Now that the big moves in free agency are over and the blockbuster trades are done (or so we think) let’s see how the Eastern Conference stacks up and where exactly the Wizards currently stand.
Tier 1: The Contenders
Key Additions: Robert Williams
Key Losses: Greg Monroe (Unsigned, UFA)
Outside of the Toronto Raptors, no team was happier to hear that LeBron James would be leaving the East than Boston. With coaching wiz Brad Stevens at the helm, the Celtics came just one game away from reaching the NBA Finals - without their two best players for the entire postseason.
After losing Gordon Hayward to a horrific injury just minutes into the season, the Celtics didn’t miss a beat. They started the 16-2 and quickly asserted themselves as a force in the conference.
The Eastern Conference turned into a two horse race with Toronto and Boston in the lead. But more crushing news would come in late March when the team announced Kyrie Irving would miss the entire postseason. With Toronto cruising, Philly winning 16 straight games to end the season, and teams wanting to avoid LeBron, there was some jockeying going on in the 6-8 seeds to try and position themselves to play the banged up Celtics.
That was a mistake. After struggling but still able to knock off the Bucks, the Celtics brought the Sixers’ magic carpet ride to an end and came one game away from reaching the NBA Finals.
Kyrie Irving is showing to be a little more injury prone than some would care to admit and who knows if Gordon Hayward will be able to play at an All-Star level once again. However, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will have another year under their belt. One thing is clear—the Celtics are the clear favorites to win the Eastern Conference this season even if the injury bug bites their veterans again.
Key Additions: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Nick Nurse
Key Losses: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Dwane Casey
The Raptors needed to stir the pot after getting bounced in the second round again and traded away DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard in what was the blockbuster trade of the summer.
They replaced an All-Star with an even better All-Star but as we found out last year, Leonard comes with some baggage, especially heading into a contract year. If he is healthy and plays like he actually wants to be in Toronto, there’s no reason why the Raptors can’t post the best record in the East again. But if his injury problems linger and he’s already looking ahead to next summer, that would be an enormous blow for Toronto.
Fortunately, the Raptors have nailed their recent draft picks and stockpiled their roster with young talent should Kawhi miss significant time for whatever reason. Even if Kawhi leaves in free agency, Toronto is still nicely suited to right the ship and remain relevant in the Eastern Conference.
Tier 2: The Almost Contenders
Key Additions: Wilson Chandler, Zhaire Smith (R), Mike Muscala
Key Losses: Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli, Richaun Holmes
The 76ers were everyone’s darling team beginning in the preseason last year. After being horrendous for nearly half a decade, it was thought that the process would head in the right direction now that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were healthy enough to play alongside the number one overall pick, Markelle Fultz. Boy, did that work out nicely.
With a little help from the scheduling fairies, the 76ers won 16 straight games to close the regular season. The momentum carried over to the first round of the playoffs as they made quick work of the Miami Heat, beating them in five games. The media, along with Vegas, became so enamored with Philly that in some books, they were thought as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. However, things came to a screeching halt when they met the Boston Celtics in the second round and were eliminated in five games.
In just one season, the 76ers went from the hunters to the hunted. I still think Philly will be a very good basketball team however, I’m just very wary of teams that ‘arrive’ a year ahead of schedule. How will they handle more media attention? More nationally televised games? Getting every team’s best shot on a nightly basis? I’m not saying Philly is going to fall out of the playoffs, I just wouldn’t be surprised if their win total is slightly lower next season.
Key Additions: Tyreke Evans, Kyle O’Quinn, Doug McDermott, Aaron Holiday (R)
Key Losses: Lance Stephenson, Trevor Booker (Unsigned, UFA), Al Jefferson
The Indiana Pacers were the biggest surprise in the NBA last year. After trading away a disgruntled Paul George, it looked like the Pacers were headed towards the lottery and rebuild-mode. Instead, they surprised everyone by winning 48 games in the regular season and taking the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the playoffs.
After being stuck in some less than ideal situations over the first four years of his career, Victor Oladipo became ‘the guy’ in Indiana and elevated his game to an All-Star level - the main reason for the Pacers’ turnaround. Indiana also signed veterans Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison last summer who both brought far more than expected last season and will be sticking around for this season.
