The Eastern Conference has been, for as long as we can now remember, the easier side of the draw in the NBA.
Even while LeBron was dominating the East with both Miami and Cleveland, the competition to be on top of the East was pretty straight forward every year, until now.
As we go from one of the toughest divisions in the Western conference, we now turn our attention to the toughest in the East. Since LeBron James' move last summer to the Lakers in the Western conference, the East can now believe that it's their time to be number one.
The Atlantic Division has quickly become one of the lower ranked divisions, to one of the top in the association. Brooklyn, after a surprising playoff run a season ago, cashed in when free agency began, signing two of the three biggest stars available.
The Celtics will look to return from a disappointing season, while the 76ers will aim to go one better this time around. Oh, and let's not forget, the reigning NBA Champions, the Toronto Raptors.
Brooklyn Nets (last season: 6th in East, 42-40)
With a host of young stars, a former Laker was the standout for the Nets as they were able to reach the post season, after missing the previous three years. Selected as an All-Star, D'Angelo Russell led the young Nets to a record over .500, and took a game against eventual champions, Toronto Raptors in the first round. Yet, while it was a successful season under Kenny Atkinson, the front office knew it was time to get serious, and serious they got.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two of the biggest names in Free Agency in the off-season, were the main targets for the Nets, even with Durant's achilles injury. Proven scorers, leaders, and top players in their positions, the Nets were only just beginning. Not stopping there, the front office were able to acquire DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince and veteran, Wilson Chandler.
So whats the plan for the Nets, and how can they make it out of the East?
Kyrie Irving is the key. With Durant missing most of the season, this is the chance for Irving to lead another team, and take control of their destiny. He failed in Boston, but unlike with the Celtics, egos are out of the door in Brooklyn, and Irving is clearly, the man.
They added depth on the wings, but expect the continual development of LeVert and Dinwiddie, as well as Kurucs entering his second season. They finished in the bottom half of the league in points allowed, and with Jordan's presence on the defensive end, they should near top 10 in that category this season. The likes of Harris and Dinwiddie will have to continue to light it up from behind the arc, especially before the arrival of Durant.
Boston Celtics (4th, 49-33)
With the team on the verge of a dynasty, with a team filled with an even balance of star power and incredible youth, the Celtics hit a major snag a season ago. Underperforming, falling below expectations and off-court dramas, it's time for this Celtics team to re-group, and find some unity on the court, and off it. Perfect way to start this was to allow Irving to leave the team, and sign Charlotte point guard, Kemba Walker.
Walker is an unselfish guard, who has the ability to create open space in the paint, and has the ability to score at will. Add this to Hayward on the wing, who will hopefully return to his Jazz days of scoring consistently in the mid range and behind the arc, and the rise of Brown and Tatum.
But how can Brad Stevens get this Celtics team back to their devastating best?
Run the floor, and protect the rim. Two way basketball is the key, but defence does wins championships. They replaced the outgoing Al Horford with Enes Kanter, which may deplete their defensive stocks in the paint, especially up against the top centres in the league.
Their perimeter defence is going to need to be an All-Star level, and expect Marcus Smart to be the leader of that pack. Offensively, their going to be able to score at will, with Walker, Tatum, Brown and Hayward, their ability to share the load and knock down shots consistently is one of the best in the league.
Philadelphia 76ers (3rd 51-31)
If it weren’t for one of the most ridiculous and anticipated few seconds to finish a game, who knows what might’ve happened in the Eastern side of the playoffs. The 76ers fell in seven games to eventual champs, the Raptors, with the aid of one of the luckiest bounces in playoff history.
They pose one of the most dangerous one-two threats in the league, with both Simmons and Embiid, and had all the pieces needed for a championship last year, yet falling at the last hurdle.
Butler left, as did veteran shooter, JJ Redick, but the 76ers went full throttle. They retained Tobias Harris, as he’ll look to become one of the top small forwards on the Eastern side of the board, but also sprung one of the biggest surprises of the off-season, signing Al Horford.
The Butler deal allowed them to also acquire Josh Richardson from the Heat, and create one of the most fearer defensive teams in the league.
They have all the right pieces as well as not changing too much in the off-season, and look well on their way for another playoff run. If Ben Simmons can be more damaging away from the rim, and Embiid can remain healthy, a championship could well be on the way back to Philadelphia.
Prediction: Home Court Advantage
New York Knicks (15th, 17-65)
With the worst record in the league a season ago, all fingers pointed to a Zion and Durant partnership heading into season 19-20. However, with the change of the lottery process, the Knicks managed to get only as high as pick three, resulting in Zion’s team mate, R.J. Barrett. Big market starved of success, Barrett walks into a tough situation immediately, although he doesn’t seem too concerned about it.
How can the Knicks at least give their fans a glimpse of what could happen in the future?
They addressed an issue in their front court, even possibly over addressing it, with the back log of power forwards they now possess. Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Kevin Knox, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis and Mitchell Robinson is quite some length, but just how do they fit into one team?
We will see a lot of big ball lineups, with Knox possibly going to the two guard, and the possibility of Morris and Randle playing the three man. However, it is important that they don’t halt the development of their three young stars, Barrett, Knox and Robinson. That’s their future, develop them and who knows what else could happen.
It is going to be a bleak year again though for the Knicks, which will hurt them seeing Irving and Durant suit up for cross-town rivals, Brooklyn. Another top five pick is definitely headed their way, and expect either Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith to be off-loaded mid-way through the season.
Prediction: High Lottery Pick
Toronto Raptors (2nd, 58-24)
Toronto were the perfect example of what teams are now deciding to do, go all in if you believe, and all in they did. Trading long-time fan favourite, Demar DeRozan for arguably the best two way player in the league, Kawhi Leonard, and it paid dividends, delivering them their first championship.
But how do they back that first NBA Championship up? Can they go back-to-back?
Short answer. No.
Leonard leaving is a massive loss obviously, but also to lose Danny Green puts more pressure on Siakam and Lowry. Green’s ability to knock down shots from behind the arc is extremely underrated, as well as his ability to lock their opposition offensive threat on the perimeter.
However, being in the East, still presents an opportunity to maintain their presence in playoffs and being a feared team. Siakam, reigning ‘Most Improved Player’, will hope to deliver further, trying to fill the viod left from Kawhi, while Gasol will return to the Raptors, in what may be his final season of his career.
They will still present a tough starting lineup, with Lowry, Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol being complemented by either Van Vleet or Powell, but it may not be enough for the likes of the 76ers and Bucks.