With LeBron gone, East­ern Con­fer­ence set for a new cham­pion

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - SPORTS - By Brian Ma­honey

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 a ti­tle con­tender 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 West be­cause it opens up the doors for not only a lot of these young play­ers, but these or­ga­ni­za­tions 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 is prob­a­bly the fa­vorite in the East.

But there’s in­trigue be­yond that, which rarely ex­isted dur­ing James’ reign. Philadel­phia fin­ished strong in its 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 59win 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:

PLAY­OFF 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 Al­lS­tar 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 pro­vide a boost on the in­te­rior. 7. MI­AMI >> Heat won’t want

to send Dwyane Wade into re­tire­ment with­out one fi­nal play­off 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 play­off games in April.

FAC­ING 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 >> 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 has 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 needs a pres­ence in the mid­dle no mat­ter how good its back­court is. OPEN­ING NIGHT PRE­VIEW? >> Cleve­land and Bos­ton met in the open­ing game in the East last sea­son and ended up squar­ing off in the con­fer­ence fi­nals. This time, it’s Bos­ton and Philadel­phia to open things in the East and they’ll be good can­di­dates to close them.

KIN CHEUNG — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Philadel­phia 76ers’ Joel Em­biid, left, re­acts with team­mates, dur­ing the Shen­zhen bas­ket­ball match be­tween the Philadel­phia 76ers and the Dal­las Mav­er­ick, part of the NBA China Games, in Shen­zhen city, south China’s Guang­dong prov­ince Mon­day.

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