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With LeBron Heading West, Who Will Rule the East Next Season?

Could it be... the Toronto Raptors?!

2018 NBA Finals - Game Four Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

LeBron James is heading West:

James’ departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers leaves the Eastern Conference wide open. If the Toronto Raptors run it back—which still seems like the most likely outcome, aside from a potential salary cap dump (Norm?) to alleviate tax concerns—where do they stack up against the competition?

I think it’s safe to say the East’s bottom six from 2017-2018—Atlanta, Orlando, Chicago, New Jersey, New York, and Charlotte—will remain the same. Cleveland will likely join them on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

Of the next tier, the Detroit Pistons seem poised to make a leap (hey, we know the guy running the show now); they probably should have been a playoff team last year and if Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin can stay healthy, they should be in the 45-win range.

The Indiana Pacers exceeded expectations last year but I don’t see much improvement from them in 2018-19. The Miami Heat will remain competitive, but still don’t scare anyone.

That leaves Milwaukee, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, and the Toronto Raptors.

The Wizards are extremely talented and yet perennially underachieve. They’ve dumped Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers, which might improve team chemistry and help this team come together. Then again it doesn’t seem like Rivers has made a lot of friends around the league either. Maybe 45 wins?

The Bucks have the uber-talented Giannis Antetokounmpo and a halfway-decent roster around him, including the newly-signed Ersan Ilyasova. And with new coach Mike Budenholzer they may actually run an offense! I expect the Bucks to surpass their 44 wins from last season and possibly approach 50.

I think the 76ers will backslide a little. For one thing, they’ve lost all of the outside shooting they picked up midseason last year; for another, they made out extremely well with injuries and they got hot right when half the league started to tank. I foresee a sophomore slump from Ben Simmons as he takes on more responsibility. I have them dropping from 52 wins to the 48-win range.

The Celtics are now poised to be the team to beat. With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward coming back from injury, and their two young studs Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum having taken advantage of the stars’ absence to develop their games, the Celtics are young, deep, and fearsome on both sides of the ball. They may take take some time to gel but this is a potential 60-win team.

And then we have our Toronto Raptors, coming off the best regular season in team history and another playoff obliteration at the hands of James. Will the results be different with LeBron in LA? They should be. It might take some time to adjust to new coach Nick Nurse, and 59 wins seems like a stretch, but 55 doesn’t seem impossible, does it? Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka will be a year older but our young bench mob, led by the returning Fred VanVleet, will have another year of experience. I see no reason to project them any worse than a top 2- or 3-seed, even if they run it back with the same team.

It’s going to be damn weird seeing LeBron in Lakers colours. But it’s also going to be a big relief not facing him 3-4 times in the regular season and again in the playoffs. The East is wide open, and the Raptors are in good shape to—finally—make a long post-season run.