Eastern Conference Contenders: 2018-19 Season
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It has been over three weeks since 2018 NBA free agency officially started. Most of the teams have already made their best moves by now, and only a couple of role players and desired restricted free agents remain available on the market. With LeBron James taking his talents to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Western Conference might be stronger than ever talent-wise. The Cleveland Cavaliers have taken a huge hit with James walking away from his hometown; who knows if they can even make the playoffs this season?
Now that the Cavs are no longer contenders in the Eastern Conference, it is time for new faces to take the spotlight. Take a look at the four contenders in the East for the 2018-19 season plus an honorable mention. Barring any major trades or drastic moves, we should see two of these teams facing each other in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.
Honorable Mention: Milwaukee Bucks
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I do not expect the Bucks to be a top 4 seed in the Eastern Conference next season, but they are my wildcard in case one of my four expected contenders suffers from chemistry issues, major injuries, or any other type of setback. And even if none of that happens, Milwaukee has a fair shot to claim home-court advantage for the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
One of the biggest weapons this team has is versatility. They have a point guard that does the dirty work and does his job on defense, another point guard that can score from anywhere on the court, and a starting point guard that is a good balance between both. They have a center that can protect the paint and catch lobs and rebounds, and another center that can both space the floor standing at the three-point line and punish you down low with savvy veteran moves. This versatility gives them options, and new head coach Mike Budenholzer can always try something new without the need to look for outside help, as he has most everything a coach needs in his roster. Also, the defensive potential this group has is immense (you can check a piece I wrote on this topic here); they have size and length, as well as a defensive mastermind head coach that can turn around this team’s defense in a nutshell.
4. Indiana Pacers
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If you read my article on the Pacers, you know how excited I am for this group. And even though I said the Pacers are on track to be the next contender in the East, I believe they are already a contender, it is just that they are not atop the contender rankings yet. They could have easily occupied the third spot in this list, but I gave that other team the benefit of the doubt (more on that later).
What gives this team the edge over the Bucks is their depth, as they have better quality players on the bench. They have two bench guys that play at the level of starters in Tyreke Evans and Domantas Sabonis. Coach Nate McMillan may decide to start Evans over Bogdanovic or Sabonis over Thad Young, but that would still leave the Pacers with two very dangerous players on their bench. The one thing they need to do before taking the next big step is trading away Myles Turner. If they can get a solid center back and a couple of extra assets, and the team grabs a top 4 seed, you can call this season a success. Because, even though they may not be completely ready for the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, they are headed in the right direction and can return to the ECF as soon as 2020.
3. Toronto Raptors
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I decided to give this team the benefit of the doubt because of how successful they have been over the past seasons and they just acquired a top 5 player (when healthy). And even though they have the potential to be the best team in the East, I will not believe that until I see enough evidence on the court; chemistry, a new head coach, urgency, health, there are a lot of factors that Toronto depends on.
The Raptors gave up an important piece of their big men rotation in Jakob Poeltl. Him and Pascal Siakam were great last year as a frontcourt duo, but both Leonard and Danny Green give the team lineup flexibility, as you could play VanVleet with the starters in Ibaka’s place, or plug in OG Anunoby. Also, this team has a big defensive potential. All five projected starters are good/great defenders and it will certainly be fun to see how a Celtics vs Raptors matchup goes next season, both on offense and defense. Both teams are arguably better on offense than last year: Boston with the addition of a healthy Gordon Hayward, and the Raptors with more three-point shooting and a superstar.
Toronto is held back by the fact that all this is speculation and on-paper discussion, as we will only know how good post-injury Kawhi Leonard is and how the Raptors blend with two new rotation pieces until the regular season starts.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
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A lot of people thought the Sixers would easily send the Irving-less Celtics packing home in the playoffs. Well, Boston came back and held down the 76ers’ offensive barrage, led by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, with suffocating defense. I do not think Philly was prepared to attack the various defensive schemes coaching mastermind Brad Stevens hit them with. And with all of their young guys one year older, Sixers fans can surely have higher expectations for this group.
Besides losing Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, two important veteran contributors for the Sixers last year, the rest of the team is essentially the same; they did move Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Richaun Holmes, but none of them had as big of a role last year. We can expect newcomer Wilson Chandler to provide some good backup minutes and Markelle Fultz to be healthy and prove why he was last year’s first overall draft pick. We know what this team brings to the table: hard defense and quick offense; just the perfect blend between talented youngsters and useful veterans.
1. Boston Celtics
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Isn’t it scary? The Boston Celtics were one game away from the NBA Finals – from beating LeBron James – when neither Kyrie Irving nor Gordon Hayward logged a single minute in the playoffs! Very scary, I would say. Love them or hate them, watching Boston play defense is a treat. They are so unselfish and play so hard for each other that the only issue they have is finding a way to incorporate Hayward into their switch-heavy defensive game plan sooner rather than later.
After re-signing Marcus Smart, the Celtics brought back the exact same core that they had last year. Danny Ainge is doing a great job of remaining competitive and keeping his core players while adding and developing prospects at the same time.
Few things could go wrong for this team. Unless they suffer more season-ending injuries, no other setbacks come into my mind. Most of their misfortunes last season, like losing Hayward for the year and Irving for the playoffs, turned out to be blessings in disguise; the Celtics are a proven team with more than enough talent. Do not forget they also have Brad Stevens, one of the brightest coaches around the league. With all this said, we can easily call Boston the best team in the East and the team with the best chances to meet the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals.
You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA