The NBA’s Eastern Conference was long dominated by a man named LeBron James. For almost a decade, the team that represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals had a player named LeBron James on their roster.

King James made “only” 8 straight NBA Finals appearances beginning in 2011 when he signed with Miami Heat until last season when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2018 NBA Finals. Last summer though, James decided to take his talents to Hollywood and sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, which plays in the NBA’s Western Conference. His departure left a power void in the East and after eight consecutive seasons, there will be no LeBron James-led team in the Eastern Conference Finals (even no LeBron-led team in the playoffs) this season.

That said, let’s take a look at which team will claim the throne left behind by the NBA’s King:

Basketball 1. Milwaukee Bucks

A lot of teams have been dubbed as the “Surprise of the Year” this season for exceeding expectations. But perhaps no team has over-performed better than the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee was 44-38 last season and was the 7th seed in the East. A few roster additions and a coaching change later, Milwaukee isn’t just the best team in the East but the #1 team in the entire NBA as well. At 56-19, Milwaukee is at least four games up on the rest of the league as of the close of Tuesday’s (3/26/19) games.

The main reason for the Bucks’ success is the continued improvement of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak is a strong contender for MVP honors alongside the reigning MVP James Harden of the Houston Rockets. But aside from Embiid, the Bucks have gotten a solid season from forward Khris Middleton, who earned his first All-Star game appearance this season.

The Bucks are also getting a big lift from big man Brook Lopez who’s three point shooting and shot-blocking skills have been valuable. Milwaukee’s backcourt duo of Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon have also been impressive. However, I think that the unsung hero of the Bucks is head coach Mike Budenholzer who has transformed the Bucks into a winner. How far they will go remains to be seen but with a star like Antetokounmpo who is dominating on both ends of the floor, sk is the limit for the Bucks.

Basketball 2. Toronto Raptors

The Raptors won a franchise best 59 games last season to become the top seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the team got swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2nd round of the East playoffs. The Raptors ended up firing head coach and eventual NBA coach of the year winner Dwane Casey after the debacle. Masai Ujiri then replaced Casey with Nick Nurse but aside from a big coaching change, the Raptors also pulled off one of the biggest trades of the summer.

Toronto acquired disgruntled San Antonio Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard in exchange for their franchise player DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors took a huge risk especially since Leonard was coming from a long layoff brought about by his quad injury. But Leonard didn’t disappoint as he quickly proved why he is one of the best two-way players in the game today. The Raptors were fast off the gates and led the East in the teams standings  for a while. Injuries and the Bucks would catch up but Toronto has kept the 2nd spot at 52-23 and they are still 3.5 games clear of third place Philadelphia.

While they may not get the top seed in the East, the Raptors have prepared themselves for a long playoff run by acquiring tested veterans Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin in separate transactions. With Leonard at the helm, Kyle Lowry running the show, Serge Ibaka playing solid basketball and Pascal Siakam improving leaps and bounds, there is no question that Toronto is going to be a handful for any team in the playoffs.

Basketball 3. Philadelphia 76ers

When former Sixers Gm Sam Hinkie told the world to “Trust the Process”, not many believed him. In fact, perhaps even the Sixers’ management didn’t trust him and his process because Hinkie was fired before he would see his vision realized. When Hinkie was GM of the Sixers, he acquired lottery pick after another and gave up his team’s best players.  Hinkie got plenty of flak when he drafted an injured Joel Embiid in 2014. The Sixers also got bad luck when 2016 #1 pick Ben Simmons missed his rookie season with an injury. It seemed that the Sixers were cursed.

When Philadelphia finally got both Embiid and Simmons healthy, the young duo played beautiful music inside the basketball court. As a result, the Sixers were the biggest gainers last season after finishing 3rd in the Eastern Conference with their 52-30 record. Embiid made the All-Star team last season and became the first Sixer to be voted as All-Star game starter since Allen Iverson in 2010. This season ,Embiid repeated his feat and has established himself as one of the best (if not the best) center in the NBA. Simmons won Rookie of the Year last season and is having an excellent second year as well.

The Sixers also upgraded this season, adding versatile All-Star guard Jimmy Butler while giving up key contributors Robert Covington and Dario Saric. At the trade deadline, the Sixers swung another huge move by acquiring Los Angeles Clippers’ leading scorer Tobias Harris and big man Boban Marjanovic. Butler provides Philly with a clutch player and closer they’ve never had since Iverson while Harris gives them an added scoring punch. No question that the Sixers have the pieces to go all the way. It’s now up to head coach Brett Brown to put the pieces together and make it work.

Basketball 4. Boston Celtics

While the top three teams in this list made key change during the offseason, the Boston Celtics did not and just kept the core of the team that was one win away from preventing LeBron James from going to the 2018 NBA Finals. The Celtics were up 3-2 on the Cavs in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals when James led his team to back to back wins to close out the Celtics.

Making the Eastern Conference Finals last season wasn’t the big feat for this team. Doing so without their top two players was. The Celtics acquired Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward in free agency but lost him minutes into his Celtics’ debut against the Cleveland Cavaliers on opening night. The Celtics survived without Hayward as another new player, guard Kyrie Irving took the onus and led the team to the top of the Eastern Conference. Boston would finish the regular season as the #2 team in the East behind the Toronto Raptors. Led by an overachieving bench, the Celtics went all the way to the conference Finals only to lose to LeBron and co. because they didn’t have a go-to guy when it mattered most.

With Hayward and Irving 100% healthy this season, Boston was expected to be the heir to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But alas, the team has struggled to find the form that gave them a deep 2018 playoff run. Chemistry and Injuries have been part of Boston’s issues and they are struggling until now with a 44-31 record, only fourth in the East. However bad the Celtics look right now, a lot of people are still expecting them to turn on the switch when the playoffs begin.

Related Articles
Leave Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *