For the first time since entering the league in 2003, LeBron James will venture out to the Western Conference after agreeing to a four-year deal with the Lakers.
That’s obviously huge news for the Lakers, but it’s almost as impactful for the rest of the Eastern Conference as someone other than James’ team will represent the East in the Finals for the first time in almost a decade. Over James’ run from 2011-18 of reaching every NBA Finals, there have been a number of contenders to the throne, as he’s dispatched the Bulls, Celtics, Pacers, Hawks, and Raptors in the conference finals.
Now, James is gone and there are a few teams hoping to fill the void at the top of the conference’s food chain. The Raptors will run it back this season with a new coach but just about the same roster as last year, believing their kryptonite was LeBron in the postseason and not a larger issue with the roster. The Sixers will hope to build off of a season in which they took a major leap and reached the conference semifinals, following their two young stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and hoping for big improvements from guys like Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric (unless they can manage to swing a big name in a trade).
However, while the Raptors and Sixers certainly feel like their odds have improved as one of the East’s top teams is no more, no team is in better position to take over the conference than the Boston Celtics. The Celtics pushed the Cavs to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, famously doing so without the services of Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward, both of whom appear set to return by the start of next season. The rest of the rotation portion roster has stayed intact after re-signing Aron Baynes, with the exception of Marcus Smart’s pending free agency situation, which could drag out over the coming weeks as he searches for a quality offer sheet on the market.
With Irving and Hayward in the mix, the Celtics project to remain well ahead of the Sixers and Raptors on the East’s totem pole when it comes to being favored in a playoff series. How far ahead they actually are will be determined by the continued development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.