Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers. In no particular order, those are the so-far undisputed top three teams in the East. Conversely, we have teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, and Orlando Magic closer to the bottom of the table.
Today, I'm going to rank the teams in the Eastern Conference from 15 to 1, based on their overall roster talent and chances at making the NBA finals.
15. Brooklyn Nets
When the best players on your roster are DeMarre Carroll and D'Angelo Russell, you know you're in trouble. That's the position the Brooklyn Nets are in right now, with only unpolished and mostly unproven talent outside of those two guys. Jarrett Allen and Caris Levert, both former first-round picks, and Spencer Dinwiddie at point guard admittedly have a lot of potential, and have shown flashes of good play in their young NBA careers, Allen in particular. (8.2 points, 1.2 blocks per game.) Unfortunately, I can't see these young guys lifting the Nets out of the basement.
14. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic are in a similar bind to that of the Nets, in that they don't have anyone who can make plays, outside of one or two decent players, in this case, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, alongside some under-developed young guys in Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. The only difference between the Nets and the Magic, is that the Magic have a fringe-All-Star in Aaron Gordon. If Gordon can both stay healthy and play at or above the level he did last season, and if Isaac and Bamba can use their raw talent and physical gifts, (Bamba has the longest-recorded wingspan in NBA history at 7'10") the Magic could easily rise in these rankings.
13. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks picked up Vince Carter in the offseason, signing the former Raptors star to a one-year deal. They also acquired Jeremy Lin, who, if he stays healthy could be a quality starting point guard, certainly over Trae Young at this point. However, since Vince is currently 41 years old, and Linsanity is, sadly, a thing of the past, (yet both can still do a lot of good things on the court) they aren't quite at the level Atlanta would need them to be at for anything more than a tanking season. Just like all the other teams in the lower part of this list, the Hawks have some young, homegrown talent in Taurean Prince, Trae Young, and John Collins, good enough to warrant playing time, yet not nearly good enough to get them any higher than the lowest two or three teams in the Eastern Conference, and, probably, the league.
12. Chicago Bulls
After using their first picks in the 2017 and 2018 drafts on Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter respectively, the Bulls' prospects are looking upwards this year. Although they ended the season finishing in the bottom three teams in the East, Markkanen had one of the more impressive rookie seasons, averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and Carter snapped for the Bulls' Summer League team. Plus, with the signing of Jabari Parker and the re-signing of Zach Lavine, they found capable starters at the 2 and 3 spots. Putting Markkanen and Carter at the 4 and 5 respectively, with the greatly improved Kris Dunn (13.4 points, 6.0 dimes, and 2.0 steals per game, compared to 3.8, 2.4, and 1.0 the year before) at the point guard position, the Bulls have an exciting young core, but a weaker bench. So, while I expect an improvement over last season, I'm going to have to see it to truly believe it.
11. Miami Heat
With the Heat's best players being Dion Waiters, (coming off an injury) Hassan Whiteside, (not happy with his situation) and Goran Dragic, (just not that great) I can't, in good conscience, rank them any higher than 11 on this list. If Miami trades Whiteside (which will likely happen at some point before the deadline) and get good value in return, they could rise a couple of spots on this list. Realistically speaking however, regardless of whether D-Wade re-signs for a year, or if Justise Winslow finally breaks out, or if Dion Waiters comes back from his injury in 2016-'17 form, the Heat will not make the playoffs.
10. Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets finished the 2017-'18 season right here at 10, and come the end of the 2018-'19 regular season they'll be right back here at 10. The Hornets had one of the worst off-seasons in the NBA this summer, so not only will they not go any higher than 10 on this list, I could see them finishing the season as low as 12 or 13. Just to review the moves made by the Hornets this summer, they picked up 36 year-old Tony Parker, fired Head Coach Steve Clifford and replaced him with the Spurs' third highest-ranked assistant in James Borrego, and signed the irrelevant-since-he-left-the-Raptors, Bismack Biyombo. Although they had a decent draft, acquiring Devonte' Graham and Miles Bridges, I can't see the two first-year players being enough support to All-Star point guard, Kemba Walker, to lift them any higher than they were last year.
