Bold proclamations have been flying out of the Eastern Conference this offseason.
The Celtics are definitely coming out of the East. No, wait — the Wizards are right there. Hey, how about the Bucks?
NBA POWER RANKINGS: Warriors still on top; Lakers make big jump
Now that LeBron James has taken his talents to Los Angeles, every contender in the East is looking to climb the ladder to the top of the conference. But who has what it takes to reach the 2019 NBA Finals?
Let’s gaze into the crystal ball and make a case for (and against) the top teams…
Why they will win the East: Kawhi Leonard rediscovers his pre-injury form and receives plenty of votes for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Kyle Lowry has another solid campaign, averaging 18 points and seven assists per game while shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range. OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam make leaps with bigger roles. The Toronto “Bench Mob” maintains the highest net rating among reserves.
Why they won’t: Leonard plods through the season and makes it clear he has no interest in re-signing with the Raptors. Lowry throws out jabs at the front office with anger lingering over the trade of DeMar DeRozan. The young guys feel the negativity at practice and in the locker room. New coach Nick Nurse is already on the hot seat in his first season at the helm. Dwane Casey literally sips a cup of tea at media availability when asked about Toronto’s struggles.
Why they will win the East: Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward show no ill effects from previous injuries with each averaging 20 points per game. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum earn All-Star consideration and take turns running the offense as they gain even more confidence. Al Horford does Al Horford things. Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart anchor the bench. Semi Ojeleye is adopted by Brad Stevens so he can accurately call Ojeleye his large adult son.
Why they won’t: Another round of injuries bite Boston. Irving becomes frustrated as Brown and Tatum eat more offensive possessions. Hayward just doesn’t feel quite like himself and shoots only 41 percent from the field. Horford loses a step. Stevens drops his after-timeout-plays binder into a river.
Why they will win the East: Joel Embiid is a legitimate MVP candidate, averaging 25 points and 12 rebounds over 72 games. Ben Simmons leads the league in assists and is willing to take a few midrange jumpers (maybe 3-pointers, too). Dario Saric, Robert Covington and JJ Redick all hit at least 38 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. Markelle Fultz can shoot the ball without looking like he’s assembling a piece of IKEA furniture.
Why they won’t: A few bumps and bruises keep Embiid from reaching his full potential. With a full season of tape, opposing teams learn how to slow down Simmons, and his critics yell a little louder about that jumper. All the Fultz stuff is still super weird with no real explanation. Brett Brown loses his accent, which is charming and wonderful.
Why they will win the East: Indiana builds off the momentum of a surprisingly successful 2017-18 season with Victor Oladipo proving his career year was no fluke. He leads the team in points, assists and steals. Myles Turner puts it all together in Year 4, posting career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and 3-point percentage. Tyreke Evans regularly contributes big games off the bench. Doug McDermott becomes best friends with Dylan McDermott… or Dermot Mulroney?
Why they won’t: Oladipo’s production drops off, particularly his 3-point shooting. Turner’s numbers don’t look terrible, but he just floats without leaving his imprint on the season. The role guys don’t see much improvement under Nate McMillan. Lance Stephenson somehow becomes a Western Conference All-Star with the Lakers. (OK, too far. Got it.)
Why they will win the East: Behind an MVP-caliber season from Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee finally comes together as one cohesive unit under Mike Budenholzer. Khris Middleton averages a career-high 23 points per game, garnering All-Star buzz. Eric Bledsoe looks much more like the guy we saw a few years ago rather than the guy who tweeted “I don’t wanna be here.” Thon Maker continues to grow until he is as tall as a regulation hoop, making him the best rim protector in the league.
Why they won’t: Antetokounmpo is terrific, but his lack of progress as a passer allows opposing defenses to collapse on him and live with big scoring nights. Middleton fails to find consistency, and his outside shooting hangs around 35 percent. Bledsoe once again tweets out “I don’t wanna be here,” but this time he says he was stuck at a nail salon.
Why they will win the East: John Wall and Bradley Beal are fully healthy, playing 80 games together and each posting over 20 points per game. Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. are ready to excel on the wing with new career-highs in scoring. Dwight Howard accepts his role as a pick-and-roll threat on offense and backline anchor on defense. (It took a long time, but we got there!)
Why they won’t: Because we do this every year with the Wizards. And Howard. And it doesn’t change.
It’s likely going to be a three-team race with the Celtics, 76ers and Raptors competing for the crown. Toronto is more of a wild-card pick because of the uncertainty surrounding Leonard, and Philly doesn’t quite possess the talent top to bottom.
Boston has great options at every position, plus an elite coach who knows how to get the most out of his players. This Celtics team at full strength could possibly give the Warriors a decent run in a seven-game series, and that’s why they’ll be expected to take over the East with James gone.