For the first time in eight years, the Eastern Conference will be represented in the NBA Finals by a team without LeBron James. With “King James” no longer ruling the conference, the East is up for grabs.
Here’s what to expect out of each East team heading into the 2018-19 season…
DEVENEY: What should we expect from 2019 NBA Draft?
Celtics: Being one win away from the NBA Finals when two of your top players are in street clothes is quite the accomplishment. Last year’s Celtics squad defied expectations given the frequent injury trouble, winning 55 games and reaching the Eastern Conference finals. In a funny twist, the injuries may have set them up for an incredible season.
The losses of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward forced Brad Stevens to lean on his young players down the stretch. Jayson Tatum looked like the future face of the franchise during Boston’s playoff run, while Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier both showed how much they have improved since their rookie years.
A healthy Irving and Hayward easily give the Celtics the best roster in the East. Anything less than a Finals appearance will be a huge letdown for the Celtics faithful.
Raptors: The man that has tortured the Raptors for so many years can no longer do them harm. With James leaving for the West, the Raptors can finally breathe easy knowing that he won’t be standing in their way. But the Raptors still have much to worry about.
A franchise record 59 wins and the top seed in the East was still not enough to advance last season. General manger Masai Ujiri fired Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and traded away beloved star DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. Acquiring Leonard and his expiring contract is a risky move, but if Leonard returns fully healthy, the Raptors will once again be in the conversation to come out of the East.
76ers: A good portion of Sixers fans may feel disappointed in the way the offseason played out. Failing to entice James to take his talents to Philadelphia and the inability to pull off a blockbuster trade for Leonard left the roster largely unchanged. But Sixers fans should be ecstatic with the direction of the franchise.
Joel Embiid and reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons will continue to improve. The two young stars alone will allow them to compete with the Celtics and Raptors for the East crown, not to mention Markelle Fultz, who is primed for a bounce-back sophomore year.
Potential playoff teams
Pacers: At the time, the Paul George trade looked to be extremely one-sided. It was viewed as a disastrous move for the Pacers. Little did we know that Victor Oladipo would turn into an All-NBA player and lead the Pacers to 48 wins and a near first-round upset of James’ Cavs.
With James gone, the Central Division is there for the taking, and the Pacers will be the favorites. The offseason signing of Tyreke Evans is a major upgrade over Lance Stephenson, and adding role players like Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn gives Indiana some much-needed depth.
The Pacers are not yet ready to be considered a threat to win the East, but considering where they were a year ago, their fans should be very pleased.
Bucks: The biggest under-the-radar offseason move may have been the hiring of Mike Budenholzer. The former Hawks coach and Gregg Popovich disciple will bring playoff experience and a sharp basketball mind to a team that is looking to take the next step.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is coming off a season in which he led his team in points (26.9), rebounds (10.0) and blocks (1.4), and he’s still only 23 years old. The additions of Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo will put 3-point shooting around Antetokounmpo and give him more room to create. That’s a scary thought for other East teams.
Budenholzer and the maturation of Antetokounmpo will dictate whether the Bucks are able to take the next step after nearly beating the Celtics in last year’s playoffs.
Wizards: There is a lot of talent in Washington. But will it matter? The John Wall-Bradley Beal duo has produced only three playoff series wins, and it seems to be getting stale.
The addition of Dwight Howard could turn out to be the answer to the Wizards’ problems. Unfortunately, it could also be a nightmare. We’ve all seen how Howard’s last few teams felt about him. More than likely, the Wizards’ ceiling this season will be advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
Pistons: Hiring the reigning Coach of the Year in Casey sure seems to be an upgrade over Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons have seen the playoffs just once in the past nine years, and Casey is hoping to change the narrative.
Midseason acquisition Blake Griffin will play his first full season in Detroit, and Andre Drummond should be able to develop some DeAndre Jordan-level chemistry next to Griffin. A healthy Reggie Jackson, who missed 37 games in 2017-18 season, should help.
In a down East, the talent is there for the Pistons to find their way into the playoffs.
Heat: The Heat showed last year that they were a fiery group in their first-round loss to the Sixers. They better hope that same fire returns this season because their offseason was a dud.
Mired in bad contracts, Miami didn’t have the ability to make any major moves. The Heat will run out essentially the same team they had last year, and they can be expected to be in the playoffs. But there’s not much else here.
Hornets: Similar to the Heat, it was a relatively quiet offseason for the Hornets. They did hire former Spurs assistant James Borrego to be their head coach and signed Tony Parker to a two-year, $10 million deal. They simply didn’t have much cap flexibility.
The biggest question mark going into the year is the future of point guard Kemba Walker. He is entering the final year of his deal before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer. If the Hornets find themselves falling out of the playoff race in the East, new GM Mitch Kupchak may be forced to look at moving Walker.
Cavaliers: What a difference a year makes. The LeBron era has come to an end, and Cavs fans once again are unsure of what the future holds. The Cavs could have easily defended going into full tank mode, but owner Dan Gilbert and the front office decided they want to remain competitive.
The team that James leaves behind this time around will not be as lousy as the one from 2010-11. Kevin Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension to stay in Cleveland, and the Cavs used their first-round pick on point guard Collin Sexton, who is a sleeper candidate for Rookie of the Year.
The Cavs may have lost the best player on the planet, but there is just enough talent to compete for a playoff spot. For now, they’re on the outside looking in.
Nets: The Nets are still stuck near the bottom of the East, but you have to tip your cap to GM Sean Marks. After trading for Dwight Howard (who then agreed to a buyout with the team) and trading away Jeremy Lin to the Hawks, the Nets will have two max slots in 2019.
With Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson all potentially on the market, the Nets have given themselves the opportunity to be players next summer.
Magic: Sixth overall pick Mo Bamba should be an immediate upgrade over Bismack Biyombo, and Aaron Gordon could be ready for a big year after getting paid in the offseason. New coach Steve Clifford will be tasked with trying to get the Magic to the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12, but this is a season for development more than anything.
Bulls: It was an active offseason for the Bulls. They re-signed Zach LaVine after the Kings forced their hand with an offer sheet while scooping up Jabari Parker in free agency. Former Duke standout Wendell Carter Jr. had a strong summer league after falling to the Bulls in the first round of the draft.
The key for the future will be Lauri Markkanen, who has flashed tremendous potential as a 7-foot shooter in the mold of Dirk Nowitzki.
Knicks: New coach David Fizdale will start the season without Kristaps Porzingis, who is recovering from a torn ACL. But the Knicks may have drafted a gem out of Kentucky in Kevin Knox, who put on a show at summer league.
The Knicks will also be looking toward the 2019 free agency class and have been rumored to be the desired destination for Irving and Butler, though a league source told Sporting News’ Sean Deveney that New York won’t panic if the franchise doesn’t land a star. This could actually be a proper rebuild.
Hawks: The Hawks will finish at or near the bottom of the league once again. First-year coach Lloyd Pierce will trot out a very young roster that includes rookie Trae Young. The Hawks’ best hope is for Young to show flashes of his potential — especially after the front office traded Luka Doncic in order to acquire him — and to hit on a few draft picks in the years to come.