LeBron James‘ Hollywood arrival opened the door to the NBA Finals for a host of Eastern Conference contenders. How will the conference shake out without the King? Our experts assess the new era.
1. Who are the top three teams in the Eastern Conference now?
Ian Begley, ESPN.com: The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are obvious, but the final team is less clear. If Toronto doesn’t trade any of its top players, it would essentially have the same roster that won an East-best 59 games last season. But the expectation of some opposing executives is that changes are coming to Toronto’s roster, so I think the safer bet here is the Indiana Pacers for the third spot. Indiana returns mostly intact after winning 48 games last season and added Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Aaron Holiday. If Myles Turner can take the next step in his fourth season, the Pacers could be a tough out in the East.
Chris Forsberg, ESPN.com: Celtics, 76ers, Raptors — Atlantic Division stand up! That said, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks might be a scarier playoff opponent than Toronto at this point. The Celtics nearly won the East without two All-Stars and should be the clear-cut favorite even if all they do is run back the same roster. Philly can make Boston sweat a bit if the Sixers trade for Kawhi Leonard or another proven star, and the Celtics might not have the best win total while easing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back into action, but all that will matter is clicking on all cylinders by April.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: Raptors, Celtics, 76ers. Could also see the Pacers, who’ve had a solid summer, somehow cracking the top three. But those first three teams were the most consistent clubs in the conference even before LeBron James went West. So unless a major injury happens, I expect that to remain the case.
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN.com: At this exact moment, Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto become the new big three in the East, although that could change depending on how the Raptors shake things up — and they should shake things up. Whether LeBron had stayed in Cleveland or not, the revival of the old Sixers-Celtics rivalry was emerging as the most lively and entertaining storyline in the East. I don’t know if it can reach the level of Moses Malone chanting, “Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” and Larry Bird declaring, “Moses eats s—,” but you know Joel Embiid will do his best to raise the stakes.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto. Those were the top three teams last regular season, after all, and LeBron’s move to the Western Conference only strengthens that position. The Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards can realistically aspire to crack that tier with offseason additions, but for now, I see no good reason to expect the top three to change.
2. What is your bold prediction for the East next season?
Begley: Sixers guard Markelle Fultz will shed his “bust” label after one of the stranger rookie seasons for a top pick in recent memory. Assuming he stays healthy and isn’t included in a trade for Kawhi or another star, Fultz will find a comfortable role with the Sixers this season and produce under head coach Brett Brown.
Forsberg: The Orlando Magic will sign Isaiah Thomas and make the playoffs. OK, maybe we’re reading a little too much into IT following the Magic on Twitter recently, but we’ve seen this script before and it’s no Disney fairy tale. In an underwhelming East, Orlando adds a motivated Thomas to a roster with all those intriguing young big men and catches lightning in a bottle.
Herring: The Detroit Pistons will be a top-four team in the East for the first half of the season, but then eventually fade due to injuries — possibly all the way out of the playoff picture.
MacMullan: Gordon Hayward will return and remind all those trade prognosticators who want to ship him out of town for a Kawhi Leonard one-year rental that he’s worth more — so much more. Hayward won’t be the No. 1 option in an offense that needs to create shots for Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum (not to mention a few for the uber-competitive Jaylen Brown), but that’s just fine. The chemistry that he, Irving and Al Horford developed during the 2017-18 preseason had Boston’s brass giddy. The injury was gruesome, and it has undoubtedly taken its toll both mentally and physically, but by next April, when it really starts to matter, mark down Hayward as a difference-maker.
Pelton: The top three teams in the conference will all win 55-plus games. That hasn’t happened in the East since 2011, but I think there might be enough separation between the top three in the conference and everyone else — particularly the lottery teams — that it’s possible once again.
3. Which player is the new King of the East?
Begley: I’ll take Giannis Antetokounmpo over Joel Embiid. The Sixers said they’re at their best when they balance running their offense through Embiid in the post with allowing Ben Simmons and others to penetrate and create open looks for their perimeter shooters. Maybe that changes a bit without Marco Belinelli, but I don’t think that dynamic is going away. In Milwaukee, of course, it’s all about Antetokounmpo. So I think the 6-foot-11 forward will put up eye-popping numbers all year and be viewed as the conference’s top star.
Forsberg: Kyrie Irving. Giannis is probably the best player in the conference, but he doesn’t have the supporting cast yet for his team to be considered any sort of conference roadblock. Irving will likely ease his way back in coming off knee surgery, but he’s the best player on the East’s best team, and, while his stat line might not scream MVP candidate, he’ll get buzz based on Boston’s overall success.
Herring: The best player is probably Giannis, but I don’t think any of us see him or the Bucks as a lock for home court in the playoffs, even after the Budenholzer hire there. My hunch would then be to say Embiid, but that feels wrong, too, given that the Celtics knocked Philly out. It also feels strange to say Kyrie, since the Celtics almost reached the NBA Finals without him. So maybe we should just wait to answer this one.
MacMullan: It’s Embiid, all day, every day, and not just because he hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential (provided he sheds a few more pounds and masters the final piece of his portfolio, which is conditioning). The Process has strength, range, ridiculous defensive instincts, excellent footwork and a social media command on the pulse of this league that has him on course to be the next Shaquille O’Neal. Talent and a sense of humor: best combo ever.
Pelton: Giannis. It’s going to take improvement from the supporting cast around Antetokounmpo for the Bucks to emerge as the East’s best team. Individually, however, Giannis is the player to beat. If Milwaukee can crack the top four in the East, he could make a run at MVP.
