The East has been dominated by LeBron James ever since he joined the Miami Heat in 2010. He's owned that conference for eight straight seasons as he's reached the NBA Finals every year. For the first time in his career, however, James will no longer have the chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals.
On Sunday, Jamesfrom his agency Klutch Sports that he This stunning move will not only send James West, but will also create a massive power vacuum in the East.
For the first time in eight years, a team without James has a chance at winning the East. The Celtics and Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily against LeBron in the playoffs finally have a new outlook. Rising newcomers such as the 76ers and Bucks have to see this as their chance to make their mark in the conference. There's a power vacuum out East and someone needs to fill it.
The Celtics are the obvious team to fill the void James has left in the East. They were one win away from the Eastern Conference finals just one season ago and that was without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Not only will Boston be healthier now, but the young players on its roster are only going to get better. Guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have proven they are just as important to the Celtics core as anybody else on the roster.
Really, this is now the Celtics' conference to lose. There will certainly be other challengers to them, but they're the most well put together team in the East. They have the experience of winning in the playoffs and Brad Stevens is one of the NBA's best coaches. They had the NBA's best defense last season and their offense really only suffered when Irving left with injury. The Celtics are going to be even better and their biggest challenger, LeBron James, just left.
Of course, the Celtics will deal with the expectations that come with being tabbed as the team to beat. Previous years teams were seen as scrappy underdogs. Last season's team lost Hayward to start the year and had just been put together over the summer. Teams that play without expectations are given a chance to make mistakes and improve. Next season's team won't have that chance. They'll be expected to act like contenders from Day One and that could be both challenging and stressful. It's time to put this group to the test.
Philadelphia won 52 games, tore through the end of the regular season and watched many of its young players emerge into future stars. The 76ers are sitting pretty with All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ready to dominate the NBA. Now with LeBron out of the picture, there's a chance for this Philadelphia team to make an even bigger jump in their second season together.
Youth wasn't a problem for the 76ers. They played without fear and never seemed overwhelmed by the moment. Brett Brown has them extremely disciplined. However, they were handled pretty easily at the hands of an injured Celtics team in the playoffs. Their inexperience and flaws showed through in a playoff environment. They weren't quite ready yet.
Next season can be different. If the Celtics are the new 1A in the East, then the 76ers should be considered 1B. They're just as viable an option to fill the James' power vacuum as Boston, thanks to elite talent and the assumed improvement of youth. They'll need to make some free agency signings, and there are concerns with trying to improve the team without an actual general manager in charge, but Brown seems more than willing to handle the role in the interim.
This is what the 76ers wanted. They're young and they can be the team running the East for years to come now that James is gone. They're set up so well for it, too. They cannot miss this opportunity. It's weird to say this about a team so young, but their expectations should be set on the NBA Finals. Anything less at this point could, internally, be considered a failure.
Ding dong, the witch has skipped town. LeBron James own the Raptors, but they won't have to worry about that anymore. For the last three years, the Raptors' biggest problem in the playoffs has been that James exists. He's always stood in their way. Even in Toronto's best season as a franchise, LeBron managed to embarrass them via sweep. The only place James can continue to haunt the Raptors is in the NBA Finals, which is what Masai Ujiri wants.
The Raptors have made changes. Their offense became far more modern last season, but that wasn't enough for Ujiri. He fired Dwane Casey, the eventual Coach of The Year winner, to promote Nick Nurse. A new voice in the locker room with different ideals could be exactly what the Raptors need to get a fire under them and have a run of success in the playoffs.
The story for Toronto has always been the same. If James wasn't in the East then it would look like a stronger team. Well, here's the Raptors' chance to prove that theory right. The pairing of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan might feel tired at this point, but the two are effective together. The Raptors win a lot of games and they will make the playoffs, but once again they have to prove they're actually worth believing in at that point. Maybe with James gone, they can finally do that.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is arguably now the best player in the East. That sentence alone makes the Bucks an interesting dark-horse candidate to take over the conference. They have a new coach in Mike Budenholzer, but the roster isn't exactly in a great place at the moment. Changes are needed to make them feel like a viable option.
However, the NBA is a star-driven league and the teams with the best players win out. The 76ers might be rising, and the Celtics might have the most talent of anybody, but Antetokounmpo by himself is enough to do some real damage. He's the type of player that teams dream of building around. Someone that can put a team on his back and win a playoff series all by himself. The last guy in the East that had that kind of potential was the one that just went West.
Milwaukee is the least likely of these four teams to take over the East, because of the talent around Antetokounmpo, but they should definitely be considered. There are worse things to do in the NBA than bet on the most talented player on the floor. Most nights in the East that's going to be Antetokounmpo.