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Post-Kawhi Eastern Conference Playoff Outlook

For four seasons, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were etched in to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. James was unconcerned with the Cavs’ seed, and was vindicated as the Cavs went to the Finals as a one, two (twice), and four seed. Home court really does matter if you’re not the greatest player on Earth, so we’ll see some serious fight out of the Eastern Conference to obtain it this coming season. With LeBron out in LA LA Land, the East is finally someone else’s for the taking.

Let’s take a look at the squads that will vie for the right to face Golden State (or maybe the Rockets) in the 2019 NBA Finals. Here’s the way too early to predict predictions for the 2019 Eastern Conference Playoffs.

One Seed – Boston Celtics

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After losing Gordon Hayward in the first half of the first game of the season, Boston still rattled off 55 wins, good enough for a two seed. Injuries forced Kyrie Irving to miss 22 games during the regular season, as well as the entire postseason. They still took Cleveland to seven games in the ECF and looked impressive as hell. They’re bringing everything back (reports are they’re close to signing Marcus Smart) and added a young big with major upside in Robert Williams, if he can wake up on time and keep track of his wallet. So, the East’s second best team is back fully intact, and they’re adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the mix.

This team is fucking stacked!

We watched Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum blossom into budding superstars with insanely impressive playoff efforts. Terry Rozier was excellent as a point guard, and will have to do much less with Irving back running the show. Oh yeah, don’t forget about All-Star Al Horford and a supporting cast of Smart, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes. These guys have it all. There’s not a team on paper that matches up with Golden State quite like these guys. Irving has plenty of experience against Steph Curry. Brown, Tatum, and Hayward are all long, positionless wings that are exactly what you need against the likes of the Warriors. Anchored by Horford, there’s no reason these guys can’t win 60 games and roll through the East. Oh, I didn’t even mention their coach is Brad Stevens, the most brilliant basketball mind not named Gregg Popovich.

Two Seed – Toronto Raptors

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Admittedly, the trade for Kawhi Leonard was odd. DeMar DeRozan has two years left on his deal, loves being a Raptor, has great chemistry with Kyle Lowry, and helped them win 59 games last year. The Raptors also ditched head coach Dwayne Casey after that stellar season, so apparently no one was safe. Granted, Leonard is an NBA Finals MVP and is arguably the best wing defender in the game. But you’re only getting him for a one year rental, and he’s reportedly quite opposed to heading up North to Toronto. Perhaps the Raptors are confident after one season in Canada, he’ll Paul George and forget all about wanting to go to LA and stick around. That remains to be seen.

What we do know is the Raptors, assuming Leonard is 100% next year, are better than they were last year. Leonard is superior to DeRozan, Danny Green is low key awesome, and Lowry is still a beast of a PG, despite his struggles in the postseason. Jonas Valanciunas is a monster of a man, even if there’s an apathy towards traditional bigs in the NBA these days. Add in Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby, the Raptors have a very solid rotation. If they’re clicking in May with a healthy Leonard and a Lowry that’s figured out his postseason strife, this team could challenge Boston and come out of the East.

Three Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

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This probably seems ridiculous to most, but there’s just something about the Sixers that slots them slightly behind the Raptors. Joel Embiid played in 63 games last year, but there’s always a worry the young big will suffer an injury that causes him to miss significant time. If that happens, who knows what will become of their season. Ben Simmons is a triple-double machine, but he can’t shoot for shit which will give teams something to exploit against him. Bringing back JJ Redick was savvy, as was adding solid wing Wilson Chandler and getting Zhaire Smith, who is a nice project. Dario Saric is another one of them low key monsters who gets lost among the big named youth in Philly, as does Robert Covington. With another season together, the Sixers could easily be the beast of the East and even nab the first seed. It could happen.

Markelle Fultz was the first overall pick last year, and as is tradition in Philly, essentially wasted his entire first season. That follows in Simmons and Embiid’s footsteps, so maybe he’ll emerge as a vital cog this year. He showed promise over the final few games of the season, including a tripe-double in the final game of the season. However, he’s another guy that can’t shoot for shit. You can’t play him and Simmons together, and Simmons is clearly superior to Fultz. TJ McConnell is solid at the point, but he can’t be out there facilitating for Simmons and Fultz when they refuse to even attempt a deep ball.

Clearly, there’s a ton of talented youth in Philly. Problem is, there’s just all these lingering issues beneath the surface that slots them just behind the Celtics and Raptors as we opine on the paper appearance of their potential in 2018-19.

Four Seed – Indiana Pacers

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Their first round pushing of LeBron to seven games was quite impressive and gives their faithful faith in the 2018-19 season. Gone is Lance Stephenson, but that’s quite OK. His role wasn’t prominent enough to project a drop off from their output last season. Victor Oladipo is now a bonafide stud, and should lead the Pacers to home court for the first round this year, a luxury they didn’t have against Cleveland last postseason. Myles Turner is a young stud who is only going to improve this season. They bolstered their bench by adding Tyreke Evans, a dynamic scorer who can excel when not asked to do too much. He can fill the role Stephenson had, and do it with more skill. Darren Collison is a very good point guard, and backing him up will be the capable Cory Joseph unless promising draft pick Aaron Holiday can take those reins.

