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LeBron’s Departure Breeds Optimism in the East

Teams that can challenge in the East
Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid works against Indiana Pacers' Myles Turner, left, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 121-110. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

With LeBron’s departure to the Western Conference, the East suddenly looks wide open again.

Sure, most want to automatically put the Boston Celtics at the top and with good reason. They took LeBron and the Cavs to seven games last season. They have a great young nucleus in Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown. They’re on the verge of wrapping up Marcus Smart and, of course, they will have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back.

All this adds up to the Celtics being huge favorites in the East but, in the words of Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend”. The East will be loaded with teams who can challenge Boston in a seven game series.

Tier 1

Philadelphia 76ers

On paper, the 76ers are the most serious challengers despite losing to the Celtics in five games last season.

Philadelphia lost a couple key bench players in Marco Belinelli (Spurs) and Ersan Ilyasova (Bucks) but they added Wilson Chandler while retaining JJ Redick and Amir Johnson. Chandler should give the Sixers a must needed boost on defense.

As always, a lot will depend on Embiid’s health. Expect the Sixers to find spots in the schedule to give him rest. Embiid is the most important component to the Sixers offense. When he dominates the post and stretches a bit, Philadelphia is a juggernaut on offense.

The Sixers will need Ben Simmons to be more consistent on the perimeter and the free throw line. Most teams were willing to give him the perimeter shot but he was still able to get to the basket. The problem for Simmons in the Celtics series was their defense kept him from being consistently effective off the dribble. In fact, you could argue their were long stretches where the offense was more effective in stretches with TJ McConnell running the point.

There’s still a question mark about Markelle Fultz. Not only the health of his shoulder but also where he is mentally with his jump shot.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks took the Celtics to seven games last season and how they’re built, you could argue that they match up better defensively with a healthy Boston than Philadelphia.

Everything starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo. If he continues to develop on the elite superstar path, he should be able to make players around him better. And, that will be a necessity if the Bucks want to jump from a 7-seed to a team who has home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe will be there on offense. Both are professional scorers that the Bucks know will be in double digits each night. Big question will be how will they replace Jabari Parker (Bulls)?

The organization lived through all of the injury woes Parker had but let him walk when he signed a $40M deal with Chicago. Malcolm Brogdon is a solid two-way player but probably isn’t enough, offensively, to fill the void. Ersan Ilyasova should help also.

It would also help the Bucks if Donte DiVincenzo could contribute this season.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers got a career season out of Victor Oladipo but can he do it again? It’s a legitimate question. If this is the “real” Oladipo then the Pacers have something going. His explosiveness along with Myles Turner and Bojan Bogdanovic will allow Indiana to put up more than enough points. Domantis Sabonis is developing into a double-double machine.

Losing Lance Stephenson should have little to no impact. The additions of Kyle O’Quinn, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott will exceed any type of contribution Stephenson would have provided.

O’Quinn gives the Pacers even more toughness and defense. Enough to match the Celtics inside. A healthy Evans would give the Pacers another explosive wing scorer and McDermott’s value could come off of penetration and kick situations.

Pacers’ depth matches up with the Celtics. The biggest question will be can the score enough points each night against Boston’s defense?

Tier 2

Washington Wizards

The Wizards have been waiting to make that “next step” for a couple of seasons now. Just two seasons ago, they were a game away from the Eastern Conference Finals.

Washington’s cap situation makes it hard for them to add major pieces but getting Jeff Green and Dwight Howard filled a couple of needs. Whether said publicly or not, Green’s presence will be good in a locker room that has lacked maturity at times.

Howard’s back will determine how much he can contribute defensively but, on offense, he’s a better match with the speedy John Wall. His offensive rebounding could provide kick-outs to the dangerous Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.

The two biggest questions will be can Washington get enough stops and what will they get out of their bench?

At times Washington looked uninterested in stopping opponents from getting in the lane. It looks like a bad travel league basketball game. That’s how bad their defense was. Behind Howard, Washington will have twelve fouls in the lane in Ian Mahinmi and Thomas Bryant.

Off the bench, Tomas Satoransky showed flashes when Wall was injured. Austin Rivers could be the biggest key off the bench. As a Clipper he showed he could score and he has a lot to prove now that he’s not playing for his father (Doc Rivers).

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors recent trade for Kawhi Leonard will play a part in how far they will go. The trade meant moving all-star DeMar DeRozan and, big man, Jakob Poeltl but the Raptors still have plenty of pieces.

That wasn’t the only change. Coach of the Year, Dwane Casey was fired and replaced by assistant coach, Nick Nurse.

Kyle Lowry is still an effective point guard. The young talent the Raptors have has gone under the radar. Not including OG Anunoby in the Leonard deal was huge. More time on the floor will help his numbers rise. A healthy Fred VanVleet gives the Raptors offensive punch off the bench.

Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam are also poised to put up career numbers. Danny Green will provide spot up three point shooting and defense.

Though many think the Raptors “lost” the Leonard trade (that’s highly debatable) there’s plenty of fire power north of the border.

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