With the start of the NBA season several months away and many teams still in the process of building out their rosters, not much can be definitively known about what will happen next year. Just about the only things that seem certain are the Golden State Warriors will once again enter the year as overwhelming favorites to repeat as NBA champions; and that for the first time since 2010, the Eastern Conference will not be represented by a LeBron James-led team in the NBA Finals.
The power vacuum LeBron leaves behind in the East is a large one. In trudging to the Finals eight consecutive times, LeBron’s Heat and Cavaliers teams amassed a ridiculous 24-0 record in Eastern Conference playoff series from 2011 through 2018 — winning 96 of 123 games along the way and yielding a 0.780 winning percentage that is essentially the equivalent of putting together a season and a half’s worth of 64-win basketball, but during the playoffs. (The Cleveland years were even more dominant, with the Cavs winning 48 of their 59 Eastern Conference playoff games during LeBron’s second stint in town.)
It’s fitting that with the King abdicating his Eastern Conference throne, there is no sole team that looks like the obvious bet to ascend in his place. Instead, there’s a trio of teams from the only Eastern Conference division in which LeBron himself has never played (the Atlantic) that stand ready to battle it out for conference supremacy. Because of several dynamics at play, the upcoming season seems at least somewhat likely to be the only one in which the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers duke it out (mostly) alone for the right to represent the East in the Finals.
With that in mind, we have been digging into what each of those teams has going for them and what they have working against them in the race for the top spot in the East. We began by covering the Raptors, continued with the Celtics, and concluded with the Sixers. Below, we’ll examine the question of whether any of the remaining teams in the East might have what it takes to examine the Atlantic Division trio.
Before we begin, let’s acknowledge this: the LeBron-less Cavaliers seem wildly unlikely to rise up and grab the conference crown, and none of the non-playoff teams from last year added enough talent in either the draft or free agency to do it, either. So, the group we’ll be looking at today includes the remaining four playoff teams from a year ago.
Last year’s No. 5 seed, the Pacers finished just outside the top 10 on both offense and defense, missing the cut by a combined 1.3 points per 100 possessions. (0.4 on offense, 0.9 on defense) Victor Oladipo’s star turn powered their rise, but it was the uniform competence of the supporting cast that made the Pacers what they were. Players like Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Cory Joseph, and Lance Stephenson each provided average or better production in their respective roles. All but Stephenson will return for the 2018-19 season, and the Pacers added Tyreke Evans, Kyle O’Quinn, Doug McDermott, and rookie point guard Aaron Holiday to the mix as well. Add in second-year big men T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, and the Pacers look like one of the deepest teams in the conference.
If Oladipo maintains the level of stardom he flashed for much of last season when he was one of just 11 players in the league to average at least 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game (and the only player from that group to also average 2 steals per game), the Pacers should compete for home-court advantage in Round 1 of the playoffs. Indiana should also again get competent or better performances from the players surrounding its star; none of them figure to decline all that much for age-related reasons, while players like Turner and Sabonis should be on the upswing and step into more sizable roles. Adding Evans provides another rim-attacking element the team did not necessarily have last season, while McDermott gives the team the elite outside sniper it was missing and O’Quinn adds another flexible big man who can facilitate from the elbows.
The Pacers don’t necessarily have any star-level contributors outside Oladipo — though Turner has that potential, he has yet to fulfill it — but they have very few players who look like obvious negatives when they’re on the floor. They can essentially go two or through deep at every position with players who are better than replacement-level, which is more than a lot of the teams in the league can say and which provides a distinct advantage over a lot of the teams toward the bottom half of the league. There’s not necessarily a ton of upside with this group but they might have the highest floor of any non-Atlantic team simply because they have an abundance of competence all over.
The Heat, like the Pacers, will return largely the same roster as they had a year ago. Unlike the Pacers, however, the Heat did not make any significant additions in either free agency or the draft. (They retained Wayne Ellington and Derrick Jones Jr., but they have not added a player from another team and they did not have a draft pick in either the first or second round.) Thus, the Heat will be banking on the combination of internal improvement and players returning from injury if they’re to propel themselves from the bottom half of the East into the conversation for the Conference Finals.
