October 16, 2018 / 1:42 AM / 8 months ago

Celtics, Raptors ready to move to top of East

If you noticed a gust of wind sometime in early July, it might have been 15 Eastern Conference teams breathing a sigh of relief that LeBron James finally decided to head west.

Oct 6, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier (12) shoots over the defense of Cleveland Cavaliers forward Billy Preston (20) during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

James’ departure to the Los Angeles Lakers opens the door for another franchise to lay claim to the East. The Cleveland Cavaliers have won the past four conference titles, but that certainly will not be the case this season as the franchise again will look to rebuild without its hometown hero.

Here are the top five contenders to emerge out of the East:

5. Washington. The Wizards are far from perfect, but they have a tremendous backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal. Both players have missed significant time with injuries in their careers, but Beal is coming off a tremendous season in which he started all 82 games and averaged 22.6 points and 4.5 assists. Washington traded veteran big man Marcin Gortat to the Los Angeles Clippers this summer in exchange for Austin Rivers, and so the Wizards might rely on Dwight Howard for heavy minutes in the paint. Yikes.

4. Milwaukee. It’s a pretty simple concept in the NBA. If you have the best player on the court, you almost certainly have the upper hand as the season goes along. The Bucks are a contender because of 23-year-old sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo, otherwise known as the “Greek Freak.” Antetokounmpo has everything teams want nowadays: superb length, tremendous athleticism and a relentless appetite for winning. He averaged 26.9 points and 10 rebounds in 75 games last season. Milwaukee added veterans Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to supplement the roster, and new coach Mike Budenholzer will try to shape the group into a cohesive unit.

3. Philadelphia. Trust the process. Or is it trust “The Process”? That is the nickname for center Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ outstanding and outspoken 7-footer. He averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds last season, and he presents a matchup nightmare for any team he goes up against in the conference. The 76ers have plenty of talent elsewhere on the court, as well, including X-factor Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017. Fultz endured a trying rookie campaign, but he is only 20 years old, and he could put Philadelphia over the top if he can find a consistent shooting stroke. Second-year standout Ben Simmons will only get better, too.

2. Toronto. Talk about intrigue. The Raptors did not hesitate this summer to acquire Kawhi Leonard, a tremendous athlete who has the ability to change the game on both ends of the floor. That is the good news. The bad news is that Leonard barely played last season — he appeared in all of nine games — and there is no guarantee that he immediately will return to his All-Star form when the season tips off. He also reportedly was bothered about being traded to Toronto instead of his preferred team, the Lakers. Leonard can lift Toronto into the NBA Finals if he is focused and healthy. He will be surrounded by a terrific supporting cast including Kyle Lowry — a star in his own right — Serge Ibaka, Danny Green and Jonas Valanciunas.

1. Boston. Remember that time Jayson Tatum dunked over LeBron’s head in the playoffs? That was awesome. Granted, it was not enough to lift the Celtics past Cleveland, but that sequence most clearly illustrates the next team to rise in the conference with James out of the mix. Tatum appears to be a superstar in the making, and he is surrounded by stars such as Kyrie Irving and a healthy Gordon Hayward. Irving is entering the final year of his contract, and he seems committed to capturing a ring with the Celtics. Hayward is healthy after a gruesome injury sustained in last year’s season opener. Al Horford is dependable and would be a much bigger name on most other teams. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier also have the ability to take over portions of games as Boston eyes a title run.

The others (in alphabetical order):

Atlanta: Wins might be difficult to come by, but rookie Trae Young should be fun to watch as the Hawks take another step forward in their rebuilding effort.

Brooklyn: Nothing against Spencer Dinwiddie, but if he is the best player on your team, you might not have a very good team. Yet. The rebuild continues in Brooklyn.

Charlotte: Kemba Walker provides a stabilizing influence in Charlotte and will be joined by longtime Spurs guard Tony Parker, who sure looks different in his new uniform.

Chicago: An elbow injury to second-year forward Lauri Markkanen dampens hopes in Chicago, but the team is on the upswing with Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Wendell Carter Jr. and others.

Cleveland: It was fun while it lasted for the Cavaliers, who now turn to rookie guard Collin Sexton to provide a burst of energy alongside veteran holdover Kevin Love.

Detroit: Blake Griffin will have a full season to establish chemistry with fellow big man Andre Drummond, while Reggie Jackson will try to bounce back from an injury-marred season.

Indiana: The Pacers have a good argument for the No. 5 spot instead of the Wizards, and they have a chance to prove doubters wrong this season behind a solid group led by Victor Oladipo.

Miami: The Heat might seem lukewarm at the moment, but they could emerge into a top-five conference contender if they are able to land Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Oct 11, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Malachi Richardson (22) shoots over New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) during the second half at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

New York: New York recently cut ties with Joakim Noah, who might end up feeling grateful that he does not have to watch a parade of losses from the bench this season.

Orlando: Young players such as Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Mohamed Bamba will receive plenty of playing time to learn from their mistakes this season.

—Tom Musick, Field Level Media

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