The king is dead, long live the king!
Okay, no one has actually died, but as far as the Eastern Conference is concerned, LeBron James‘ migration to the West has left the throne vacated.
After eight consecutive years of stopping teams dead in their tracks in the playoffs, James’ reign has come to an end. But as one monarchy crumbles, another is ascending to take its place.
Even before LeBron made his decision to leave Cleveland, it was clear the Boston Celtics‘ time had come – pushing the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward made that more than evident.
Now fully healthy, the Celtics’ collection of talent and depth is second only to the defending champions residing in the Bay. Between Irving, Hayward and Al Horford, Boston have three legitimate veteran All-Stars, while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are rapidly rising through the stratosphere as budding stars in their own right.
The bench has starter-calibre players in Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes, and with wunderkind Brad Stevens at the helm, the questions over fit and chemistry aren’t expected to linger as the season goes on.
Boston are in the catbird seat to supersede LeBron in both the present and future, but they’re not the only show in the East.
The best player in the conference still resides elsewhere, with that honour now belonging to Kawhi Leonard.
Disgruntled in San Antonio last season, Leonard has a fresh beginning with a contender – albeit one he didn’t chose – to prove he’s still a top-five player in the league when healthy.
The upgrade from DeMar DeRozan to Leonard makes the Raptors a contender for this season, but beyond that is anyone’s guess as his stay north of the border may be nothing more than temporary if he still has wandering eyes in free agency next summer.
The other team that completes the top tier of the East is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are hoping the continued development of phenoms Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can make up for the ground they lost in the offseason as their two main competitors got better.
Philadelphia had oodles of cap space to work with, yet couldn’t land a star as James picked the glitz and glam of Hollywood, while Paul George didn’t budge from his spot in Oklahoma City.
The 76ers are banking on last year’s number one overall pick, Markelle Fultz, to join the party after he sat out nearly his entire rookie season with a mysterious injury and what appeared to be a confidence issue. If he looks like the prospect he was coming out of college, Philadelphia could have a ‘big three’ of their own brewing, but that’s a big ‘if’ considering Fultz’s slow start to his career.
Behind Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia are a host of teams that are playoff-worthy, yet uninspiring in the context of contending for a title.
The Washington Wizards improved on paper with the signing of Dwight Howard, but adding his personality to that contentious locker room may be the equivalent of throwing a stick of dynamite into a group of powder kegs.
In Indiana, the Pacers may have the best squad outside the top three, with role-player-turned-star Victor Oladipo leading a cast that has the potential to play spoilers and surprise once again.
Leonard may be the best player in the conference at the moment, but his hold on the title is tenuous with Giannis Antetokounmpo breathing down his neck. The Milwaukee Bucks star is garnering MVP hype for a reason as he heads into his sixth season after improving his numbers year after year. And with Mike Budenholzer now guiding the young Bucks, better coaching may finally unlock Milwaukee’s potential.
The Miami Heat, meanwhile, remain nothing more than plucky challengers, barring a trade for Jimmy Butler which may or may not happen.
After that, the conference drops off to the .500 level teams and the franchises who are still in tank mode.
The East can’t hold a candle to its counterpart in terms of competitiveness and drama, but what it does have it going for it is the sense of a new beginning at the top.
Predictions are never an exact science and more often than not, they tend to be wrong.
But when it comes to the NBA, forecasting the team that will hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy next June has been a breeze the past two seasons.
The Golden State Warriors enter the new season as the prohibitive favourites after going back-to-back and winning their third title in four years, and that run doesn’t feel like it’s going to end just yet.
When it comes to the league’s individual awards, however, the range of outcomes is unpredictable.
And yet, we tried to peg exactly where all the hardware will go when the dust settles anyways. Check out our predictions for the new season below.
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS
Even if LeBron James was still around in the East, Boston would be the favourites based on the talent and depth they possess now that Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are healthy.
The Sixers and Raptors will be threats, but this Celtics squad is shaping up to be potentially special.
WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS
Golden State Warriors
Finding a way to mesh with DeMarcus Cousins will give them enough of a reason to not get too bored in the regular season, but taking the playoffs seriously has never been their issue.
