When LeBron James left the East and signed a mega deal with the Lakers, everything changed. The Don left the organization, leaving a vacuum of power that four teams have a legitimate opportunity to grab.
I wrote about the top three teams in position to assume the top spot back in July, 2018.
My uncertainty with how this year’s Milwaukee Bucks team would shake out compelled me to exclude them from the list. They would, however, have been my fourth selection. Despite my opinion, once the regular season ended, Milwaukee was the darling of the NBA and The Greek Freak had become the new LeBron James in the eyes of many.
The NBA Finals are in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s sights and The Greek Freak is fueling the Milwaukee Bucks like never before. Mark Schwarz is on the scene.
The Bucks won the regular season Eastern Conference title and have a growing legion of supporters that think The Greek Freak can carry them to a Conference Finals for the first time since the 2000-01 season under George Karl. Top analysts have proclaimed that Milwaukee is still the favorite to emerge out of the East as we enter the semifinal round of the playoffs.
Are the Bucks and Raptors the favorite to win the East or could the Sixers be a dark-horse candidate? Watch highlights from Inside the NBA with Shaq, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson and more!
With that in mind, lets let’s take a look back at what we said about the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia Sixers and reassess each team’s chances of making it to the Conference Finals.
The Celtics are loaded with talent, draft picks and trade pieces. Even without adding Kawhi Leonard, the Celtics blend of young guns and All-stars should steamroll to 60 wins. Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown almost beat the Cavs in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. With both Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving returning from injury, once Brad Stevens figures out how to maneuver his extreme talent pool, the Green Machine will be a force in the East and the favorites to advance to the NBA Championship.
The Celtics made it through a storm of ego clashes, uncertainty, turmoil and battered chemistry to sweep the Pacers in the first round. Brad Stevens has finally figured out how to maneuver his extreme talent pool . The young pups have finally accepted their roles and Gordon Hayward is rounding into shape. If the real Celtics team is going to stand up, the Green Machine — who took LeBron James to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals — will be hard to beat.
Riding the success of the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl run, the Sixers were the hot commercial pick to defeat Cleveland and advance to the NBA Championship, but we all found out that the excitement surrounding Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid being the next Penny Hardaway and Shaq combo was a bit premature.
With LeBron out of the picture, #TheProcess still moving in a favorable direction and a year of playoff experience, this may be the season that Philly begins to make a serious move in the conference. Re-signing JJ Reddick to a one-year deal shows that Philly thinks they have enough to make a serious run this season, even without signing another big-time hooper.
Believe it or not Philly is a sleeper team. If Embiid stays healthy, Philly has a shot to beat anyone. Before they signed Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, Philly’s lack of depth and ability to score was a problem. They are loaded now and it’s up to Brett Brown to find a way to maximize his five potential All-Star starters. Unfortunately, coaching will probably be Philly’s demise, but I’m picking them to beat Toronto with a healthy Embiid.
LeThanos James has been the one roadblock to Eastern Conference supremacy for a Toronto team that has been knocking on the door of a Conference championship. Toronto has already dumped a coach that led them to the best regular season in franchise history in Dwane Casey, almost blaming the coach for LeBron’s dominance. With LeBron gone and the Raptors core stars of DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry intact, 55-59 wins and an Eastern Conference title is not out of the question. New coach Nick Nurse has a lot to work with and maybe he can figure out how to get the Raptors over the hump.
This was before the Kawhi Leonard–DeMar DeRozan trade elevated Toronto’s championship potential. We don’t know if Kawhi would have led Toronto over LeBron, but as currently constituted the Raptors definitely have a squad capable of finally getting over the Easter Conference hump. I just don’t think that they match up with Philly and the erratic shooting of Kyle Lowery will come back to hurt them. In addition, even without LeThanos, believe it or not the conference has gotten deeper and stronger