems like a potential asset worth giving minutes to in a season where wins shouldn’t matter so much. Fizdale just needs to get this crew coached up and wait for next year, when Porzingis will presumably be full speed. Maybe Perry can arrange for Dolan’s band to go on tour.
Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 26.9 points, 10 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game last season and, if the preseason is any indication, he spent his time off getting even better on the boards. The superstar forward — who can play point guard in a pinch — doesn’t turn 24 until December but is already in the mix of potential M.V.P. candidates.
To complement their jewel of a player, and a quality lineup around him that already featured Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, the Bucks hired a new coaching staff, led by Mike Budenholzer. They also drafted a 3-point specialist in Donte DiVincenzo, brought back Ersan Ilyasova and, in a wildly underrated move, added Brook Lopez, the rare player who has a full toolbox of inside moves on offense but can also reliably shoot from 3-point range.
All of that and the team gets a brand-new arena and a state-of-the-art practice facility. Provided Antetokounmpo doesn’t take a page out of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playbook and force his way out of town, Milwaukee’s future is extremely bright.
The Pacers got something old (Tyreke Evans) and something new (Aaron Holiday) this off-season, while also picking up a terrific shooter in Doug McDermott.
Those guys are nice, but for Indiana to get to the next level what they really need is another stellar year from Victor Oladipo, some further development from Domantas Sabonis, and the highly-anticipated breakout of Myles Turner. It’s Turner, the 22-year-old stretch-5, that could take them from good to great.
The Bulls bet $40 million that Jabari Parker can stay healthy enough to keep himself on the court. The Milwaukee Bucks presumably shrugged and told the forward to take the deal before Chicago looked too closely at his injury history. That’s not to say Parker isn’t talented, but the investment in such a fragile veteran is odd for a team that is developing a solid young core in Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and, Kris Dunn, who has made a remarkable comeback from being saddled with the bust label as a rookie two years ago.
An elbow injury has Markkanen sidelined to start the season, but he has bulked up his frame and is looking like a future star (if he isn’t one already). His absence, though, will bring some extra minutes to the team’s top draft pick, Wendell Carter Jr., which is a positive in the long-run.
Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson playing for Dwane Casey, the reigning N.B.A. coach of the year, certainly sounds like a recipe for success. The same group with Stan Van Gundy never really found it, thanks in large part to injuries to Jackson.
It is a smart bet to assume Casey will get great use out of his Big Three — even if Drummond turning into something of a perimeter shooter fails the “looks funny” test — but the key to contention might be Stanley Johnson, the fourth-year wing, who has yet to develop as the team hoped when they selected him with the eighth pick of the 2016 draft. If he reaches his potential, or something close to it, Detroit could rise.
You are going to hear the phrase Minnesota Kevin a lot this season. Among the legacies left by LeBron James is Cavaliers fans openly wondering if their star power forward, Kevin Love, can rekindle the dominance he showed in Minnesota. It would probably be best to avoid engaging those fans in a discussion about how the Wolves were 125-239 in games in which Minnesota Kevin played for them.
In truth, the issue with Love is health far more than it is talent or motivation. There’s no reason to believe he won’t average 22 or more points and 11 or more rebounds a game as the Cavaliers’ centerpiece, but doing it for 70 or more games would be more important. Other Cavaliers will benefit statistically in James’s wake, including Rodney Hood and George Hill, but Hill will need to watch his back, as the rookie point guard Collin Sexton is gunning for his job.
It’s the Wizards’ turn to have Dwight Howard. The future Hall of Famer is still seriously productive on both ends of the court, but when a player is on his fourth team in four seasons it is a safe bet that he’s not the missing piece to a championship team.
Washington is a decent team — probably the best in its division provided Jimmy Butler isn’t traded to Miami — but where it once felt like there was huge promise in the grouping of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., it is starting to feel like if it was going to happen it would have happened by now.
At this point, weighing in on the Heat’s prospects for the season seems foolish. They are deep in the muck trying to add Jimmy Butler and his addition could take them from a fringe playoff team to top-five seed.
There are a lot of good young pieces in place for Miami, including Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson and James Johnson, but any one of them could theoretically leave in a trade. So with that in mind, it is worth just focusing on it being Dwyane Wade’s last ride with the team that drafted him. It’s been a terrific career and going out on a winner would be a fitting end.
The key to the Hornets having a good season could be the performance of the team’s training staff. Both Malik Monk and Cody Zeller struggled to stay on the court last season and now Charlotte has added the aging Tony Parker to its roster.
As long as Kemba Walker is around, though, the Hornets should be somewhat relevant, and he has help from veterans like Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Bismack Biyombo. It’s not enough for the team to compete with the best teams, but they can demolish the bad ones.
The Magic have a unique situation in that Nikola Vucevic has essentially been too good to discard over the last few years. The team seems interested in pursuing a more modern lineup, but their throwback center just keeps getting double-doubles and forcing his way into the lineup.
Enter Mohamed Bamba, the sixth pick in the draft, who is more of the Kristaps Porzingis unicorn style of big man than Vucevic’s hard-hat and lunch-pail approach. Bamba is just 20, and probably needs a significant amount of seasoning before he’s a productive player, but it is easy to imagine a lineup with him, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier being a great deal more dynamic than Orlando has had in years.
It is not fair to compare Trae Young and Kevin Huerter to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson before the rookies even play in a regular season game. But it is easy enough to see how Atlanta’s general manager, Travis Schlenk, who came to the team from Golden State, was trying to recreate that style of back court with his picks in this year’s draft. Schlenk even grabbed Omari Spellman with the last pick of the first round in hopes that the Villanova product can fill the Draymond Green role.
Young should start right away but the others will be asked to wait, as the Hawks have veterans in front of them and most teams would rather win 25 games than 15, even if it makes their talent develop more slowly.