NBA season preview 2018-19: Eastern Conference predictions

The East is wide open.

A LeBron James-led team has captured the last eight conference crowns. But he departed for the Lakers in the offseason, opening an opportunity for a new team to reach the NBA Finals.   

The Celtics are full healthy and enter the season as the favorites in the East while the Raptors as well as the 76ers also appear ready to compete for the conference’s top spot.

With that said, here’s a look at the NBA Eastern Conference in 2018-19:

Team rising

Raptors — Toronto made the biggest move of the offseason when it acquired Kawhi Leonard, along with Danny Green, from the Spurs for a package centered around DeMar DeRozan. Leonard, one of the best players in the league, will add more star power to a team that won 59 games last season while Green is a solid 3-and-D player with championship experience who will improve the Raptors starting lineup. Those two pieces elevate Toronto into NBA title contention.

Team falling

Cavaliers — This one’s easy. Cleveland has reached four straight NBA Finals and won the title in 2016. James, however, will be in a Lakers jersey this season, and he will be almost impossible to replace. The Cavaliers drafted exciting rookie point guard Collin Sexton and still have Kevin Love, who signed a four-year, $120 million extension in the summer. But they’ll fall from the top of the conference standings and will be lucky to sneak into the playoffs in 2018-19.

Under-the-radar team

Bucks — Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo should be one of the best players in the conference and is a dark horse MVP candidate. The Bucks are set to bring back almost their entire core from a team that was 44-38 record in 2017-18 and will add center Brook Lopez, who signed a one-year contract in July. He’ll be a low-post scoring threat off the bench. New coach Mike Budenholzer will also open up the offense.

Under-the-radar player

Bulls F Jabari Parker – The 23-year-old forward is entering his first season with the Bulls after he agreed to a two-year, $40 million contract in mid-July. Parker has dealt with knee injuries throughout his four NBA seasons. But he has been a reliable scorer when healthy as he has averaged 15.3 points per game and knocked down 35.2 percent of his career 3-pointers. Parker should get more touches with the Bulls, especially with Lauri Markkanen out 6-8 weeks with an elbow injury.

Division champions

Atlantic: Celtics – The Celtics, 76ers and Raptors, the three best teams in the East, are in the Atlantic Division. Boston is the most talented team and should take home the division crown, but it’ll be close.

Central: Bucks – Antetokounmpo will be the most fun player to watch in the conference on a nightly basis. Along with a strong supporting cast, he’ll lead Milwaukee to the top spot in the division.

Southeast: Wizards – John Wall and Bradley Beal still combine to form one of the best backcourts in the conference. The Heat should also be competing for this spot throughout the season.

Playoff picks

  1. Celtics
  2. Raptors
  3. 76ers
  4. Bucks
  5. Pacers
  6. Wizards
  7. Heat
  8. Cavaliers

Conference champion

Celtics – The Celtics were without forward Gordon Hayward for all but one game last season and star point guard Kyrie Irving went down with an injury in mid-March. But Boston still finished 2017-18 with a 55-27 record and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where it fell to the Cavaliers in seven games.

Both players will be healthy to start the season. Their return will allow the Celtics to mix and match off the bench as young forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as well as guard Terry Rozier received valuable playoff minutes in their absence.

On paper, Boston heads into the season as the deepest and most talented team in the East.