For the past several years, there has been a consensus that the Western Conference is significantly better than the Eastern Conference. That consensus was only reinforced when the best player in the entire league, LeBron James, moved from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference. But, the rise of new powerhouses in the East are slowly making their talents known to the league, which may change the conversation about who’s the better conference greatly.
The Toronto Raptors are the hottest team in the entire league right now. They currently have a better record than the mighty Golden State Warriors, fueled by a former Western Conference star, Kawhi Leonard. After LeBron fled for LA, Toronto saw an opportunity and jumped at the chance to add one of the top-5 players in the whole league. While they had to ship away star SG DeMar Derozan, who was a great pro, the Raptors are better with Leonard. I could definitely see Kawhi resisting the temptation of somewhere else to stay in Toronto, which will keep the Raps as firm contenders for the next bunch of years. The move has also had side effects. PG Kyle Lowry is playing the best basketball of his entire career since the move. Furthermore, the frontcourt outside of Leonard has been playing extremely well too. Serge Ibaka, like Lowry, is also playing better than he ever has while Jonas Valancuinas provides steady rebounding and defensive grit. And Toronto’s depth also shouldn't be scoffed at. Young studs OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam have taken major steps forward while coming off the bench. CJ Miles, Greg Monroe, and Delon Wright have the veteran experience needed to pull the team forward. This Raptors team doesn’t have many holes, and may be good enough to challenge anybody in the West.
There's another team that also happens to be in a similar situation to Toronto. The Milwaukee Bucks, to the surprise of everybody, have become one of the Eastern Conference’s major players. These Bucks are riding the stellar play of superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been playing like an MVP these first few months and has the talent to become one of the best players of all-time. With LeBron gone to Hollywood, he is making his case for best player in the East. Outside of the Greek Freak, you also have a solid starting lineup consisting of proven NBA talents. While the group lacks a big time star player outside of Giannis, the rest of the starting lineup averages at least 10 PPG. They also have a surprising amount of depth and are hitting more 3-pointers per game (as a team) than the entire league. These Bucks may just be the talk of the league both now and for the next few years being led by a solid group of players.
The skill and talent between the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers is a given, which was put on display last year. The Celtics may very well possess possible the best starting lineup in the league outside of the Golden State Warriors. They have the depth needed to win too, headlined by Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart. While they have seemed to have stumbled out of the gate, it’s not because they lack the talent. The starting lineup is playing together for the first time because of injuries, so expect them to be higher in the standings by seasons end. The Indiana Pacers exploded onto the scene last season after acquiring hometown kid Vic Oladipo who was rejuvenated by playing in the same state he dominated college basketball in. They also have some nice complements in Myles Turner, Tyreke Evans, and Domantas Sabonis who all can play at a high level. And they’re only picking up on their solid play starting this season, sitting at 4th place in the East.
Finally, we have the team that just made a blockbuster deal to acquire a third superstar a couple of days ago. The Philadelphia 76ers were already one of the league’s top teams, but adding SG Jimmy Butler from the T-Wolves puts them over the top. Ben Simmons has garnered significant praise for being able to dominate pretty much all aspects of the game so early in his career. He is Philly’s most important piece and best player moving forward. While Simmons may be the best player, C Joel Embiid is not that far behind him. The big man may have taken awhile to assert himself, but the payoff was worth it. He is one of the best scoring centers in the entire league and is absolutely dominant on the boards. Both have the ability to significantly impact the game and are some of the league’s best rising stars. Adding Butler only makes the starting lineup that much better, as he could help raise the offensive skill, which ranked 21st among all NBA teams. Like other top teams, they also boast significant depth that complements their starting lineup better than most teams. Now that Simmons and Embiid have that other superstar, it may be time for Philadelphia to take off.
As you can see, the East has so much talent that is only going to get better as the years go on. While it seems unlikely anybody beats the Golden State Warriors for the NBA title this season, there definitely seems to be a "changing of the guard" between the two conferences. The difference in skill between the two conferences may be a lot closer than we thought. Welcome to the new Eastern Conference.