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This week we tip off of the NBA season. I’ll admit, I am far more excited for this season than I thought I would be back in June. The Association saw a lot of shake ups this offseason, and now we get to see what the next incarnation of the NBA looks like.
We start with the Eastern Conference, which has been historically weak since the retirement of some guy named Michael Jordan. That does not leave this conference without its share of intrigue heading into the new campaign. Here are the five most tantalizing story lines for the NBA’s Eastern Conference this season.
1. Are the Cleveland Cavaliers Better Than Last Year?
If you had told me three months ago that Cleveland would lose Kyrie Irving and actually get better, I would have called you crazy, but it looks like that’s exactly what Cleveland did. In the Irving trade, Cleveland got Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder from the rival Boston Celtics. Thomas’ offense should essentially replace the production lost by Irving. The addition of Crowder gives Cleveland more depth and versatility with their front court. Crowder can take on the best wing player on the opposition, while still providing some offense. This will allow LeBron James to conserve more energy for the offensive end.
The Cavaliers also added veterans Dwayne Wade and Derrick Rose this offseason. Paired with Thomas and J.R. Smith, the back court is now as deep as the front court. The Cavaliers have offensive weapons all over the floor as well as tons of experience. The only real weakness this team may have is their three point shooting.
Clevand’s start will be slowed by Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury. He won’t be able to go at the season’s start, and it still isn’t clear when he will return to full duty. When he does, Cleveland will reach its full potential. The injury history of Thomas, Wade, Rose and Kevin Love has to be a concern, but Cleveland will roll the dice with this veteran lineup. Barring a major injury, LeBron James should be going to his 8th straight NBA finals.
2. Can the Boston Celtics Finally Dethrone the King?
The situation with the Boston Celtics is something I can’t remember seeing in the past. They were the East’s number 1 seed last season. This season they have a chance to be there again, and yet this team looks nothing like what we saw on the floor last year. Key players Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk are all with new clubs. Only Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown return as key contributors.
Yet somehow, Boston may actually be better. They signed Gordon Hayward, traded for Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris, and drafted Jayson Tatum. Irving, Hayward and Horford will form a legitimate “big three” for Boston. Smart is a tough combo guard who can defend multiple positions and is the exact type of player you need as an X-factor in the playoffs. The addition of Morris is an underrated addition to their front court depth. Brad Stevens has lots of toys to play with this season.
I don’t think Boston will end LeBron James’ reign as King of the East this year. But I do think they can. They’ll have to play their absolute best basketball and catch a few lucky breaks, but they should have the weapons to give Cleveland a legitimate run for their money. Their success will largely depend on how much of an impact 3rd overall pick Jayson Tatum can have, and a second year jump from Jaylen Brown wouldn’t hurt.
3. Can the Washington Wizards Get in on the Fun?
The back court duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal is on the short list for the NBA’s best guard tandem, along with Golden State, Houston, Portland and Toronto. The two combined to average 46 points per game last year, and Wall was second in assists, dropping 10.7 dimes per contest. Both are good defenders. Wall is a lock for his fifth All Star appearance, and Beal should make his first this season. If the NBA were a two-on-two league, Washington may be one of the favorites for the NBA title. Unfortunately for the Wizards, it’s more than a two person game.
Washington’s next two best players are Otto Porter Jr. and Marcin Gortat. Both are solid NBA players, but not enough to be major difference makers. Washington needs a legitimate third option (preferably a big man) and failed to acquire one this summer. Washington could very well wind up the number two seed in the playoffs, but that’s mostly because Cleveland likely doesn’t care too much about regular season wins. Come playoff time, teams like Cleveland and Boston will throw wave after wave of defenders at Wall and Beal, daring other players to beat them. Washington just doesn’t have the weapons to overcome that. The Wizards will be fun this season, but aren’t real contenders just yet.
4. Is Giannis Antetokounmpo a Legitimate MVP Candidate?
22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.7 blocks. Those are the per game stats for the Greek Freak last season, and they are jaw dropping. Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks in every statistical category last season as he lead them to the Playoffs. He made the leap from “exciting young player” to All Star starter last year. Can he make the leap to MVP contender this year?
It seems there isn’t much room for Antetokounmpo to improve this year, but the scary thing is that he is only 22 years old. He should only be getting better, and has plenty of room to improve as a three point shooter. Other MVP candidates heading into this year may suffer in voter’s eyes due to the talent around them on their own teams. My early prediction for the MVP this season is Kawhi Leonard (who I felt should have won last year), but don’t be surprised to see Antetokounmpo place second. Milwaukee likely won’t finish better than 4th in the East. A 5th place seed in the much more competitive West should have Leonard hoisting the trophy this season. But make no mistake, the MVP trophy will need room to fit “Giannis Antetokounmpo” on it in the very near future.
5. Will the Philadelphia 76er’s “Process” Finally Bear Fruit?
“Trust the Process.” That’s the mantra Philadelphia fans had to keep telling themselves while they endured years of blatant tanking. Now it’s time to see if the Process was worth the wait. Joel Embiid was the number 1 overall pick in 2014, and last year we got a preview of him as he finally suited up, though only for 31 games. In a small sample size, he averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. If Embiid can stay healthy, he can be a franchise player at center.
Embiid will be joined by 2016 number 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, finally healthy and ready to make his debut. The point-forward may be a match up nightmare for opposing teams. The 2017 number 1 pick, point guard Markelle Fultz, will join Embiid and Simmons to form Philadelphia’s new core. Daario Saric looked good at power forward as a rookie last year. Newly acquired J.J. Redick will round out the starting lineup. His experience and ability to spread the floor as a shooter will make life easier for this young, talented group. If this team is healthy, they should make the playoffs, which would be a huge positive for this long suffering franchise. The future may be very sunny in Philadelphia.