Although LeBron James made his decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers weeks ago, a recurring question comes to my mind. Who will be the best team of the Eastern Conference in the 2018-2019 season?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that LeBron James signed a four-year,$154 million deal with the Lakers. James joined the Lakers after declining his player option with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals despite being the 4th seed of the East. The Cavs advanced to the championship series by defeating the Indiana Pacers in the first round, sweeping the Toronto Raptors (the first seed) in the second and sneaking past the Boston Celtics in a seven game Eastern Conference Finals.
The defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors swept the Cavs to win their third championship in four years. The Cavs were the Warriors’ opponents for all four years.
For the Cavaliers, this year was interesting to say the least. They acquired guard Isaiah Thomas in last year’s off-season in a trade with the Boston Celtics. They traded Kyrie Irving to the Celtics for Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets (which became Collin Sexton). The Cavs also signed Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade in the off-season. This team arguably could have been the top team of the East, but problems such as chemistry issues hindered their success. The Cavs made several trades at the trade deadline and acquired players such as Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and Larry Nance Jr. Despite their ups and downs the Cavaliers finished fourth in the East. Only the Raptors, Celtics, and Sixers had better records than the Cavaliers.
The Raptors, Celtics, and Sixers were better teams than the Cavaliers, but the Cavs had something those teams didn’t. They had LeBron James. When a team has a player of James’s caliber, it gives them an advantage over opponents. Now, the Cavaliers are without LeBron James and will take a slight step backwards. With Kevin Love signing an extension and Collin Sexton, their 2018 draft pick, the Cavaliers will still be in decent shape. With a small rebuild, the Cavs can remain a playoff contender. However, the top spot of the Eastern Conference is up for grabs. The question is which team will get it?
There are two (maybe three) teams that could be the top team of the East. In fact, they are the same teams that had a better record than the Cavs last year. There are just in a different order. It goes the Celtics first, the Sixers second, and the Raptors third (or lower).
The Boston Celtics finished last season with a record of 55-27. The Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals without their two star players in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Hayward played one game out of the 82 game season and Irving played 60 games. The Celtics were without their stars, but that did not stop them. Their young guys such as Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Jayson Tatum. They won up to 10 straight home playoff games before losing to the Cavaliers in Game 7. The Cavs won the series, but the Celtics weren’t going away without a fight. The young Celtics gained playoff experience that will benefit them from now on. If the Celtics can keep up this level of play with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, then I expect them to be on top of the East.
The Philadelphia 76ers finished last season with a record of 52-30. They won their last 16 games of the regular season. The Sixers are arguably one of the best young teams of the NBA. With players such as the charismatic Joel Embiid and the skilled passer in Ben Simmons, the Sixers have a chance to become a legitimate contender for years to come. The Sixers made it to the second round of this season’s playoffs, where they lost to their division rival, the Boston Celtics. This was the first time we’ve seen “The Process” in the playoffs, but it certainly won’t be the last.
The Toronto Raptors are fresh off of their recent trade. The Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Pöltl and a protected 2019 first round draft pick. Leonard played 9 games this season. He sat out most of the season with a right quadriceps injury. Leonard preferred going to L.A (be it the Clippers or Lakers) but the Spurs and Raptors were the ones to close a deal.
The Raptors were the first seed of the Eastern Conference with a record of 59-23. They made it to the second round of this year’s playoffs, but they were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The addition of Kawhi Leonard could help or hurt the Raptors. If Leonard is healthy and willing to play, he’ll be a great addition. If he intends to leave the Raptors after this season, the Raptors gain very little. The Raptors will still be “a” top team of the East, but not “the” top team of the East.
LeBron James has left the Eastern Conference and its changed the Conference’s dynamic. The Eastern Conference will be different, but I think it exceed our expectations.