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Who Are the New Eastern Conference Alphas After LeBron James' Departure?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2018

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics holds off Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the NBA game between Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers at The O2 Arena on January 11, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

In one fell unremarkable, all-business tweet, LeBron James flipped the NBA on its head. He agreed to join the Los Angeles Lakers, as nondescriptly announced by Klutch Sports Group, tilting the league's already-lopsided balance of power even more toward the Western Conference and leaving the Eastern Conference to bathe in relative ruin.

Owners and coaches and executives and players from the lesser conference would surely prefer James' departure be spun as an inclusive opportunity—hope for all. And it is. The past eight East titles were determined by asking one question: Is James on your team?

Answering "no" during that time rendered your NBA Finals chances moot. That trend showed signs of cracking this year, when both the Indiana Pacers (first round) and shorthanded Boston Celtics (conference finals) pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven-game brinks. But still: LeBron is LeBron. Had he stayed in the East, his championship-round treadmill stood to persist, even if it had to navigate the percolating windows of the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.

So, yes, removing the one-man dynasty from the picture opens the door wider than ever for a successor to take his place. It might even create a free-for-all in which the East's Finals representative will change annually. Anarchical power structures can be fun.

And yet:

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And also:

(Add Damian Lillard to the Western Conference headcount, which, well, sheesh.)

Let's see if we can't find some meaningful silver linings inside the East's new world order, with the caveat that the NBA's silly season has loads of silliness yet to give.

   

The 'Real Contenders' Duo

1. Boston Celtics

Jim Mone/Associated Press

The Celtics may be low-key the biggest winners of the offseason. At the very least, for now, they aren't not the biggest winners.

James' latest relocation leaves them with a semi-clear path to the Finals. They don't need to do a darn thing. They finished with 55 wins and the league's best defense while playing without Gordon Hayward and relying on kiddos like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to fill prominent roles. And then they scared the ever-loving hell out of James himself in the conference finals without Hayward or Kyrie Irving.

Letting Marcus Smart walk in restricted free agency would prove costly, and James' exit gives them more of an incentive to meet his asking price. It might also coax them into chasing harder after Kawhi Leonard.

Boston is interested, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, because of course. Mortgaging the future or surrendering one incumbent star has always felt unnecessary. It still could. But catering to a short-term timeline has more appeal without James around to muck up an all-in play.

   

2. Philadelphia 76ers

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 7: Dario Saric #9, Joel Embiid #21, and Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers look on against the Boston Celtics during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round of the 2018 NBA Playoff at Wells Fargo Center on May 7, 201
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Could the Sixers sneak past the Celtics before the start of next season? Maybe. They've lost Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova to free agency, but JJ Redick is coming back, per Woj, and they still have more than $13 million in wiggle room.

Pair that flexibility with the perfect mix of trade assets (picks, prospects, digestible salary filler), and the Sixers have a big move or two in them. They loom large in the Leonard sweepstakes, even with his desire to join the Lakers peaking with James' decision:

Making a mega-splash isn't necessary. Using the rest of their cap space on a Tyreke Evans isn't, either. The Sixers will get better by standing pat.

Last year's starting five was the Association's best high-volume lineup and remains intact. Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons haven't yet hit their primes. Markelle Fultz cannot get any worse. Anything they get from Zhaire Smith or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is gravy.

Without a major addition, it might take a year or two for the Sixers' core to detonate on a championship level. That's fine. If the East is ever going to be in good hands again, they're one of the two reasons why.

   

The 'Fringe Contender' Soloist

3. Toronto Raptors

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Re-signing Fred VanVleet and, for the time being, consigning themselves to the luxury tax is a clear sign the Raptors are running back their 59-win core. And if, for some reason, that wasn't actually the plan, it will be now.

It has to be. As TSN's Josh Lewenberg noted:

Staying the course doesn't guarantee the Raptors will amble past the Celtics or Sixers. Last year was their mountaintop, and they have more than $96.9 million tied up in DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas—players who've peaked.