The biggest question as to whether this team will make the leap or not might lie in the hands of Myles Turner. If he can elevate his game to what everyone thought he would become after coming out of college, the Pacers could be scary. Regardless, expect Indiana to remain relevant in the Eastern Conference race and be a tough out in the playoffs.
Tier 3: Take your best guess
Key Additions: Mike Budenholzer, Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova
Key Losses: Jabari Parker, Joe Prunty
The Bucks are a very frustrating and confusing team to figure out. Remember, when they were the sexy pick to join the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference last year? Instead, they hovered around .500 for most of the season, which led to Jason Kidd’s dismissal and another first round playoff exit.
However, as long as the Bucks still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, they’re at least going to be a potential threat in the East. On top of that, it finally looks like he’s continuing to add more muscle.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has apparently discovered steroids this off-season. pic.twitter.com/iqwfK1aHFH— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) July 28, 2018
The Bucks are one of those teams that look good on paper but for one reason or another, the results don’t necessarily translate over to the court. They have solid to above average starters alongside Antetokounmpo like Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and they added dependable veterans in Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to improve their bench.
The pieces are in place and with arguably the best player in the Conference on your roster, one has to think that if the Bucks get bounced in the first round again, an even bigger shakeup will be on the way in Milwaukee.
Key Additions: None
Key Losses: Dwyane Wade (Unsigned, UFA)
As long as Erik Spoelstra is the coach, the Miami Heat will be relevant. They lack the star power that some of the teams at the top of the conference have, but are so well coached that they’ll be a tough out on any given night. Regardless of what happens with Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside, the Heat should be firmly in the playoff mix next year.
Key Additions: Dwight Howard, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, Troy Brown Jr. (R), Thomas Bryant
Key Losses: Marcin Gortat, Mike Scott
Even though I slotted the Wizards in the seventh position in the Eastern Conference, I don’t ultimately think this is where they’ll end up.
Washington picked up Dwight Howard, which means that for the first time in his career, John Wall will have a rim-protecting center as well as a big who can also run the floor. Tack on the additions of Austin Rivers, Jeff Green and Troy Brown Jr., one could argue that the Wizards might have their deepest bench in recent memory (which isn’t saying much). If it all comes together, they could climb all the way into a top-four seed and get home court advantage for a first round playoff series.
But, if things don’t go so well and the team’s big personalities begin to clash, I also wouldn’t be surprised if they implode from within and miss the playoffs altogether. It feels like boom or bust are the only options for the Wizards this year.
The bottom line is, will Dwight Howard’s huge personality mesh well with an already fragile locker room, or will it drive the final wedge in a team that’s teetering on the brink of a rebuild?
Tier 4: Because eight teams have to make the playoffs
Key Additions: Dwane Casey, Zaza Pachulia, James Ennis III, Jose Calderon
Key Losses: Stan Van Gundy
After the first seven or so teams, there’s a major drop-off to the next tier but Detroit seems like the one team that can take advantage of a watered down conference to make a return to the playoffs. It looked like they were catching their stride late last year but it came a little too late for Stan Van Gundy and the front office.
The Pistons had one of the biggest pick-ups of the offseason, signing the NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey shortly after he was terminated by the Raptors. Detroit is hoping he can unlock something with their core, since they had little flexibility to add more talent this summer.
The main thing for Detroit is, can they stay healthy? Andre Drummond has elevated his game to an All-Star level but it’s going to be hard for him to do things by himself if Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson struggle to stay on the court.
Key Additions: James Borrego, Tony Parker, Miles Bridges (R), Bismack Biyombo
Key Losses: Steve Clifford, Dwight Howard, Michael Carter-Williams
The Hornets are another team that’s hard to get a pulse on. They’re led by All-Star Kemba Walker, but the rest of the roster is filled with players that they’re banking on to make the leap but just haven’t yet. Charlotte will need James Borrego to steer the ship in the right direction immediately if they want to convince Walker to stay in Charlotte beyond this season when his contract comes up.