9. Detroit Pistons
For some inexplicable reason, the majority of people I've spoken to about the Pistons seem to think they're going to be a top-five team in the East this season, just below that top tier of teams, competing for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. Dropping Stan Van Gundy and hiring former Raptors Head Coach, Dwane Casey, was a big move for them. They were getting nowhere with Stan Van Gundy, despite All-Star talent in the frontcourt with Blake Griffin and two-time NBA rebound-leader Andre Drummond. Unfortunately for Casey, due to a mixture of bad team chemistry and complete lack of talent at the 1-3 spots, I don't see them getting any higher in the conference rankings than they did last year, which leaves them at 9.
8. New York Knicks
If Kristaps Porzingis hadn't torn his ACL in February last season, the Knicks 2017-'18 season would have been a completely different story. Honestly, I would not have been surprised if the Knicks had slipped in to the playoffs last year. Sadly, he did tear it, and he's out at least until after Christmas. Crediting the Knicks front office though, they did add two future stars during the draft, in the form of former Kentucky standout Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, (who did not attend university and instead opted to train for a year in preparation for the draft) are deep at the 1 spot, with Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and Ron Baker, have solid wing guys, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Frank Ntilikina, and with the apparent resurgence of Joakim Noah over the offseason, they've got a good few guys in the post. (Enes Kanter, Noah, and Luke Kornet)
This aforementioned core of guys should be able to keep the Knicks just below .500 before KP returns and inevitably raises the level of the whole team, slowly but surely buoying them to the playoffs as an 8-seed. Lucky for the Knicks, they play in the Eastern Conference, where .500 teams can make the playoffs.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers
There isn't a whole lot to say about the Cavs so far, other than the obvious: they're without the best player in the NBA, someone who had to drag them to the NBA Finals last season. I'm talking about losing the King, LeBron James. There are actually a large amount of fans who don't expect the Cavs to even make the playoffs this year, but like I said about the Knicks, it's the Eastern Conference, where mediocre teams can slip in to the playoffs. Also, those people who aren't expecting much of this year's Cavaliers team must have forgotten about Kevin Love's time with the Minnesota Timberwolves, where, in his final season with the team, he averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 boards per game. This season, being forced to step out of LeBron's shadow, expect him to perform similarly well.
6. Washington Wizards
Expect a slight improvement from the Wizards this year, after finishing eighth in the Conference last season. While retaining their big three, including All-Star backcourt, John Wall and Bradley Beal, and small forward Otto Porter, the Wizards were also able to pick up a couple of big names, in Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers. So, assuming none of their key players get injured, I can see the Wizards making the playoffs as a 6-seed.
5. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have a few things going for them that make fifth in the East pretty much their basement. Those things are: the emergence of reigning NBA Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo, the physical transformation of starting center Myles Turner, (he looks like he's lost about 20-30 lbs) and the play-making abilities of Croation SG/SF Bojan Bogdanovic. However, outside of those three guys and veteran big man Thaddeus Young, there isn't really anyone else on the Pacers roster who can make plays for the team. Oladipo, Turner, Bogdanovic, and Young all lift the team's level to one better than everyone below them on this list, but if they want to make any sort of significant improvement over last season, where they made a first-round playoff exit against the Cavs, they're going to need contributions from some of the young guys. If second-year power forward T.J. Leaf and/or rookie guard Aaron Holiday can pitch in, we could quite possibly see the Pacers rise through the Eastern Conference rankings.