Then again, the roster is hardly devoid of upside. Not one of OG Anunoby (21), Jakob Poeltl (23), Pascal Siakam (24) and VanVleet (24) will play their age-25 season in 2018-19. They won't register as a threat to the Golden State Warriors or even the Houston Rockets, but the Raptors are more than a blip on the radar.

   

The 'Please, Oh Please, Get Better' Hopefuls

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Welcome to the East's gray area.

Every team in this tier has an outside chance at leveling up to the next subcategory. Starting with the Bucks feels right. They have the best player in the conference, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and are coming off the NBA's most disappointing season—in a good way.

Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, John Henson, Thon Maker, Khris Middleton and Tony Snell should be worth more than 44 wins. Eight of the Bucks' nine most-played lineups posted a point differential per 100 possessions comfortably in the green, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Adding Ilyasova is a subtle needle-nudger. He's a good enough rebounder and rotator in the lane to survive on defense as the small-ball 5, which makes him a cleaner fit next to Antetokounmpo than restricted free agent Jabari Parker.

Bringing back Parker leaves the Bucks facing the same old predicaments, but he's revamped his offensive game to account for more range and spot-ups. Lose him or sign-and-trade him, and they'll be fine. Keep him, and they have a few wrinkles to iron out. New head coach Mike Budenholzer should make a huge difference regardless.

   

5. Washington Wizards

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Everyone should feel exactly zero confidence in the Wizards at this spot. They were the Bucks before the Bucks—the team that always seemed to be playing below its on-paper talent.

Flipping Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers may have beefed up the bench. Washington now has two secondary ball-handlers, Rivers and Tomas Satoransky, to try winning whatever minutes are played without Bradley Beal or John Wall.

That trade also left Ian Mahinmi as the rotation's only discernible center. Maybe that portends more super-small arrangements with Markieff Morris at the 5. Perhaps we're about to get the Beal-Wall-Morris-Dwight Howard locker room we so rightly deserve. Maybe the Wizards aren't done wheeling and dealing.

Whatever the case, Washington's Big Three looks far more imposing in the LeBron-less East. Beal, Wall and Otto Porter Jr. should be enough to contend for a top-five seed. So, naturally, that means the Wizards will be under .500 and exploring a total teardown by mid-January.

   

6. Indiana Pacers

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Knocking the Pacers down a peg after their surprise 48-win campaign isn't easy. Feel free to throw them above the Wizards.

Slotting them any higher is a bit too generous. They're still toting the burden of proof.

Will Victor Oladipo grade out as a top-15 player again? Is Myles Turner gearing up for a leap? Do the Pacers even need one from him? Can he and Domantas Sabonis play at the same time?

Will Doug McDermott be their biggest free-agency addition? Does their expiring-contract goulash make them ripe for a trade? Is their offense closer to its pre-All-Star utopia (No. 6) or post-All-Star abysm (No. 23)? Should they trade in some of their long twos for three-pointers? Are Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison primed for offensive encores?

Hit on some of the more pressing concerns, and the Pacers could once again be within striking distance of home-court advantage in the first round. Miss on them, and they could tumble down the standings. Tread water, and things could go either way. The East is weird.

   

The 'What Do We Have Here?' Gaggle

7. Miami Heat

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 21: Josh Richardson #0 of the Miami Heat looks on in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2018 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO US
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Here are just a few things the Heat must have go their way to be considered in a more favorable light:

  • Wayne Ellington's free agency
  • Justise Winslow's development
  • Dion Waiters' return
  • Bam Adebayo's "stop playing Hassan Whiteside" learning curve
  • Hassan Whiteside's mood
  • Hassan Whiteside's trade value
  • Tyler Johnson's trade value
  • Josh Richardson's best-player-on-the-team rise
  • Reliable shot creation from someone not named Goran Dragic
  • Better three-point shooting in the frontcourt

The list goes on. It goes on and on, my friend. Head coach Erik Spoelstra traffics in pulling rabbits out of Pat Riley's hair gel tub, but the Heat need more juice on the trade market to be painted as a viable threat.

Losing Ellington specifically would prove disastrous to their outlook. That dependence on his return, in a way, says it all.