Key Additions: Collin Sexton (R), Channing Frye
Key Losses: LeBron James, Rodney Hood (Unsigned, RFA), Jeff Green, Jose Calderon
Back in June, it was leaked that Dan Gilbert wouldn’t mind if LeBron left the Cavs in the free agency so that he could “get his team back.”
Careful what you wish for, Dan.
The cupboard isn’t as bare as it was back in 2010 when LeBron bolted for the Miami Heat, but things still don’t look pretty. Kevin Love recently signed a four-year extension to stay in Cleveland and will now be the go-to guy for the Cavs. Just like his tenure in Minnesota, this has all the makings of a “good stats on a bad team” type of storyline for Love again with the Cavs hovering in and out of the playoff hunt while Collin Sexton adjusts to the NBA.
Tier 5: Heading in the right direction (I think)
Key Additions: Jabari Parker, Wendell Carter Jr. (R)
Key Losses: Jerian Grant
There’s likely going to be at least one, and maybe two teams with fewer than 40 wins that make the playoffs next year. And if you’re looking for a lottery team from last year that might surprise, the Chicago Bulls are your team.
The Bulls will have one of the youngest teams in the NBA this season. They have a nice young nucleus with Lauri Markkanen as the focal point, as well as Wendell Carter Jr. who looks like he’ll be able to contribute right away.
Health will be a huge factor for the Bulls this season. They just recently re-signed Zach LaVine to a monster deal and took a flyer on Jabari Parker, both of whom are still recovering from major injuries. I’m not saying Chicago will have a turnaround like Philadelphia did last year, but if the East is as weak as people think it’s going to be, the Bulls might be good enough to jump up and nab one of the last playoff spots if everything breaks right.
Tier 6: The New York City teams
Key Additions: David Fizdale, Kevin Knox (R), Mario Hezonja, Mitchell Robinson (R), Noah Vonleh
Key Losses: Jeff Hornacek, Michael Beasley, Kyle O’Quinn
Don’t overreact to Summer League performances. Don’t overreact to Summer League performances. Don’t overreact to Summer League performances.
I’m breaking a cardinal rule, folks. Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson looked outstanding in the Las Vegas Summer League just weeks ago. Knox looks more versatile than many expected while Mitchell Robinson showed why he was a first round talent prior to withdrawing from college to spend the last year training. Both of those guys will likely get thrown into the fire immediately and get plenty of minutes as Kristaps Porzingis will likely be out until January or February.
Are these picks enough for the Knicks to jump up into the playoff conversation and maybe sneak in with the seven or eight seed? Probably not. But this is a step in the right direction for a franchise that’s been stuck in reverse.
Key Additions: Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier, Jared Dudley, Kenneth Faried, Dzanan Musa
Key Losses: Jeremy Lin, Isaiah Whitehead, Nik Stauskas
The rebuild looks to be taking a little longer than expected in Brooklyn. They have a lot of nice young players and will be able to stay in games as I doubt they’ll start jacking up fewer three-pointers next year. The addition of Jared Dudley to be a veteran presence in the locker room will be a positive. However, there just isn’t enough talent on this roster currently for the Nets to make a lot of noise this year.
On a positive note, they’ve finally conveyed all their draft picks to Boston!
Tier 7: At least you live in a warm-weather state during the winter months!
Key Additions: Steve Clifford, Mohamed Bamba (R), Isaiah Briscoe, Timofey Mozgov, Jerian Grant
Key Losses: Frank Vogel, Mario Hezonja, Shelvin Mack, Bismack Biyombo
Might not be a bad idea for Magic fans to start looking into renewing their Disney World season passes as there won’t be a whole lot to cheer about on the basketball court.
Key Additions: Lloyd Pierce, Trae Young (R), Jeremy Lin, Vince Carter, Alex Len, Kevin Huerter (R)
Key Losses: Mike Budenholzer, Dennis Schroder, Mike Muscala,
John Collins should look better in his second year and Trae Young will garner attention because he’s Trae Young. But outside of those two, there’s not a whole lot going on in the ATL for their fans to get excited about.