Ah, the Eastern Conference, the ne’er-do-well little brother of the NBA. For no reason other than, uh, geography, the East is guaranteed a spot in the Finals. For the last eight years, LeBron James had his way with the right half of the country, often cruising to the championship round thanks to some fraudulent contenders (Hawks, Raptors), while also surviving a couple legitimate scares (Pacers, Celtics.) With James now in the West, a bunch of East teams long mired in his wake now seemingly have their own chance to lose to the Warriors in the Finals. Does LeBron’s move to L.A. really help everyone in the conference he left behind, though? Let’s run through some of the key figures and discuss.
Celtics & Sixers
We’re going to bunch these guys together because the Celtics and Sixers are the obvious beneficiaries from LeDeparture. It would be shocking if these two weren’t meeting up in the conference finals for years to come. Boston is going to be loaded when Kyrie and Gordon Hayward come back, and Danny Ainge may be able to squeeze one more season from a rightfully upset Marcus Smart. The Sixers will get better with experience, and when Markelle Fultz or Ben Simmons make their first professional three. Philly is also in the running for Kawhi Leonard, and will have room for a max player next summer. Both of these squads are well positioned now and for the future. The East should be all about these teams this season, and hopefully we get a Christmas Day game and classic playoff series out of it.
Dwane Casey has to hate LeBron, right? The Raptors peaked one year too early, and now Casey is in a tricky situation in Detroit while Toronto is more or less running it back with a squad LeBron swept in humiliating fashion. You may think the Raptors would benefit from James leaving the conference. But similar to how the Lakers can be horrible for five years and still sign the best player in the world, the Raptors can be awesome for five years and not benefit from their biggest rival heading west. It’s just how the NBA gods have intended. I don’t hate the Raptors, I really don’t. Look, I even said it was going to be their year last season! At this point, I’m just not sure if Toronto’s biggest issue is LeBron or some cosmic force greater than even Him.
The Raptors are going to win 55 games because they basically brought back the same team than won 59. They won’t make the conference finals. And somehow it’s even going to be more embarrassing when Toronto loses in the postseason to a non-LeBron-led team. At least when James was in the conference the Raptors had a really good excuse. I’m worried his decision to leave is going to uncover a pain even more debilitating for Toronto fans.
Giannis has a chance to be the biggest star in the East next season. His Twitter account is arguably more endearing than Joel Embiid’s. His science takes are less controversial than Kyrie Irving’s. And on the court, his potential as a destructive force should only rise now that the Bucks have hired an actual NBA coach.
The Greak Freek will turn 24 this December, which means he’s still in the early part of the prime of his career. How high his stock climbs could ultimately depend on his teammates. Milwaukee makes more sense on paper than it has on the court. The Bucks did impressively push Boston to seven games in the playoffs, but the team still lacks a second star to pair with Antetokounmpo. The rumblings of a Giannis departure will only grow each season Milwaukee fails to put a championship contender around him. With LeBron gone, Giannis should get a little more of a spotlight, maybe as an All-Star captain or through more national TV games for the Bucks. Hopefully an increase in attention on Milwaukee will help pressure the front office to start making some bigger swings.
Do the Wizards benefit from LeBron going to L.A.? Hmmm. Do you want to trust a team that famously has locker room issues and decided to go out and add Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard? Even though those moves made sense from a basketball standpoint, it’s hard to imagine all these personalities working in a harmonious fashion. Wall and Dwight are going to be openly hating on each other on Crossover TV by midseason. Rivers could be decent but it won’t matter. Scott Brooks may or may not end up trusting his best lineups. At some point, this exact photo will be recreated with an obliviously smiling Dwight in place of Marcin Gortat. Does Washington benefit from James peacing out? LeBron could have decided to explore Mars for a year. The Wizards won’t benefit until they sort out their own issues. You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.
So is the East better off without LeBron? The answer is a resounding, “eh.” The good teams—Boston, Philly—will still be good. The good players—Giannis, Kyrie, Embiid, all your favorite players so don’t tweet me—will still be good. But some of the franchises hoping LeBron’s Big Move will be the answer to all of their problems may need to look inward first. At the very least, the conference is going to have a star other than James in the Finals in 2019. Not even the East could screw that up.