Teams to consider challenging in the NBA’s Eastern Conference

While the Los Angeles Lakers may have won the biggest prize of the 2018 Free Agency pool, other teams already knew LeBron James was nowhere in sight of their radar. DeMarcus Cousins shocked the world when he decided to take $5 million, 1-year deal to play for the Golden State Warriors this upcoming NBA season.

While the King headed for the West, the Eastern Conference now can sigh in relief as the door now opens up the opportunity for a new era of dominance. While all signs point to the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers, here are a few teams to consider challenging the three Northeastern powerhouses.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers forced the eventual Eastern Conference Champions of 2018 to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. Their gritty defense and ability to switch and defend shooters created problems for the Cavaliers. Of course, a little too much of Lebron James and his heroics were a bit unstoppable. However, coming out of the East was Victor Oladipo, who continues to show his ability to become an All-Star. Oladipo won Most Improved Player of the year.

Key acquisitions

G-Tyreke Evans
F-Doug McDermott
C-Kyle O’Quinn

*The Pacers also retained Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young who exercised their options to remain with Indiana.

The Tyreke Evans signing will allow for an additional ball handler outside of Oladipo and someone who can create his own shot. This also solidifies more depth at the point guard position behind veteran Darren Collison. While Evans only played in 52 games last year for the Memphis Grizzlies, he averaged 19.4 points, 5.2 assists, and shot the ball 45-percent from the field. Of course, this was on 30 minutes of playing time which could be less with a Pacer team that holds Oladipo and Collison.

The McDermott signing gives the Pacers another perimeter shooter and flexibility to match-up with bigger line-ups. The Pacers currently have Bojan Bogdanovic who was exceptional in the playoffs. While Bogdanovic primarily plays between Shooting Guard and Small Forward, McDermott is a flex between the Small Forward and Power Forward position. With these two on the floor and the shot creating abilities from their guards, this could help clear the lanes for a better offense than relying on an Oladipo bucket in desperation frequently.

With Kyle O’Quinn as a solid rebounder and interior defender, the Pacers again have added flexibility and depth. Besides Myles Turner, the Pacers are growing a bit old at the big man position. Thaddeus Young is 30 years old and now former Pacer, Al Jefferson is 33 years old. Jefferson only played in 36 games last season and saw a career-low 13.4 minutes per game in the regular season. O’Quinn comes in as a more effective and young big man beside Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.

I would look at these free agent signings as adding very solid depth in a conference that is now wide open due to the departure of LeBron James. While many have the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers at the top of the Eastern Conference, the third to eight seed is for grabs. The Cavaliers have retained Kevin Love however, the Pacers are also a young and upcoming team with the proof that even LeBron James can be tested in the playoffs out East. I am almost confident in adding the Pacers as the fourth best team in the Eastern Conference this season.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks are coming off a season where a bit of underachievement occurred. After starting the season 23-22 under Jason Kidd he was fired while Joe Prunty was replaced as the interim head coach. The Bucks ran into an undermanned hungry Boston Celtics team in the playoffs. The matchup seemed too good to be true as the Celtics defeated the Bucks in seven games. After a disappointing exit and 44-38 record, last season the Bucks are now under a new era with Head Coach Mike Budenholzer.

Key acquisitions

F-Ersan Ilyasova
C-Brook Lopez

The young and upcoming core remain in effect for the Bucks led by Giannis Antetokounmpo. There is much promise from Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon to blossom right behind The Greek Freak. Perhaps, the direction from Budenholzer will be a significant impact on the growth of this young team. Budenholzer spent five seasons in Atlanta and lead the Hawks to the playoffs four times including a 60-22 record in his second season as Head Coach. With a lot of familiarity around the East and LeBron James outside of the conference now the time is now to elevate the Bucks.

Ilyasova returns for his third stint with the Milwaukee Bucks so there is some common interest in the two parties as he spent part of last season under Coach Budenholzer in Atlanta. Adding Brook Lopez gives the Bucks roster another veteran presence on a team that is on the younger side of the league. Lopez adds depth to a roster that designated Marshall Plumlee as the team’s only Center. The next step is for The Greek Freak to take the next step in leading the Bucks into a more defined presence in the Eastern Conference. Anything lower than the fifth seed would be another underachieving season.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards may be one of the most underachieving teams in the Eastern Conference over the past few seasons. The emergence of John Wall and Bradley Beal as a top guard combo brought some promise to the nation’s capital. The Wizards finished eighth in the Eastern Conference with a 43-39 season. After dueling with the first seeded Raptors in the first round, the Wizards could not overcome the East’s best in six games. This comes as a step backward as the 2016-2017 season saw the Wizards win 49 games and a seven-game series that was lost to the Boston Celtics in the Semifinals of the 2017 Playoffs.

Key acquisitions

F-Jeff Green
C-Dwight Howard
G-Austin Rivers (via trade)

*The Wizards also retained Guard Jodie Meeks and Forward Jason Smith

With the exit of Marcin Gortat in comes Dwight Howard. Howard was traded to the Brooklyn Nets only to be waived and become a free agent. The Wizards seized the opportunity to sign the 15-year veteran who once had Gortat as his back-up for the Orlando Magic. Howard is still a double-double player and likewise Gortat he can run the floor with Wall and Beal. He will bring his defensive force in the middle and hopeful shot blocking in a conference where the Wizards will have to see Joel Embiid.

The Jeff Green addition also adds a flexible option for Scott Brooks’ bench and relieve Otto Porter. Green at one point had a few double-digit games for Cleveland and started in few games to shake things up for Tyronn Lue. A solid veteran player that can help boost the Wizards in the playoffs.

Again, the window opens just a bit more in the East and the Wizards have their core still intact. While they made not be ready to take the East or have any young talent brewing they are in the win-now situation. They certainly can become as the “new Raptors” should they fail to have a far run this season. Don’t be surprised if they underachieve early in the season, a firing for Scott Brooks, or do they pull the plug and make roster moves to realize that the reset button is inevitably needed?

I would predict the Wizards winning no more than 48 games and nothing higher than the fifth seed. If they come ready to play this season the talent certainly lines up as challengers to grab a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference.

Chevall Kanhai
Baseline Times Contributor