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Eastern Conference Competition Breakdown: Cream of the Crop

The 2018-2019 Eastern Conference looks to be a three-team race, with two dark horses bringing up the rear.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we ran down the Toronto Raptors’ competition at the lower end of the Eastern Conference, ending up, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the consistently underwhelming Washington Wizards.

I predicted the Raptors would carve out a 33-5 record against those 10 teams. But these four opponents? Things are gonna be a little tougher.

Playoff locks

Barring injury these two teams are set to battle for the 4-5 spots... unless a certain Freak makes the leap we’ve all been waiting for.

Milwaukee Bucks

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 3-1

2018-19 Prediction: Teams will split season series 2-2

I think this is the toughest team to predict in the East. Honestly, I could see them dropping to sixth and Washington finishing ahead of them; neither team has the type of consistency you want to see from a contender, and Milwaukee hasn’t proven anything over the years.

On the other hand, they have the incredible Giannis Antetokounmpo, they made a big coaching upgrade, and they added some solid veterans in Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova over the summer. And I would hope a new coach and a full training camp will help Eric Bledsoe integrate into the team in a better way and that he’ll have a more positive impact this season. I could see the Bucks challenging the third seed if all goes well.

But ultimately, the thing that holds me back from ranking them higher is that—as incredible as he is—I think we’re still waiting on the Greek Freak to develop an all around game, and I’m not 100% convinced we’re ever gonna get there. Where’s the jump shot? Any sort of a post-up game? When he adds these things he’ll be unstoppable, but we’ve been saying that for three years. Is he finally gonna develop a better offensive game this year? Maybe, but I can’t count on it.

He’s still a nightmare matchup for Toronto, even with Kawhi Leonard in the mix. The length and height, combined with his speed, make Antetokounmpo a challenge for anyone on the Raptors roster. Pascal Siakam is probably Toronto’s best bet one-on-one, but the Freak is still faster and stronger; Leonard has the strength but not the size. Hopefully Nick Nurse can design a defense that throws multiple defenders at Giannis, mixes up the looks he sees and keeps him off his game.

Two of these teams’ three games went in to OT last year, and I see them being similarly close this year; this would be a heckuva fun playoff series as well.

Indiana Pacers

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 3-1

2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 2-1

OK, so who saw last year’s 47-win Indiana team coming? Who saw Victor Oladipo making the leap? Not a lot of hands raised.

Can they exceed that win total this year? Meeting expectations only gets tougher the better you are. But I like what Indiana did in the offseason, and I think they’re poised to beat their win total from a year ago by a game or two, and should be able to lock up the fourth seed ahead of the Bucks.

You can argue that letting Lance Stephenson go robs them of some toughness, but Stephenson only really served one purpose—get under LeBron James’ skin—and with LeBron gone west, Stephenson was expendable. Tyreke Evans will give them everything Stephenson did with a lot more consistency—and fewer headaches. Kyle O’Quinn has been an underrated big man in the East for a while, toiling away on bad Knicks teams, and I think he’ll be great on this Pacers team; a frontcourt rotation of him, Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner is a good mix of shooting and defense. They also added Raptor killer Doug McDermott to shore up the wing alongside Bojan Bogdanovic.

Oladipo had an amazing year last year, but he was oddly inconsistent against Toronto. He had one of his best games of the year in December, scoring 36 on 14-22 shooting, but then had what might have been his worst game of the season, scoring only 5 on 2-9 shooting in April. This year, Oladipo’s going to find it a lot tougher facing off against Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green than he did against DeMar DeRozan.

The Raptors might find the aforementioned Pacers frontcourt a challenge, but Toronto’s depth, perimeter D and shooting should enable them to take the season series again.

Top dogs

Remember when the Atlantic Division was mockingly called the Titanic Division? Wasn’t that long ago! Last year it boasted three 50-game winners, and will again this year.

Philadelphia 76ers

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 3-1
2018-19 Prediction: Teams will split season series 2-2

Similar to Indiana, Philadelphia exceeded all expectations last year, but that only means expectations this year are even higher, and meeting high expectations is much, much harder than exceeding low ones. Especially when you’re a young team; despite the presence of vets like JJ Redick, Amir Johnson and the newly acquired Wilson Chandler, this team’s core is 26 or under and only has a handful of big pressure games under their belts. And Markelle Fultz is still a huge question mark.

