NBA Season Preview: The Eastern Conference is So Much More Interesting

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NBA season tips off tomorrow, and … wait. *checks calendar* TOMORROW?!

Yes, despite my foolproof suggestions for restructuring the NBA season, apparently no one paid attention.

The regular season was becoming too much of a grind on players, which led to stars taking games off and upsetting ticket-buying fans (and, presumably, TV rights holders). Thus, we get basketball as the football seasons are beginning to take shape and Major League Baseball pushes to its climax.

Heaven forbid the Playoffs not drag for two months to reach the inevitable conclusion of some Western Conference powerhouse playing (and likely beating) whichever team employs the greatest player of all-time, LeBron James.

Oh. Right. LeBron’s a Laker. I hadn’t heard anything about that, especially being located in Southern California.

LeBron coming to Los Angeles to begin his post-NBA film-production career guide a talented but very young Lakers organization into an important transition is intriguing, but not the most interesting storyline of the NBA season.

Having the best player on the planet should challenge the corps of promising youngsters to progress more quickly than they would have otherwise. Brandon Ingram has breakout season written all over him, feeding off James’ presence as both a teammate to feed and benefiting from the inevitable double-teams.

The Lakers should be fun to watch … and will ultimately have zero bearing on the pursuit of the NBA Finals. Not in the Western Conference, anyway.

Golden State’s stranglehold on the West should continue, likely without a legitimate threat on par with Houston a season ago. The Rockets add Carmelo Anthony to reunite with Mike D’Antoni after a tumultuous relationship in New York.

Houston seems poised for regression after the perplexing roster moves. The Lakers are probably a year away from serious contention. San Antonio — without one of either David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili for the first time in 30 years — will be better than a season ago with the addition of DeMar DeRozan, but not as good as the 2016-17 team that kinda-sorta competed with the Warriors. The Jazz are entertaining but have a low ceiling.

New Orleans may be a surprise No. 2 in the West. Jrue Holiday matured into a bona fide All-Star a season ago, and Anthony Davis ranks among the very best in the league. Julius Randle was fantastic last season for the Lakers, and pairing him in the front court with Davis should elevate Randle to another level.

And all that said, the Pelicans aren’t competing with the Warriors. Not when an already loaded Golden State has DeMarcus Cousins on deck for the late-season stretch.

Tuesday begins an 82-game, two-month Playoffs march to another Golden State Finals appearance, and almost assuredly a fourth championship in five seasons.

The opponent waiting Golden State in the Finals is where the real intrigue of LeBron landing in L.A. resides.

While Golden State should continue one inevitability of the Playoffs, a LeBron-less East means some fresh blood in the NBA Finals. And heading into the NBA season, the Eastern Conference looks like it could be a fun competition between four teams with equally realistic chances to advance.

Boston’s the preseason favorite, returning two All-Stars to a roster that came within a game of ending LeBron’s reign. However, Kyrie Irving coming into the campaign healthy doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Dating back to his lone season at Duke, injuries have plagued Irving’s career. Precedent suggests it’s more likely Irving misses a significant stretch than doesn’t.

All that’s to say while Boston may have the inside track, the Celtics aren’t a slam dunk to win the East. Their dominance of Philadelphia in last year’s conference semifinals sets an interesting tone for the young 76ers in this NBA season.

The Sixers using that embarrassment to progress makes them Finals contenders. Plateau or regress, and I give it a season-and-a-half before Joel Embiid’s social media tomfoolery starts to age as well as Dwight Howard’s impersonations.

Philadelphia’s young and talented, and the center of attention among NBA media. Indiana boasts as much exciting, young talent with a fraction of the buzz. I suspect this season, it becomes impossible to ignore the Pacers.

Indiana may have had the best offseason, adding veteran guard Tyreke Evans. I raved about Evans’ potential with a championship contender last season, and the Pacers are such a fit. With the addition of another scorer, I expect Victor Oladipo to be a Most Valuable Player contender.

That leaves Toronto. The Raptors became the most LeBron-burdened of the Eastern Conference teams, bottoming out last season in a brutal series with the Cavs after earning the East’s No. 1 seed.

The loss of fan favorite DeRozan stings, but the addition of one of the NBA’s top 10 players, Kawhi Leonard, could turn into an upgrade.

Toronto features a cast of high-potential, young players who could provide the catalyst for the Raptors to finally advanced past the conference semifinals — and potentially, to the Finals. O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are two players I’m eyeing for breakout campaigns.

College football season hits its decisive stretch in the coming weeks, college basketball tips off in a month, and thus, my NBA consumption will be impeded until Christmas. But as far as regular-season viewing goes, the Eastern Conference offers enough intrigue to make the absurdly early tipoff palatable.

PREDICTIONS

PLAYOFFS

EAST

• Boston
• Toronto
• Indiana
• Philadelphia
• Washington
• Milwaukee
• Miami
• New York

WEST

• Golden State
• New Orleans
• Houston
• Utah
• Los Angeles Lakers
• Portland
• San Antonio
• Oklahoma City

FINALS

East: Toronto over Boston

West: Golden State over New Orleans

Finals: Golden State over Toronto in 5

MVP: Anthony Davis, New Orleans

Most Improved: Brandon Ingram, L.A. Lakers

Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic, Dallas