After Kawhi Leonard left the Raptors, the Eastern Conference is once again wide open for taking, as Nick Ballistreri makes his prediction on who will survive the Eastern Conference.
For the 2nd straight season, the team that represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals lost their best player. Kawhi Leonard packed his bags and left the frigid Canadian soil for the sunny beaches of California. I can’t say I blame him.
The Raptors knew they were taking a risk when they acquired Leonard, but it undoubtedly paid off when they won the NBA Finals in June. With Leonard out of town, it’s safe to say that Toronto won’t be back in the Finals this season.
What we have now is a wide-open Eastern Conference, with Giannis and the Bucks looking to finally break through, the 76ers proving that they’re just getting started, and even the Brooklyn Nets joining the party.
Before we get into some of our Eastern Conference picks, let’s look at some of the Eastern Conference’s key offseason moves from a wild Summer:
- Josh Richardson traded to the Philadelphia 76ers
- Jimmy Butler traded to the Miami Heat
- Kyrie Irving signs with the Brooklyn Nets
- Kevin Durant signs with the Brooklyn Nets
- DeAndre Jordan signs with the Brooklyn Nets
- Kemba Walker signs with the Boston Celtics
- Julius Randle signs with the New York Knicks
- Al Horford signs with the Philadelphia 76ers
- Malcolm Brogdon signs with the Indiana Pacers
- Derrick Rose signs with the Detroit Pistons
- Kawhi Leonard leaves the Toronto Raptors
- Jimmy Butler leaves the Philadelphia 76ers
- Kyrie Irving leaves the Boston Celtics
- Al Horford leaves the Boston Celtics
- D’Angelo Russell leaves the Brooklyn Nets
With Kawhi leaving Toronto, the East has officially opened up. The Bucks were the best team last season until they lost to the Raptors in the ECF. The Sixers, one of the league’s most talented teams from a season, arguably upgraded their talent with the acquisitions of Horford and Richardson. The Brooklyn Nets are the team that most would say won this offseason, as they acquired Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant when free-agency opened.
While these 3 teams may be considered the favorites, Boston Celtics proved that just because they lost Kyrie Irving, doesn’t mean they’re throwing in the white towel this season. The Celtics reloaded when they signed Kemba Walker away from Charlotte, and helped their big man rotation by signing Enes Kanter.
The East may be top-heavy, but there is loads of talent throughout this conference.
- Milwaukee Bucks +175
- Philadelphia 76ers +220
- Boston Celtics +700
- Brooklyn Nets +1200
- Toronto Raptors +1400
- Indiana Pacers +1800
After these 6 teams, there is a substantial dropoff in team talent, and championship odds. It would be an absolute shock if the East was represented in the NBA Finals by anyone other than these teams.
Eastern Conference Winner Pick:
A year after winning the NBA Finals, the Raptors come in with the 5th best odds in the East at +1400. It is clear Kawhi Leonard’s departure had a huge impact on these odds. The Brooklyn Nets come in at +1200, but if Kevin Durant never went down with his Achilles injury, you can bet those odds would be much greater.
The Boston Celtics are an interesting case. Just 2 seasons ago, they took a LeBron James lead Cavs team to 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals, all while missing their 2 best players, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. With both players healthy last season, they were the trendy pick to represent the East in the finals. That never came to fruition, and the team has now replaced the departed Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker. Although Walker is a good player, he isn’t Irving, and combined with the loss of Al Horford, the Celtics do not have enough to validate picking them at +700.
It is clear the two best teams in the East are the Bucks and 76ers. Last season, the 76ers lost an absolute heartbreaking Game 7 to the Raptors. The Sixers haven’t rested on their laurels however, as they used this offseason to improve their team. They signed Al Horford to help Embiid down low, and also used Jimmy Butler as a trade chip to acquire Josh Richardson from Miami. Richardson is a younger version of Butler with a better shooting stroke, and will slide right into an already stacked starting lineup for Philly.
The Bucks let it slip away last season. In the Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto, the Bucks blew a 2-0 lead, only to lose the series in 6. Now, the Bucks still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they will again be a very good team, but when opportunities such as last year’s arise, they can’t be wasted.
The Bucks arguably got worse this offseason, as they lost key rotation players in Malcolm Brogdon as well as Nikola Mirotic. To rectify these departures, the Bucks signed Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver, who are solid but unspectacular additions. The Bucks are the favorite to win the East, at +175, but in my opinion, they shouldn’t be the favorites.
That crown goes to the Philadelphia 76ers at +225, as they have the most talent top to bottom in the conference, and will use their tough playoff exit as fuel this coming season.
Eastern Conference Winner Sleeper Pick:
I want to start this section with caveat. I think the winner of the Eastern Conference will be either the Bucks or 76ers. However, this is sports betting, and as a savvy bettor it is important to keep an eye on some value at your sportsbook.
Looking at these odds, one team sticks out to me: The Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were the darling of free-agency, coming away with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and DeAndre Jordan. The beautiful thing about what the Nets did is they brought these players in without sacrificing their depth and culture. With the exception of D’Angelo Russell, the Nets brought back all of their key contributors from a 42-win team a year ago, including Caris Levert, who missed most of their season only to come back in the playoffs and be their best player.
While it’s clear I like their returning talent and offseason moves, the real reason they are my sleeping pick is Kevin Durant. Everybody in the sports media world is saying that Durant is going to miss the entire season, and even the Nets said we shouldn’t expect him to return. However, we have to keep in mind a couple things. The Nets of course, are going to be saying that, as there is no reason to stir up a media controversy around Durant. Another thing is that in recent seasons, there have been players in the NBA and NFL who have come back quicker than usual from these Achilles injuries (Emmanuel Sanders currently comes to mind).
If the Nets prove to be a solid playoff team without Durant, it’s possible he comes back around March or April to get up to speed before the Playoffs. Now picture the Nets, a team with Kyrie Irving and healthy Durant in the Playoffs, at +1200 odds to win the NBA Finals. You’d take that chance, right?
Like I said, the East should come down to the Bucks or the 76ers. But this is sports, and crazy things happen, so it’s important to keep your options open. This season will be Giannis Anteotokoumnpo’s best chance to win the East, as now both Kawhi and LeBron are playing across the country, not to mention KD missing most of this season as well. If he can’t take advantage, expect Joel Embiid and company to take that mantle, and the talks of Giannis leaving Milwaukee to slowly start becoming louder. Put simply, this is a monumental season for the Eastern Conference, and I can’t wait to watch.