While the Western Conference continues to sink beneath the weight of Golden State, LeBron James’ reign over the Eastern Conference seems to be coming to a tumultuous end. Now, more than ever, it feels like parity is beginning to return to the conference that was once dominated by the likes of Miami and Cleveland.
So, with that said, here is Prime Time’s regular season preview for the Eastern Conference in 2018:
8th place: Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers have been an abomination since 2013, tanking one year after another to stockpile draft picks at a concerning rate. However, it finally feels as though “The Process” has paid off in dividends, despite the questionable health of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. With the notable loss in talent from teams like Atlanta, Indiana, and Chicago though, a window has finally opened at the bottom of the conference for Brett Brown and his core of young stars to finally rise to prominence.
7th place: Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets added Kentucky’s young phenom Malik Monk, and the “basketball player formerly known as Dwight Howard” during the offseason, which is probably an improvement upon Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller. Hopefully. Still, Kemba Walker will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2019 season, so you can imagine that he’s only going to continue proving his worth until that time comes.
6th place: Toronto Raptors
The gap between the seventh seed Hornets and the sixth seed Toronto Raptors could be physically represented as a chasm, and without blatantly approximating their win-loss records, they’ll probably be indicative of that as well. Like all of the Eastern Conference teams that have rivaled LeBron James in the past (i.e Indiana, Boston, and Atlanta), the Raptors have reached critical mass, standing on the precipice of implosion. The Canadian-basketball renaissance was fun while it lasted though.
5th place: Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo (nailed it) is NBA Twitter’s unanimous pick for future MVP, and at the ripe age of 22, the “Greek Freak” is only trending upwards. Throw in more young, blossoming talent like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon — and how could you understate the Milwaukee Bucks’ rise to prominence?
Bonus Take: Thon Maker will win Defensive Player of the Year one day in the distant future.
4th place: Miami Heat
The Waiters Island conundrum is endlessly fascinating — because the Miami Heat were practically two teams last season. First, an 11-30 win train wreck, destined to land in lottery territory. Then a team that finished 30-11, and was arguably one of the four best teams in the Eastern Conference. Goran Dragic, Dion Waiter, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside made for an impressively underrated core, and one of the most exciting League-Pass teams in recent memory. Now, consider that core, with the added talent of Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo, building off their midseason run from last season. Miami fans rejoice, you’re finally a credible playoff team again.
3rd place: Washington Wizards
The Washington Almost-Bullets had a shockingly successful season in 2017, and at times looked like the second best team in the Eastern Conference. Including, but not limited too, stretches in the regular season and game’s three and four against the Boston Celtics. Let’s be discrete though; John Wall is relentless, Bradley Beal surpassed his previous limitations in the playoffs, and Otto Porter is still in Washington. Expect the Almost-Bullets to aggressively try to usurp the Celtics and Cavaliers in the midst of their impending rivalry.
2nd place: Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics are essentially boasting an entirely different roster, than last season’s, virtually losing the entire rotation that propelled them to their previously established heights in the “post Big Three” era. However, that doesn’t mean that this unit is any worse. In fact, it’s brimming with talent — significantly more than the Isaiah Thomas-led Celtics were. But, even for a coach like Brad Stevens, configuring a suitable rotation will take a considerable amount of time, and a team can’t conquer the Eastern Conference in the midst of experimentation.
1st place: Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James is still LeBron James, and while his regular season exploits haven’t been too extraordinary over the past several years, I think this year presents a unique challenge for him. The Celtics will be a legitimate threat, but their defensive deficiencies will ultimately cripple their chances at the first seed. And, while the Cleveland Cavaliers have traded in their young phenom for Isaiah Thomas, who could reportedly miss the first half of the season, the Cavaliers are no strangers to losing their starting point guard. The Cavaliers still have Derrick Rose, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson — which is more than enough for LeBron to stage one last run at the Larry O’Brien trophy. At least in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform anyway.