Over the past six NBA seasons LeBron James has single handedly DOMINATED the Eastern Conference. During his four seasons with the Miami Heat, LeBron the east every year and went on to win two championships. When he decided to return home to Cleveland in 2014, he went on to win the east two more years in a row extending his streak to six straight. Now we all know a run like this can’t last forever but what does the future of the Eastern Conference look like in the Post-LeBron Era?
Teams with the best chance to control the East post LeBron…
Key Players: Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder
The Celtics are beneficiaries of the worst trade in NBA history. They traded the aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for the Nets 2014, 2016 and 2018 first round draft picks as well as a pick swap in the 2017 draft. The result of this trade left the Nets a complete disaster while the Celtics look like they will be the ones to loosen LeBron’s grip on Eastern conference. Moves like trading for Isaiah Thomas for essentially nothing and signing Al Horford in free agency have made the Celtics a legit contender in the East. The Celtics have set themselves up to take advantage of the post Bron era with players entering their primes like Thomas and Bradley, a strong youth core using all the accumulated draft picks and effective veterans with players like Horford. Within the next 5-7 years, it’s realistic to say the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be coming back to Boston.
Key Players: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, JR Smith
When LeBron begins to lose his battle with Father Time, Cleveland will start looking beatable again. In three years, Kyrie will be 27 years old and Kevin Love will be 31 and both will still likely be playing at a high level. The Cavs will still be legitimate contenders in the East because of their big 3 but it will not be nearly as easy for them to get through to the finals at that point as LeBron will not be able to carry them at 35 years old. The best option for Cleveland as LeBron gets older is to acquire low rated and cost efficient players through free-agency that are good defenders and high energy players. This way Cleveland will be able to compete in the East throughout LeBron’s mid to late 30s.
One word: GIANNIS. The Greek-Freak is an absolute monster and is slowly looking like he is about to take the throne of best player in the NBA once Lebron begins to fall off. Giannis and Jabari Parker have turned the Bucks into one of the most entertaining teams in the league and when Kris Middleton returns from injury, they will only get better. Milwaukee is still on the outside looking in from the playoff picture but as Giannis and Jabari enter their primes and if they add a playmaking point guard to their rotation, they will be the team to look out for come 2019-20.
Key Players: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas
Toronto has been the only team in the current Eastern Conference that challenges Cleveland. They are clearly the second best team in the East and right now have the best chance to beat the Cavs in the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan is having the best season of his career this year averaging over 27ppg, leading the Raptors to currently the East’s 2 seed. With Kyle Lowry’s contract running out at the end of this season, the Raptors future isn’t clear. If Lowry resigns and Toronto is still a threat for the next 3-4 years, they might be able to finally break through and make their first championship in their franchise history.
Key Players: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor
We are now witnessing what Sam Hinkie supporters have been saying all along. Joel Embiid or “The Process” has taken the NBA by storm. He is averaging over 19 points per game and 7 rebounds per game while leading the 76ers to 16 wins already this season before the All-star break. The Sixers and especially Joel Embiid have been significantly better than anyone ever expected and once Ben Simmons returns from his foot injury the Sixers will look like a serious threat in the future. With their own pick and the Lakers first round draft pick the Sixers will look to add two more Top 10 lottery picks added to their young group of players. Trading away either Okafor or Noel for a “Three and D” type player should also help the transition. Right as Lebron and the Cavs begin to fade away, the Sixers players will be beginning their prime and should be considered real contenders in the future Eastern Conference.
Key Players: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr.
Washington is a good team that should be better than what they are. John Wall and Bradley Beal were “supposed” to be the best backcourt in the NBA but instead are just very good individual players. There were reports during the offseason of the two not getting along with each other and causing problems in the locker room. This year, the two are playing well alongside one another and if the John Wall trade rumors are just rumors, Washington should always be making some noise in the future as Wall and Beal continue to grow together. What they are missing is players who can make an impact off the bench and a stretch 4 that can create miss-matches on both ends of the floor.
These teams might make the playoffs but lets be real…
Key Players: Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore
Over the past three seasons, the Hawks have surged their way into the top half of the Eastern Conference. Without any true superstar, the Hawks have relied on the consistent play of Millsap, Jeff Teague and Al Horford; The last two are no longer with the team. In the future, other than competing for playoff spots, the Hawks don’t have any realistic Championship aspirations. Atlanta acquired the Cavs 2019 first round draft pick and the T-Wolves 2018 first round draft pick (lottery protected), so unless they can find a superstar in the mid to late first round, the Hawks will not be NBA Champions in the foreseeable future.