   

8. Detroit Pistons

DETROIT, MI - MARCH 26: Stanley Johnson #7 and Blake Griffin #23 of the Detroit Pistons during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 26, 2018 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

Convincing yourself the Pistons will return to the playoff isn't especially difficult.

Blake Griffin is a top-20 player when healthy, Andre Drummond wasn't married to dumpster-diving post-ups last season, and Reggie Jackson's dribble penetration can open up the pick-and-roll attack. And this just in: You're allowed to like Detroit gambling on Glenn Robinson III.

If Griffin stays healthy, and if Jackson stays healthy, and if the ambiguously structured front office surrounds the "Medium-Sized Three" with more knockdown snipers, and if Stanley Johnson discovers how to shoot and initiate pick-and-rolls, and if James Ennis III (early Bird free agent) comes back, and if Luke Kennard plays enough defense to stay on the court, the Pistons are definitely going to be a playoff team.

Now, is it less than ideal that the best case for them doubles as an airtight argument against them? Most assuredly. But hey, this is the East. Ifs and buts are almost all we have to work with.

   

9. Charlotte Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 8:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets handles the ball against the Indiana Pacers on April 8, 2018 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Kent Smith/Getty Images

James' free-agency decision probably left Michael Jordan drooling. He has allowed the Hornets to travel great lengths to remain in the middle. And with Kemba Walker's most popular trade suitor, the Cavaliers, now facing a from-scratch rebuild, the pull to start over isn't nearly as strong.

Delaying the inevitable is an objectively bad decision. Walker could leave for nothing in free agency next summer, and the Hornets do not have the assets without him to offload their most unsavory money.

At the same time, they shouldn't want any part of his next contract. He turns 29 in May. That deal will take him through his 32nd or even 33rd birthday. Undersized point guards who've shouldered cornerstone usage for their entire careers don't typically age well. Chris Paul is an exception. Lowry's career arc doesn't qualify to fall under the rule.

Good luck selling the Hornets on any of this. Mediocrity plays more than ever with James gone, and the Hornets finished last season with a dead-even net rating.

Bake in their post-All-Star surge, when they outscored opponents by 2.1 points per 100 possessions, and they'll hear the playoffs beckoning. They won't be mistaken. They have a low-seed berth in them. That shouldn't take priority over what is, as of now, a bleak future. But it might.

   

The 'Who the Hell Knows?' Fray

10. Brooklyn Nets

BROOKLYN, NY - MARCH 21: Spencer Dinwiddie #8 and D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Brooklyn Nets during the game against the Charlotte Hornets on March 21, 2018 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Spot the lie.

The New York Knicks may not have Kristaps Porzingis at all next season. A healthy (re-signed) Zach LaVine doesn't transform the Chicago Bulls into a scrappy playoff hopeful; they'll need Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen to go boom for that to happen.

The Cavaliers are a wild card if they keep Kevin Love. Related: Cleveland should be trying to trade Love and leaning into rock bottom before you finish reading this sentence. The Orlando Magic will remain the definition of "blek" until they add a point guard and start de-big-manning their frontcourt. The Atlanta Hawks probably won't start trying to win games again until 2020-21 at the earliest.

Forced to choose, and we currently are, roll with the well-coached plucky upstart. The Nets have a fantastic shot profile founded upon three-point chucking along with a jumble of mid- to high-end projects on their developmental assembly line: Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and even Joe Harris.

   

11. Chicago Bulls

Count this as a show of faith in the Carter-Markkanen frontcourt but also as a hedge against general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson throwing some last-minute cash at veteran free agents who don't fit the rebuilding timeline.

   

12. Orlando Magic

Perusing the Magic's depth chart should yield one of two responses.

First, we have the "Wow, oh my, the defensive ceiling on a Jonathon Simmons-Jonathan Isaac-Aaron Gordon-Mohamed Bamba quartet is genuinely nonexistent. Nice job, Orlando!"

And then there's the "Paying almost $40 million combined for Gordon and Bismack Biyombo without a clear point guard on the roster is a great way to never score."

Twelfth place it is.

