EASTERN CON­FER­ENCE SET TO WEL­COME NEW CHAMPS

With LeBron gone and Cava­liers weak­ened, Celtics, 76ers and Rap­tors hop­ing to win race, writes Brian Mahoney

Bangkok Post - - NBA -

The road­block has been re­moved. With LeBron James gone, the path to the NBA Fi­nals from the Eastern Con­fer­ence is open again. Bos­ton, Philadel­phia, Toronto and more are hop­ing to win the race to it.

James ruled over the East for eight years, mak­ing four straight trips to the fi­nals from Miami and then mov­ing back to Cleve­land in 2014 and get­ting there ev­ery year since.

From Bos­ton to In­di­ana, up north in Toronto all the way down to At­lanta, teams would emerge with what they thought was ti­tle con­tenders only to see James send them home for the sum­mer.

Now King James has ab­di­cated his throne and moved to Los An­ge­les, and there should be re­joic­ing in the land he left be­hind.

“It’s a new lease on life in the Eastern Con­fer­ence,’’ said Hall of Famer and TNT an­a­lyst Reg­gie Miller, who faced a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion when he played in the East dur­ing the era of Michael Jor­dan’s Bulls.

“It’s great that LeBron has taken his tal­ents out of West be­cause it opens up the doors for not only a lot of th­ese young play­ers, but th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions now. Fresh blood, some­thing new to kind of see who can com­pete for that Eastern crown.’’

The Celtics nearly won it last year, fall­ing to the Cava­liers in Game 7 of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals. They were with­out the in­jured Kyrie Irv­ing and Gor­don Hay­ward, and now that the two stars are healthy and have re­joined Jayson Ta­tum, Jaylen Brown, Al Hor­ford and the rest of a deep team that made a valiant run with­out them, Bos­ton are prob­a­bly the favourites in the East.

But there’s in­trigue be­yond that, which rarely ex­isted dur­ing James’ reign. Philadel­phia fin­ished strong in their first sea­son with Joel Em­biid and Ben Simmons play­ing to­gether, and now might get a full one with 2017 No.1 pick Markelle Fultz join­ing them af­ter his shoul­der prob­lems last sea­son.

Toronto shook up a 59-win team by fir­ing coach Dwane Casey and ship­ping DeMar DeRozan to San An­to­nio in the trade for Kawhi Leonard, and In­di­ana bol­stered a team that took Cleve­land to seven games in the first round.

Any of them have a chance to get to the place that James wouldn’t let them.

“An ap­pear­ance in the fi­nals is go­ing to be sweet,’’ Em­biid said.

A look at the East, in pre­dicted or­der of fin­ish:

PLAY-OFF BOUND

1. Bos­ton: Depth of tal­ent is not only tops in the East, but comes clos­est in the NBA to ri­val­ing Golden State’s.

2. Philadel­phia: If ei­ther Simmons or Fultz de­vel­ops a jump shot to open things up more for Em­biid, look out.

3. In­di­ana: Vic­tor Oladipo has emerged as an All-Star and the Pac­ers are balanced be­hind him.

4. Toronto: If Leonard is fully healthy and mo­ti­vated, Rap­tors added a top-five player to a 59-win team.

5. Mil­wau­kee: Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo is go­ing to make the Bucks fun to watch in their new arena.

6. Wash­ing­ton: John Wall and Bradley Beal will give the Wiz­ards plenty on the perime­ter, but they need Dwight Howard to pro­vide a boost on the in­te­rior.

7. Miami: Heat won’t want to send Dwyane Wade into re­tire­ment with­out one fi­nal play-off ap­pear­ance.

8. Detroit: A full sea­son with An­dre Drum­mond and Blake Grif­fin to­gether should be enough to get the Pistons back into the post­sea­son.

IN THE MIX

9. Cleve­land: Kevin Love and the re­main­der of the Cava­liers that James left be­hind should still be good enough to fight for a spot in the top eight.

10. Char­lotte: The Hor­nets will host an All-Star Game in Fe­bru­ary. They’ll try to host play-off games in April.

LONG ODDS

11. Or­lando: Steve Clif­ford is the lat­est coach to try to mix a col­lec­tion of young play­ers into one that can de­fend enough to be a de­cent team.

12. Brook­lyn: The Nets made a seven-win im­prove­ment last sea­son even while be­ing dis­mal at de­fend­ing and re­bound­ing. Do ei­ther bet­ter and they can take an­other leap.

13. New York: Kristaps Porzingis re­mains out in­def­i­nitely while re­hab­bing a torn ACL, so new coach David Fiz­dale will give rookie Kevin Knox an early green light.

14. At­lanta: Trae Young may be ex­cit­ing to watch, but he won’t be able to stop an­other long sea­son of los­ing in At­lanta.

15. Chicago: The Bulls of Tom Thi­bodeau were veter­ans who al­ways de­fended hard. The Bulls of Fred Hoiberg have been none of the above.

WHAT TO KNOW

CANADA’S CHANCE: The Rap­tors gam­bled on ac­quir­ing Leonard from San An­to­nio, and now Toronto have a year to show him it’s worth stick­ing around when he be­comes a free agent next sum­mer.

BEST MAN: A pop­u­lar ques­tion af­ter James left was who is the best player now in the East? Irv­ing, Em­biid, An­te­tok­oun­mpo and Leonard are among those who can make com­pelling cases.

HOWARD’S HEALTH: Dwight Howard has sat out his first pre­sea­son with the Wiz­ards be­cause of a balky back, the kind of in­jury that can some­times linger, and Wash­ing­ton need a pres­ence in the mid­dle no mat­ter how good their back­court is.

The Celtics’ Kyrie Irv­ing in ac­tion dur­ing a pre-sea­son game.

The Pac­ers’ Vic­tor Oladipo cel­e­brates af­ter mak­ing a dunk.

Philadel­phia’s Markelle Fultz.

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