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Honestly, 4 feels a little bit low for the Bucks, not because of their overall talent in any regard, but because it's difficult, nearly impossible, to count out someone as dangerous and exciting a player as Giannis Antetokounmpo, the "Greek Freak". Standing at 6'11" with a wingspan at least three inches longer than his height, and after being constantly in the gym these past five seasons, he's being weighed in at 222 lbs, which can't be accurate, seeing as he's been looking huge lately. Add his absolutely monster-like ability to the steady presences of Malcom Brogdon and Khris Middleton on the wings, the solid play of Eric Bledsoe and newly-acquired Brook Lopez at point guard and center respectively, and the raw talent and physical gifts of Thon Maker off the bench, ( he's 7'1" with a 7'4" wingspan) and you've got a really, really good team. Unfortunately for the Bucks though, they've got three teams above them that are just a little bit better.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers might just be the most exciting team to watch in the Eastern Conference. With a unique mix of young talent and veteran leadership, the Sixers have probably the most room to grow out of all the teams listed thus far, which is particularly frightening, considering how good they already are. 2016 number 1 overall pick and reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons is a 6'10", 230 lb., point guard and a triple-double threat on a nightly basis, (that's without a three-point shot) Joel Embiid is a complete monster on both sides of the ball, averaging 22.9 points, 1.8 blocks, and 11.0 boards per game, (side note: he is also my favpurite player to follow on social media, as he says whatever he wants and doesn't care about the repercussions) and, filling out the Sixers' Big Three, second-year guard Markelle Fultz had a quietly impressive back end of his first season, after sitting out the first few months with a shoulder injury. Finally, if the 76ers first-round draft picks weren't all cursed, which I truly believe them to be, (Joel Embiid sat out his first three season with various injuries, Ben Simmons sat out his first season with a foot injury, and Markelle Fultz missed the majority of his first season with the aforementioned shoulder injury) they would get to watch their first pick in the 2018 draft, Zhaire Smith, take the court alongside the rest of their homegrown stars, who, if they can stay healthy throughout the season, could make it past the Raptors or the Celtics to the conference finals.
2. Toronto Raptors
I'm not going to lie to you. This hurts. As a Raptors fan, as a Canadian, as an optimist, this hurts. As an aspiring journalist however, I couldn't rank the Raptors at the top of the Eastern Conference. I would be lying to anyone who reads this and to myself if I were to spot the Raptors number 1. So, despite the physical pain this causes me, I'm just going to say it. The Raptors are not the best team in the East right now. They did, however, add Kawhi Leonard, an NBA Finals MVP and 2-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, a new Head Coach, and even veteran sharpshooter Danny Green, over the offseason. All of these guys, plus All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, perpetually-solid big man duo Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, and easily the most exciting bench in the league. This second unit, nicknamed the Raptors' "Bench Mob", is made up of mostly young guys, like electric power forward Pascal Siakam, super-sized point guard Delon Wright, 2017-'18 Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Fred Vanvleet, former playoff-hero Norman Powell, and last season's G-League MVP, Lorenzo Brown. The beauty of these guys is not just their electric, fun, exciting-to-watch play, but also their easy chemistry with one another, something that makes them one of the best benches in the league, which leads to incredible basketball. If Kawhi Leonard plays as he was playing for the Spurs in the 2016-'17 season, the Raptors could easily see the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
1. Boston Celtics
The Celtics were the best team in the Eastern Conference last season. As much as it physically pains me to say this, the Celtics had the superior roster and superior coach. On that note, I want you to imagine a season in which Kyrie Irving hadn't been lost for the season and if Gordon Hayward hadn't suffered one of the top-ten grossest sports injuries on my own personal all-time list. Add those two guys to an older, stronger, Jayson Tatum who also worked out with Kobe Bryant in the offseason, a steadily improving Jaylen Brown, a probably stagnant, yet still All-Star level center in Al Horford, and a more confident Terry Rozier. That's what this year's Celtics team will look like, barring any injuries. That's more than a little bit scary for any Eastern Conference competitors, and for good reason. The C's were able to push LeBron James and Kevin Love to a 7-game series without Hayward and Irving. Tatum and Brown were phenomenal at the 3 and the 4, and Horford was, as always, a solid presence down low. Finally, Terry Rozier was able to break out in Kyrie's absence. All of this can mean only one thing: look out, Eastern Conference.
*all stats courtesy of Wikipedia