They added Doug McDermott to give them another deep ball threat, and Bojan Bogdanovich was a revelation against LeBron last year. Throw in the solid big man trio of Domantas Sabonis, Thaddeus Young, and Kyle O’Quinn to bolster the front court with Turner and there’s some serious depth in Indiana. This team doesn’t have the parts that will make you giddy like the flashy talent laden squads ranked above them, but you can pencil them in for fifty wins and count on them to give anyone they face in the playoffs a very difficult out.

Five Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

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We all know Giannis <looks up last name real quick to spell correctly> Antetokounmpo is a superstar. The Bucks only mustered a seven seed last year, but they pushed the Celtics to seven games in their first round series. Adding Mike Budenholzer should bolster their regular season record, as he got the Hawks to a 60 win one-seed a few years back. Losing Jabari Parker is a minor blow to their scoring punch, but this team has very nice pieces, particularly at point guard with Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, and Matthew Dellavedova. Khris Middleton is a solid running mate for Giannis, and adding Ersan Ilyasova back into the mix was a quiet but solid move.

Rookie Donte DiVincenzo could nab the starting two guard spot if he impresses early, and it’s time for Thon Maker to break out into a contributing player this season. There’s not much flash beyond the Greek Freak, but there’s enough solid rotational pieces for Budenholzer to utilize and stay right in the middle of the Eastern pack. If the Bucks could swing a trade to get another stud before the trade deadline, they could win a series or two. Imagine adding Kevin Love to play center alongside Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bledsoe, and Brogdon? That would be a very solid lineup to do battle in the postseason with.

Sixth Seed – Washington Wizards

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The league’s most dysfunctional one-two punch is back again! Gone is Marcin Gortat, but John Wall and Bradley Beal will try to coexist and harness all their promise. Otto Porter is quietly a very good and long wing, and it remains to be seen how the ambivalent Dwight Howard will contribute in our nation’s capital. There’s not much depth to speak of, as the depth chart includes some wild cards like Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers, along with Jeff Green who signed from Cleveland. Thomas Bryant is a young big with athleticism, so there were some improvements if you want to call them that.

Ultimately, the insane talents of Beal and Wall need to finally mesh into a synergy via chemistry. How about that for some buzzword analysis? However, Howard and Rivers are both big personalities that can be difficult, and there’s a very real chance this experiment could blow up big time. Along with chemistry, health will also be a major factor considering Wall missed half the season last year. With a lack of real depth, he’ll need to be on the court to keep this team in the playoffs.

Seven Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

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Kevin Love is still a Cavalier so perhaps they’re legitimately going to try and give it a go after losing LeBron. As the primary option, Love should have a monster season along the lines of 25 – 12 if he stays healthy. Love will run with some talented, albeit previously cast away, youth in Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. Holdovers like JR Smith and Tristan Thompson have championship pedigree and could be playing with pride out of LeBron’s shadow this year. Throw in rookie point guard Collin Sexton and promising young wing Cedi Osman and you can talk yourself into Cleveland playing just well enough to earn a playoff spot this year.

Of course, Dan Gilbert could come to his senses, swallow his pride, and realize the logical move is to trade Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, Hill, and anyone else over 27 to accumulate draft picks. The most valuable pick they’ll pursue will be their own, which is top ten protected, otherwise it goes to Atlanta. Tanking and keeping their pick will give them another youngster as they pursue a rebuild. That’s just how the NBA goes these days. Unless you are vying for a title, tank and make your pick better. So take this slot with a grain of salt, but if Gilbert is hell bent on winning this year, the Cavs have the pieces to sneak into the playoffs.

Eight Seed – Charlotte Hornets

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There were plenty of reports the Hornets were going to clean house and full on rebuild, but ultimately Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum remain on the roster. There’s still a chance one or both are moved this season, sending the Hornets to the bottom of the league. But as it stands, their roster looks like it can nab the final playoff spot over slightly lesser squads like Detroit and Miami.

Moving Dwight Howard was a good move, and getting back a high-motor, low-maintenance big like Bismack Biyombo was wise. Walker and Batum can lead the team, and young guys like Malik Monk and Miles Bridges are prime suspects to be contributors. Bridges in particular is the kind of youngster who can nab the rookie of the year award if he lives up to his potential. Tony Parker will give veteran guidance and lead the second unit, while veterans like Jeremy Lamb and Marvin Williams are blue collar types who can get you wins. Don’t forget about Frank Kaminsky and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, two young guys that should finally be coming into their own and become vital contributors if this team is going to slip into the playoffs. Kaminsky has shown he has it in him, and it’s time for MKG to follow suit.

If the new regime decides to purge the contracts of their predecessors, this prediction goes bunk as will the Cavs if they move Love. But for now, they still have a shot to get a bump from improving youth alongside prime time guys like Walker and Batum.

 

 

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