Between Jones Jr., Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, and Josh Richardson, Miami has a strong group of players under the age of 25 who should all show improvement next season.
Richardson is arguably Miami’s best overall player, a two-way wing who can defend multiple positions in all different actions and can work either on or off the ball on the other end of the floor. He’s flexible and can fit alongside almost any other player in Miami’s rotation, which makes him a key piece for Erik Spoelstra. There’s a reason he led the team in minutes per game last season. Adebayo had a very solid debut season and probably deserved to make an appearance on one of the All-Rookie teams, and needs to see more of the floor next season. He’s an excellent athlete and finisher who flashed a lot of defensive potential and was extremely strong on the boards. Showing even a modicum of range on his jumper would make him a more well-rounded offensive threat but he already showed more playmaking skill during his rookie season than Hassan Whiteside has shown during his time in the league. Adebayo should be the team’s long-term option at the pivot, assuming they can find a taker for Whiteside’s bloated deal at some point.
Winslow might be the swing player for this team, with his overall fit something of a question given all the money the Heat have spent on players who occupy the 2-3-4 spots over the last couple years. Handing Richardson, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk a ton of money after missing out on Gordon Hayward boxed the Heat into their current roster unless they can make a salary-dump move, but they’re down a future first thanks to the deal that secured Goran Dragic some years back and Pat Riley is not the salary-dumping type anyway. Maybe Waiters comes back from his injury and recaptures the form that got him paid, but it seems fairly unlikely being that the form that got him paid was out-of-step with the form he’d showed for the balance of his career prior to that stretch.
The Heat will always be one of the best-condition, best-coached teams in the league. They will play harder than almost everyone, every single night. And they will executed their butts off. But it may not be enough with this mismatched roster.
The Wizards will all hate each other by the end of the season. Guaranteed.
The Bucks made some interesting moves this offseason. They let Jabari Parker walk for a two-year, $40 million deal from the Bulls, getting nothing in return. They signed Ersan Ilyasova to a deal that makes zero sense and Brook Lopez to one that looks like a steal. They brought in Pat Connaughton and they drafted Donte DiVincenzo. All of those things should help to one degree or another.
Swapping out Parker for Ilyasova will be a plus from a shooting and defense perspective, even if Ersan’s defense has become overrated and the Bucks will lose one of the few players on the roster who can create his own look off the dribble. Lopez immediately becomes the team’s best and most consistent two-way center, and he is a marvelous fit next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Connaughton and DiVincenzo give the Bucks another couple shooters to play with, and the rookie has some off-the-bounce creativity to his game that not many of Milwaukee’s backcourt players possess.
But the biggest bump the Bucks should get will not come from any of the players they signed, drafted, or let go: it will come from their coaching change. The combination of Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty left a lot to be desired, whereas Mike Budenholzer is, well, a very good coach who knows exactly what he’s doing and has a proven track record of being able to get the best out of his charges on a night-to-night basis on both ends of the floor, and has shown a particular skill at coaxing above-average two-way play out of basically any NBA-caliber wing.
It remains to be seen if Bud can bring the Hawks University Wing Development Academy with him to Milwaukee but the safe bet is on his still being able to put his wing players in position to succeed. He did it year after year with the Hawks, with guys with skill sets as diverse as Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Taurean Prince. He should get the best out of Khris Middleton, Tony Snell, and Sterling Brown, and put DiVincenzo in the best position possible to showcase his offensive repertoire.
He should help push Antetokounmpo to the next stage of his development as both a playmaker and defender, and get Malcolm Brogdon to make quicker decisions to take advantage of his preternatural instincts. He should tap into whatever skills Thon Maker can bring to the table and discern whether there is anything that can be made of D.J. Wilson. Simply, Budenholzer should figure out a way to max out every player on the roster, and that alone gives the Bucks a chance to be far better than they were under the prior regime. If any team is going to make a surprise run to the top of the East, it’s likely the one that has been most obviously held back by its coaching staff and just made a massive upgrade.