This year’s NBA Playoffs will feel a whole lot different than they have in recent memory when they tip off Saturday.
For starters, the Golden State Warriors won’t be facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals. That’s because LeBron James bolted from Ohio to join the Los Angeles Lakers, who, like Cleveland, also missed the postseason. The result makes this the first time since 2005 that King James won’t be in the postseason — also snapping an eight-year run of LeBron reaching the championship round.
The Warriors, the West’s top seed, remain the favorites to win their fourth title in five years. However, a crowded field including the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz cannot be overlooked after a lackluster 57-25 regular season by Golden State’s lofty standards.
With James out of the East (and overall postseason) picture, a coveted conference championship is in the cards. Since the NBA playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984 (and excluding shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12), 97 percent of conference champions won at least 50 games. With that in mind, here’s a look at the three teams most likely to emerge as East champs.
With LeBron in Hollywood, Giannis Antetokounmpo ascended to the throne as the King of the East with an MVP-caliber season. Joined by fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, standout point guard Eric Bledsoe and floor-stretching big men Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic, Milwaukee (60-22) are the favorites to claim the East crown and reach the finals for the first time in 45 years. Still, these Bucks lack what the other teams below have on their resume: a recent playoff series victory.
Canada’s team has won 44 more games than any other team in the conference over the last six seasons, with only a lone conference final appearance to show for all those victories. LeBron and the Cavs sent them packing in each of the past three seasons, something All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry won’t need to worry about this year. With former finals MVP Leonard as the new centerpiece, this could be the year Toronto (58-24) breaks through for its first East title.
"The Process" is complete after the Sixers (51-31) went all-in with midseason trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, both of whom could score max contracts in July. With these talented forwards joining young All-Star Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, no team in the East has as many top-flight players. If they can overcome a lack of depth — doable, as benches shorten in the playoffs — they can make up for all those years of tanking for top draft picks and return to the finals for the first time in 18 years.