Key Players: Jimmy Butler, Dwayne Wade, Nikola Mirotic
The Bulls find themselves in a difficult position; they are good enough to be a playoff team in the East but not good enough to seriously challenge Cleveland. The other problem the Bulls are going to deal with is if they should trade Jimmy Butler for draft picks and go through a rebuilding process. Jimmy Butler is a superstar but the Bulls don’t have enough around him to be a legitimate contender. For them to dominate the East in the future, it has to be with a complete new youth core to pair with Jimmy Butler.
Key Players: Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum
The Hornets have slowly become a perennial playoff team over the past few years. Under the leadership of Steve Clifford the Hornets have once again become a respectable team. As far as their hopes to claim the East, no one can make a legitimate argument that Charlotte has a chance. The best-case scenario would to get lucky with a draft pick in the 15-20 range, and then sign an impact free agent to pair with Kemba and Batum and the Hornets could be legit contender.
Key Players: Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Pistons have one of the best center in the Eastern Conference and a nice core of players around him. KCP, Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris all have been solid players surrounding Drummond this season. A reported Reggie Jackson for Ricky Rubio trade is not something that will help the Piston out this season or in the future. The best chance of the Pistons going from a fringe playoff team to a contender would be to sign or trade for a SF whether it’s Jimmy Butler or Paul George. A starting line up of Jackson, KCP, Bulter/George, Harris and Drummond would become a force in the East for years to come.
New York Knicks:
Key Players: Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick Rose
So much for that “Super Team” as D. Rose proclaimed when he was traded to the Knicks this offseason. The past few seasons the Knicks have been underwhelming. Trading for Carmelo a few years ago was supposed to be the move that finally put them over the top and making them championship contender but the reality is, the Knicks are a below average team. They have one bright spot with Kristaps Porzingis and will be looking to build around him in the long term. If the Knicks want to compete in the East, the first step has to be trading away Carmelo for draft picks. They need to completely rebuild through the draft and hope once they have a talented core of young players they can sign high profile free agents. New York also needs to consider if Phil Jackson is going to be a part of their future; the Zen Master has been a complete flop so far as an exec and it seems from the outside looking in that he isn’t helping the Knick progress.
Key Players: Paul George, Jeff Teague, Myles Turner
The Indiana Pacers are another team that is a consistent playoff team that doesn’t have enough guns to take them where they want to be. Paul George has failed to lead his team back to the conference finals since doing it in consecutive years in 2013 and 2014. Myles Turner has been a surprise stud since entering the league and will only get better, if he is paired with another talented PF and Paul George the Pacers could be a problem in the East again. But until they make a splash in free agency or get lucky with a mid to late round draft pick, Indiana will not win the East.
PARTICIPATION TROPHEY TEAMS:
These teams are going to be bad for a while…
Key Players: Brook Lopez
After trading their future away in a bold attempt to win an immediate championship with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and KG, Brooklyn was left a complete and utter mess. By trading away four first round picks to the Celtics, the Nets have been left with Brook Lopez and a bunch of players that just aren’t good enough. Their combined record over the season and a half the Nets are 29-94, which is second worst in the NBA over that time period. With all of their draft picks gone the Nets have relied on signing free agents to help bolster the team but until they find a franchise player, they have no chance to even compete in the East let alone the entire league.
Key Players: Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic
Miami is in full on tank mode, they currently are the second worst team in the East and outside of Whiteside; they don’t have any real talented players. The best option for the Heat should be to trade Dragic for some draft picks and completely build the team around Whiteside and second year player Justice Winslow. The Heat need to look for a scoring SG and a PF that can stretch the floor. Until then, Miami will be bad for plenty of years to come.
Key Players: Serge Ibaka, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic
Orlando is another team that doesn’t have a real identity. Yes they have solid players like Serge Ibaka, Elfrid Payton & Nikola Vucevic, but none of them are impactful players in this league. The best thing the Magic can do is trade on of acquire draft picks and hope they can sign a B-ranked free agent to pair with young talent. With their current roster the Magic can not compete in the East.