If Houston had the same team as last season, they could give the Warriors a run for their money again, but the Rockets may take a step back, making the road even easier for the defending champions.
Golden State Warriors
Don’t sleep on Boston’s ability to match up with Golden State and give them some of the same problems Houston did in the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors should win again, but we could get a six or seven-game epic.
If the Lakers are a top-three team in the West, this could easily go to LeBron, but otherwise the Greek Freak will have the stats and narrative working in his favour.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Utah could boast not only the best defence in the league, but one of the best in recent memory, which would give Gobert – the person most singularly responsible – a strong chance to repeat.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
He’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot and put up some nice all-around numbers for a Dallas team that should be much better than last year.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Playing next to LeBron will put a massive spotlight on Ingram, who will continue to evolve his game and have more opportunities to succeed as the Robin to James’ Batman.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
The last time a player won this award in back-to-back years was 1999, so it’s unlikely Lou Williams break the streak. Evans has a chance to put up similar numbers as Williams for a playoff team.
COACH OF THE YEAR
If his team notches 60-something wins, he’ll be the clear front-runner for the award.
Fourteen teams in the Western Conference wake up today realising they’re still living out a nightmare, but in this one they’re chasing a bogeyman who can never be caught.
Try as the rest of the NBA might to close their eyes and tell themselves it will all be over soon, the Golden State Warriors dynasty isn’t going away – at least not for another year.
The two-time defending champions remain firmly entrenched on the throne as the overlords of the league, nary a hole in their shiny armour. If anything, Golden State became even better this offseason when they added a fifth All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins.
The one-year deal for Cousins was nihilism-inducing for the rest of the league and its non-Warriors fans, but the fact that the hulking centre is coming off an Achilles tear and is a volatile personality means Golden State may only get back marginal returns.
Regardless, the gap between the Warriors and the rest of the West feels as wide as ever, even with the best player in the world now in the same conference.
After four straight years of duelling with his arch nemesis in the Finals, LeBron James has Golden State in his backyard as the new king of Los Angeles.
LeBron on any team is compelling, but the marriage of one of the greatest players ever and one of the most iconic franchises in team sports makes this Lakers season as fascinating as can be.
However, this isn’t a championship team just yet. No other star followed James to Hollywood this summer, leaving the Lakers with an eclectic roster that features a mix of headstrong veterans and up-and-coming youth.
No one has done more with less than James, but reaching the Finals year after year in the weaker East is one thing – going through the bloodbath that is the West playoffs is another.
Before the Lakers can focus their energy on toppling the Warriors, they’ll have to fight their way through a deadly field, like Beatrix Kiddo navigating the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Kill Bill.
The Houston Rockets were a Chris Paul injury and a bad shooting game away from ending Golden State’s reign in the Western Conference Finals, but it’s possible they never get as clean of a shot again.
Gone are Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute – two players who were crucial to their defensive versatility – while in the team now is Carmelo Anthony, whose production no longer matches his status.
Even still, between Paul, reigning MVP James Harden, their supporting actors and playing style, Houston appear to be the biggest threat to the Warriors.
The Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder could have something to say about that though.
In Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook and Paul George form one of the best nuclei in the league, and while he’s nowhere near a star, Andre Roberson’s return from a knee injury has the potential to vault the Thunder’s defence to a near-elite level.
Speaking of defence, that’s the identity the Jazz have built their team on. In reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell, Utah have two pillars on each end of the court.
The rest of the West includes a deep middle class that runs nine teams deep – including the Lakers – and is expected to fight for four playoff spots.
The Portland Trail Blazers finished third in the conference last season, but a first-round sweep and another offseason consisting of just minor moves makes them feel stale.
In New Orleans, the Pelicans have one of the top five players in the league in Anthony Davis, but will they be able to recreate the magic they found in the playoffs?
After trading away Kawhi Leonard and being hit with injury after injury, the San Antonio Spurs are dealing with their most adversity in what feels like forever, while the Minnesota Timberwolves are caught in their own saga with a disgruntled star as Jimmy Butler, as of this writing, still hasn’t been moved.
Only the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings can be considered outside of the playoff bubble, with the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies all having a shot at the postseason.
The West may be as competitive as ever, but it’s still a fight for second place.