The other part, and this is where Philly differs from Indiana, is that the front office (such as they have one) didn’t do much to bolster the roster around the young studs. Letting Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova go is understandable—can’t pay everyone—but those two guys had a huge impact. The team was 32-27 when it signed them on February 28; it went 20-3 the rest of the way.

Are those two solely responsible for that? Of course not. Neither of them was putting up all-world numbers. But the way they helped spread the floor and give Simmons and Embiid more room to operate and greater relief from traps and double-teams was massive.

Wilson Chandler is still a decent player but I don’t see him having the same impact. And sure, we can expect the youngsters to improve, but they’re going to miss Belinelli and Ilyasova.

Now, obviously, they may be able to do a mid-season roster adjustment like they did last year, but for now, I don’t see the Sixers making a big leap forward. Philly will still win 50 or 51 games, and finish third, but by early March, it really will be a two-team race between Boston and Toronto.

And when it comes to our Raptors, the story is the same as it as for a lot of these Eastern Conference teams that rely on perimeter play: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and 3rd-year Pascal Siakam and 2nd-year OG Anunoby will have a HUGE impact. Imagine Leonard tracking Ben Simmons, Lowry hounding Redick, and Anunoby taking out Robert Covington? Yes, Joel Embiid is still a problem, and Dario Saric presents a potential frontcourt matchup issue, but Toronto’s depth and flexibility should counter it nicely.

(Why am I only predicting the Raps to win two against Philly? The first game is on October 30, and I think the Raps will need time to gel. And I’ll give Philly one more later in the season.)

Boston Celtics

2017-18 Result: Team split season series 2-2
2018-19 Prediction: Teams will split season series 2-2

The Celtics seem to be most everyone’s choice for best record in the east, and it’s hard to argue with the pick. We all know the story: Gordon Hayward misses the whole season, Kyrie Irving misses the whole postseason, but the team still wins 55 games and goes to the Eastern Conference Finals.... And now both those guys are back the rest of the roster returns pretty much intact. Any questions seem minor:

Are Hayward and Irving healthy?

Does it even really matter? If they can get the same number of games from Kyrie and anything from Hayward, isn’t that an upgrade? Besides, Toronto and Philly have their own injury history questions in Leonard and Embiid, respectively, and Milwaukee and Indiana couldn’t withstand an injury to their best players, so I don’t think Boston’s injury concern should be any higher than any other Eastern contender.

Will Jayson Tatum have a sophomore slump?

It’s definitely possible. He exceeded all expectations last year (there’s that phrase again) so that’s a tough act to follow, and, with Hayward back, his role will change. It might be a tough adjustment. But overall the team should be deep enough to withstand any ups and downs Tatum suffers through.

Will there be chemistry issues re-integrating two stars?

This is certainly the most interesting question. How does adding an all-star to a starting lineup that won 55 games affect the chemistry? Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier were forced to take on huge roles and were incredibly successful last year, and this year, they’ll be asked to step back a little bit. How will they handle it?

Ultimately I think they’ll handle it just fine, even if it takes a month to gel. Toronto’s in a similar boat, integrating a brand-new star and a brand-new coach, so the Raptors certainly don’t have any advantage there.

And although I greatly enjoyed the Twitter backlash against the “coaching greatness” of Brad Stevens last season, he’s clearly a damn good coach and I have to believe he’ll have this team running on all cylinders by April.

In terms of the matchup between the Celtics and Raptors: it should be great. I can’t wait to see it. Both teams feature a bevy of long, switchable, two-way players on the perimeter, alongside elite point guards. With Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors are a little taller and have more rim protection, but Al Horford’s shooting and playmaking offset any advantage there. I expect these games to be fast-paced with both teams trying to get easy buckets and open shots before the opposing defense can set, and I think they’ll all be close games.

That said, when when these two teams meet on October 19, my expectations will be pretty low. The two teams will still be feeling themselves, and each other, out. We’ll probably see a lot of turnovers and a lot of bricks. But it’s in Toronto so that should be a Raptors win.

The rest of the games should be fantastic, and much like last year, I expect the teams to hold serve on home court and split the series 2-2.

The real question is: Who finishes with the better record? I think it’s going to come down to the final two weeks of the season, and it’ll be close, but I’m gonna give it to Boston. They’ll win 58, Toronto will win 56, and an Eastern Conference Finals showdown will loom on the horizon.