4. Which Eastern Conference rookie will have the best season?
Begley: I’ll take Trae Young because, even if he starts the season off the bench, he’ll probably have the ball in his hands more than any other Eastern Conference rookie in his class. His touches and shots will only increase if Atlanta moves guard Dennis Schroder, which is something that he strongly suggested as a possibility in a media conference from Germany in May. Mohamed Bamba is another candidate here. Bamba projects to make an immediate impact defensively for the Magic and fits nicely alongside the young front line of Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac.
Forsberg: Trae Young. Sure, he hasn’t shot the ball well early in summer league, but he’s going to get plenty of court time in Atlanta to figure things out. Most of the top picks landed in the West, and Young’s scoring output will outshine the production of other East lottery picks.
Herring: Donte DiVincenzo. Unlike a number of other first-rounders, he won’t be asked to do too much too quickly. He should fit in well on a team with several other good athletes and figures to be a knockdown shooter, which the Bucks desperately need.
MacMullan: What a lopsided draft for the East. The players I would have earmarked for high-impact, breakout rookie seasons (Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter, Jaren Jackson Jr.) all went West. I’ll gamble on Collin Sexton. I know he’s small and can’t shoot (yet), but just watch what Sexton did when Alabama was forced to play three-on-five against Minnesota to see why everyone should be rooting for him. Sexton can slash, has exceptional end-to-end speed, has an incredible motor and oozes leadership. He’ll get tons of playing time in Cleveland; if he doesn’t make it, it won’t be for lack of effort.
Pelton: This is a shockingly difficult question after watching Young — the highest-drafted East rookie — struggle during the Utah Jazz Summer League. In terms of box score production, my pick is Sexton, who will have a chance to be a centerpiece for the post-LeBron Cavaliers.
5. Fact or fiction: Jaylen Brown and Markelle Fultz should be deal-breakers in any potential Kawhi Leonard trades.
Begley: Fiction. If the Celtics or Sixers believe Leonard is healthy and open to re-signing with their franchise next summer, they should pursue a trade with the San Antonio Spurs aggressively. Yes, even if that means parting with young players with star potential such as Brown and — to a lesser degree — Fultz. Acquiring Leonard would give either Boston or Philadelphia the chance to make multiple trips to the NBA Finals while LeBron tries to win rings in Los Angeles and Golden State looks to bolster credentials as a dynasty.
Forsberg: Fiction. Securing elite talent comes with pain points. A year ago, Boston fans were aghast when the Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the Brooklyn pick for Kyrie Irving. Then they saw Irving on the floor and it all made sense. Fultz is going to figure things out; he’s much too skilled for his woes to linger. And Brown made such a leap in Year 2 that most Boston fans don’t want to move him for Leonard. But it’s so incredibly rare for teams to have a chance to secure a top-five talent. If Boston or Philadelphia could be certain that Leonard is healthy and that he’d at least consider re-signing next summer, then they’d have to be open-minded to trading key assets.
Herring: I’d say fact for Brown, but not necessarily for Fultz just yet. He’s obviously talented, but he also is a ball handler on a team with an All-NBA-level guy in Simmons who needs the ball because of his inability to shoot. Given that, I wouldn’t consider Fultz untouchable, though he has a chance to develop into a great player. That’s often the cost of getting a talent like Kawhi.
MacMullan: Fact. Assuming Leonard maintains his stance that he would bolt either franchise after a one-year rental, the price of Brown and Fultz is too steep. Brown (a Spurs favorite) has already shown glimmers of All-Star promise, and Fultz is too young and too talented to give up on this early, although it’s tantalizing to imagine how immortal San Antonio shot doctor Chip Engelland would perform surgery on Fultz’s broken jumper.
Pelton: More fact than fiction. I’d be willing to consider Fultz given the possibility his shot never gets back to where it was during his year at the University of Washington. But I’d probably still value Fultz enough that the Spurs wouldn’t consider it worthwhile to make a deal that included him.
Bonus: At even odds, are you taking a healthy Warriors team or the 2019 East All-Stars in a seven-game series?
Begley: Warriors. Let’s assume that neither Jimmy Butler nor Kawhi Leonard are dealt to an Eastern Conference team, and that Kyrie Irving is healthy. Given those parameters, I’d still have to take the Warriors here because of the way they can space the floor with dead-eye shooters. Also, an important factor that makes this hypothetical tough to answer: chemistry. Unless the core of this East All-Star team had spent the past three seasons playing more than 300 total games together, there’s no way they operate with the level of on-court rhythm the Warriors have established.
Forsberg: East All-Stars. Sure, the Warriors have the potential to trot out five All-Stars, but, even in a star-depleted East, the ability to go 13 deep with impact talent would give the East an edge during a seven-game series, but the Warriors would win three games.
Herring: East All-Stars. I don’t even know that I have a valid reason for this pick, but it makes me feel better about the state of the league to at least imagine that one conference’s All-Stars would be superior to an actual team’s starting five. What a world.
MacMullan: Hey now, I love the Warriors as much as anyone, but let’s get real. Give me a roster of Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, Jayson Tatum, DeMar DeRozan, Ben Simmons, John Wall, Jaylen Brown, Blake Griffin, Al Horford, Kevin Love, Bradley Beal, Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry and I’ll take my chances.
Pelton: East All-Stars. While the Warriors would probably have the best two players in such a series, the difference in starting fives isn’t dramatic, and the East would have an enormous depth edge with the likes of Bradley Beal and Kyle Lowry coming off the bench.