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5 vs. 5: Evaluating the Eastern Conference

This week’s roundtable runs through what could be an awful conference.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In which five Fear the Sword writers answer five questions about the Eastern Conference.

1. What East team are you really excited to watch this year?

Chris Manning (@cwmwrites): The Milwaukee Bucks. Aside from the brilliance of Giannis, Jabari Parker’s return from a second ACL tear is one of the the most important stories in the league for next season. Add in Thon Maker’s development and solid players in Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon and you have a team I can’t wait to watch a bunch.

Alex Raulli (@EVR1022): The Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most exciting young player in the East. Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker are all promising young players. No team (outside the Cavs) has a higher ceiling than the Bucks.

Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav): The Philadelphia 76ers. After trusting the process for years, the 76ers have Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. If they can all stay healthy this year, they’ll definitely be a fun team to watch. They’ve also added veterans on short deals, like J.J. Redick, so it seems like Philadelphia is starting to put it all together.

Zack Geoghegan (@ZackGeoghegan): The Miami Heat. They finished last season on one of the craziest runs the NBA has ever seen. I’m excited to see if that’s something they could maintain for an entire year. Obviously they won’t win 60 games or some nonsense like that, but I think they can push for the top half of the East. If Dion is Dion for an entire season though, they may win 83.

Michael Drapcho (@M_Drapcho21): Believe it or not, it is actually the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are obviously the Cavaliers’ biggest threat in the East this year, and on top of that, the storyline of Kyrie Irving now acting as the sole leader of a contending squad is really intriguing. In addition to the Irving trade, the Celtics made several other moves in the offseason, including adding Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris.

2. Who is the worst team in the East?

CM: It might be the Nets or the Hawks, but I’ll go with the Pacers. Myles Turner is awesome, but they are badly coached, lacking any other really good talent and don’t have any way to improve other than Turner going bananas.

AR: The Atlanta Hawks. Their roster is terrible. They have exactly two offensive shot creators on the roster: Dennis Schroder and Malcolm Delaney. The former is a below average starter, and the latter is simply terrible. Their offense will rival recent Philadelphia teams for the worst in the past decade.

AA: The Brooklyn Nets. I say that selfishly, so that the Brooklyn first-round pick that the Cavaliers own lands in the top three. But honestly, the Nets have a lot of bad contracts from Timofey Mozgov to Allen Crabbe to DeMarre Carroll and I don’t know how they put all of that together. The Hawks are a close second, but Nets will be a dumpster fire.

ZG: I hope more than anything that the correct answer is the Brooklyn Nets, but no team in either conference will be worse than the Atlanta Hawks. To put it plainly, the Hawks have no above-average talent. Dennis Schroder is their lone bright spot for the upcoming season and that isn’t a good situation for an NBA team to be in.

MD: My heart wants it so badly to be the Brooklyn Nets, and my head says that they have a realistic shot of being at the bottom of the East. With that being said, the Hawks have a fantastic shot at finishing last in the East. The team lost a ton of its production with the departures of Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway Jr.

3. Name the East team you think will make the biggest jump in the standings this year.

CM: The 76ers are the obvious choice because of their youth and how good Joel Embiid already is when he’s on the court. But my other choice is the Charlotte Hornets because they’ll be solid and decent when the rest of the conference is largely awful. For them, moving up from No. 11 seems more than reasonable.

AR: The Philadelphia 76ers. I’m not sure they’ll make the playoffs, but with so many teams already in the tank it’s nearly a given they’ll move up four or five slots, with potential for more if Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons have good rookie years (or if Joel Embiid manages to play 70+ games).

AA: The Philadelphia 76ers. They won 28 games last year and finished second to last in the Eastern Conference. If all of their core four guys can stay healthy for a majority of the season, they should be able to win 35-40 games easily.

ZG: The Philadelphia 76ers. Their success for this season depends almost entirely on health. They clearly have more than enough talented players under the age of 25, but the potential for disaster is alive. If Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can both play over 60 games this season, the Sixers will be an incredibly dangerous team each and every night.

MD: The Philadelphia 76ers. This largely--almost entirely--on the health of their talented trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. There is a lot of talent in that group, but there are also plenty of question marks. Of course, there is Embiid’s lengthy injury history, and Simmons and Fultz have not even played in an NBA game yet. Even with the trio’s inexperience, its talent is enough to account for a big jump in the win total.

4. How many teams in the East would make the playoffs in the West?

CM: At least two: The Cavs and the Celtics. I think the Raptors, Wizards and Bucks all would have a chance, too.

AR: Between two and five. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics would make the cut. The Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors would all be fighting for the last couple spots. No other team is good enough to even be in the race.

AA: I’m going to say four. I think the Cavaliers, Celtics, Wizards and Bucks would all make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Cleveland has LeBron James, Celtics have Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Wizards have John Wall and Bradley Beal and the Bucks have the Greek Freak and pieces around him. Teams with two stars and a solid supporting cast should be making the playoffs in the West, hence I have these four. Sorry, Toronto, I don’t think you’d make the cut.

ZG: The Cavaliers and Boston Celtics are both the guarantees. Other than that there wouldn’t be much hope. I’d say the Washington Wizards could scrape their way to 50 wins this coming season but even then that may not be enough to make the playoffs in the West. All I can say is I’m glad the Cavs are in the East.

MD: Outside of the Cavaliers and the Celtics, there are not many Eastern Conference teams I feel confident would make the postseason in the West. With John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards have enough firepower to compete in the much deeper West. The Raptors and Bucks would probably scrap for the bottom spots, but end up falling short, so I’ll say three: the Cavaliers, Celtics and Wizards.

5. Where will the Cavs finish in the East? And does it matter?

CM: I’ll say first. LeBron James seems motivated, they are deeper this year and should be really, really good this year across the board. I also expect some struggles from Boston because their roster has been largely overhauled from last year’s overachieving team. But it doesn’t really matter provided they have a top three or four seed.

AR: They will finish first. Losing Kyrie Irving will hurt some, but it will hurt a lot more in the playoffs. In the regular season having a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love will matter more than Kyrie Irving’s absence (see 2015-16), and Isaiah Thomas will provide a reasonable facsimile of Kyrie’s production during the second half of the season. The additions of Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder and Cedi Osman will help eliminate some of the effort problems the Cavs experienced on the defensive end in 2016-17. Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye won’t be No. 6 and No. 7 in total minutes played.

AA: I think Cleveland will finish wherever LeBron James wants them. It doesn’t matter for Cleveland. They’ve made the NBA Finals from the No. 1 seed or the No. 2 seed. They can win on the road in the playoffs or at home. If James is motivated enough about losing Kyrie Irving, he can will them to a No. 1 seed without Isaiah Thomas for a majority of the season. But if he’s worried about another run to the championship, he can cruise control to a top three spot in the East and still make the Finals.

ZG: They’ll finish in the top two, most likely with Boston. But as we saw last season, having home court advantage is not necessary for the Cavs and that will be more apparent this season. The East is even weaker now than last year when the Cavs rolled through everyone in the playoffs. Things shouldn’t much different this season.

MD: The Cavs will come in second in the East. They are certainly talented enough to finish first, but LeBron James and company will more than likely look to conserve their energy for the playoffs as they did last season. The questions about Isaiah Thomas’ return from his hip injury and the depth (or lack thereof) behind him do worry me, but the rest of the East is bad enough that the Cavs’ point guard situation should not keep them out of the conference’s top two.