With one Sports Illustrated essay, the entire hierarchy in the Eastern Conference was destroyed.
The Miami Heat, the champions of the Eastern Conference for the last four seasons, lost their best player. The Cleveland Cavaliers, an Eastern Conference laughing stock for the last four years, instantly became Las Vegas’ favorites to win the championship next year, and between all that, a number of other teams improved as well.
What was once a two-dog race in the Eastern Conference between the Heat and Indiana Pacers is now seemingly a free-for-all, featuring at least five teams – maybe even more – that have a legitimate case to be considered the conference’s favorite.
Is the East slowly turning into the West? Absolutely not, but the gap between the top teams and the bottom teams of the conference has gotten a whole lot smaller.
So if the LeBron-less Heat aren’t still the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, which team is? There’s a lot of time left for moves to be made, but as of right now, here are the contenders and the favorites in the Eastern Conference.
Honorable Mentions: Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks
All five of these teams should compete for playoff spots in 2014-2015, but none of them appear good enough to take down the top dogs in the conference. The Hornets have added some nice pieces to put around Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, but Lance Stephenson isn’t enough to put them over the top.
The Nets not only lost two key contributors in Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, but they lost their head coach as well.
The Hawks missed out on a number of top tier free agents – again – but should still have enough firepower with Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and a healthy Al Horford to make some noise.
Phil Jackson pulled off some zen magic to keep Carmelo Anthony in the Big Apple, but the Knicks are still a year or two away from being championship contenders.
The Raptors, meanwhile, missed a golden opportunity to improve its roster when the team drafted Bruno Caboclo instead of a proven player with the No. 20 pick in this year’s draft. Toronto is still talented, but not talented enough.