   

13. New York Knicks

Kevin Hagen/Associated Press

Deployed correctly, the Knicks roster is perfectly positioned for a tank job. Head coach David Fizdale should give the keys to Mario Hezonja, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, sprinkle in a bit of Trey Burke, Luke Kornet, Emmanuel Mudiay and Mitchell Robinson, and then let the losses roll in until Porzingis returns (assuming he does).

Used incorrectly, in typical Knicks fashion, this roster will stumble its way to between seven and 11 wins too many after the overexposure of Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter and Courtney Lee.

   

14. Atlanta Hawks

John Collins, Dewayne Dedmon, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince and Trae Young could turn this into an underestimation. We're betting the Hawks find a new home for at least one of Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder and let the natural tank resume its course.

   

15. Cleveland Cavaliers

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Cavaliers fans should count themselves lucky to be here. Bottoming out is the best response to James' second exit.

Hanging on to Love would be a mistake. It's also an ever-present danger. The East is weak, and owner Dan Gilbert has yet to prove his mettle independent of LeBron. Cleveland could see the pursuit of the No. 8 seed as some twisted, albeit wildly ineffective, form of vindication.

Don't buy into that. The Cavaliers had a minus-10.3 net rating when they played Jordan Clarkson without James, Love or George Hill, according to Cleaning the Glass. They should steer into that.

Trade Love somewhere else. Deal Kyle Korver. Test Tristan Thompson's market. See whether deals for Hill and JR Smith, which are only partially guaranteed in 2019-20, can be turned into picks and prospects attached to unwanted salary.

Plumbing rock bottom will be easy enough without James. Even with draft-lottery reform set to take effect, the Cavaliers need to take advantage of that and start over. Like, all the way over.

   

Who's the Best Player in the East?

MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 29:  Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers boxes out Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks in the second quarter at the Bradley Center on January 29, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

By vacating his chokehold on the East, James has paved the way for a new conference alpha. The pecking order behind him has been pretty murky for some time. His place atop the field was never under siege, which makes this somewhat of a wide-open exercise.

Antetokounmpo has done his damnedest to turn this into a no-brainer. James was the only East player he trailed in player efficiency rating, value over replacement player and total points added.

A shaky jumper renders Antetokounmpo solvable; the Celtics proved as much in the playoffs. And his playmaking has to improve. He's more force of nature than crafty visionary. But Antetokounmpo is among the five most positionless players alive. A better coach, like Budenholzer, could unlock an extra layer of passing and build a competent defense around Giannis-at-the-5 compositions.

Other players will have something to say in this matter. Irving led the East in win shares per 48 minutes last season. Oladipo trailed only James in real plus-minus wins.

Simmons joined Magic Johnson and Russell Westbrook as just the third player to ever clear 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game—and he hasn't played his sophomore season. It isn't hard to envision him leapfrogging everyone in this discussion if he hones a jumper or floater.

Embiid exists. Lowry is the closest the East gets to having a top-10 player overall after Antetokounmpo. Wall can be frisky. Walker and Beal don't have that single-season leap in them. Or do they?

Tatum should eventually contend for the honor, but is he too far away and surrounded by too many stars? Does a healthy Porzingis belong on the periphery? What will a post-recovery Hayward look like?

Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey ran a statistical analysis for this debate, and it turned out like so:

If you're looking for a more subjective projection of how next season's Eastern Conference hierarchy will shake out, this is mine:

  1. Kawhi Leonard Giannis Antetokounmpo
  2. Ben Simmons
  3. Kyrie Irving
  4. Kyle Lowry
  5. Victor Oladipo
  6. Kemba Walker
  7. Gordon Hayward
  8. Al Horford
  9. Joel Embiid
  10. John Wall

For the record, my confidence starts to dissipate right around the second "i" in "Giannis." And the top 10 is begging for a party-crasher.

Maybe Tatum isn't overshadowed by too many stars. And maybe the same holds true for Jaylen Brown. And maybe this is the year Beal overtakes Wall in Washington. And maybe DeRozan turns into a flame-throwing three-point shooter. And maybe Cleveland sticks with Love and gives him 30 shots per game. And maybe Griffin should block me on Twitter. And maybe a half-season of Porzingis is being overlooked.

Happy trails, LeBron. The East won't be the same, or even remotely comprehensible, without you.

   

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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