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The Suddenly Loaded Eastern Conference

The Western Conference has reigned supreme in recent years but Eastern Conference teams have loaded up over the last two offseasons. Chad Smith takes a look at the influx of talent in the East, and why they could be the premier conference next year.

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For the past several years, the Western Conference has widely been considered the deeper, more talented conference. Don’t look now, but the teams in the East have caught up and passed them as the premier conference in the league. Considering the elite-level talent (superstars) and the rising young stars, the argument could easily be made that the East is deeper and more competitive from top to bottom.

There are several teams in the West that have either regressed or have begun to rebuild. The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the midst of an epic rebuild. The Houston Rockets have begun their long road back towards contention. The Minnesota Timberwolves are utterly confusing and the Sacramento Kings remain a mystery forever. The New Orleans Pelicans are also a team that appears to be flapping in the breeze.

That is not to say that these teams have no hope or sense of direction. The Thunder and Rockets have incredibly talented young guards in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Green. Minnesota has Anthony Edwards and a decent core with Karl-Anthony Towns. The Kings have a tremendous young trio of guards in De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell. The Pelicans obviously have a phenom in Zion Williamson. The stars are there, these organizations are just trying to surround them with talent.

That makes five teams near the bottom of the West, with likely regression expected for the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, if and when they decide whether or not to trade Damian Lillard. Can Dallas improve from last season, will Denver struggle without Jamal Murray and can the Clippers survive without Kawhi Leonard? How many teams in the West have substantially improved this summer?

Shifting the focus back to the East, you can start with the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks. The three-headed monster of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday remain intact for the foreseeable future. The Brooklyn Nets will likely be the favorites to come out of the East next season if their trio of stars can remain healthy. Brooklyn has talent all around Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving so there should be no excuses.

After losing to Milwaukee in the conference finals, you can expect the Atlanta Hawks to be a contender next season. With Trae Young and John Collins inked to new deals, the rest of their talented squad will play their roles to near perfection. Another team on the rise is the New York Knicks, who have added Kemba Walker as their new starting point guard. Retaining the services of their own free agents like Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel was key, but they also added Evan Fournier.

The Philadelphia 76ers earned the top seed in the East last season, behind an MVP-caliber season from Joel Embiid. Worries that injuries may impede their pursuit of a championship, it was actually the poor play of Ben Simmons that was ultimately their downfall in the postseason. Trade rumors have circulated for months but nothing has materialized, in part due to Philly’s incredibly high demands. That being said, it appears that Simmons is ready for a change of scenery.

Regardless of how that situation plays out, the 76ers will still be a contending team. They brought back Furkan Korkmaz and signed Andre Drummond, both of which are team-friendly deals. The Indiana Pacers should have a nice bounce-back season with their top players returning to health and Rick Carlisle returning to the bench for the Blue and Gold. Their defense should improve as well, adding Chris Duarte in the draft lottery and signing Torrey Craig in free agency.

Most teams have only recently begun to reshape their rosters but the Boston Celtics had somewhat of a head start. Ime Udoka replaces Brad Stevens as head coach and a pair of big men are returning after some time away. Al Horford came back in the Walker trade and they recently added Enes Kanter. Boston also netted Josh Richardson and Kris Dunn in separate deals. Stevens is revamping this roster, but as long as Jalen Brown and Jayson Tatum are there, they should be fine.

Two teams in the East can lay claim to winning the offseason this year. The Chicago Bulls brought in Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso via free agency and have a great nucleus when you add Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. The Bulls also have some nice young talent in Patrick Williams and rookie Ayo Dosunmu. Lauri Markkanen is still on the roster but might soon be on his way out.

The other team vying for the offseason title is the Miami HEAT. Pat Riley has done another masterful job of putting together a roster that is oozing with talent and defense. In addition to the major addition of Kyle Lowry, Miami was able to add two more champions in PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris. Those three will provide valuable experience to the young core of Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Riley also secured the futures of Butler (max contract extension) and Robinson (five-year extension) during free agency, while also retaining the rehabbing Victor Oladipo.

One very interesting team to watch next season is the Washington Wizards. After dealing Russell Westbrook to Los Angeles, they received a nice crop of talent in return. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gives them more shooting and perimeter defense. Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell now have the opportunity to grow their individual games and the under-the-radar trade to acquire Aaron Holiday from Indiana could pay dividends. They also selected Corey Kispert with the 15th pick in the draft. Adding Spencer Dinwiddie next to Bradley Beal gives Washington a great tandem in the backcourt.

The concern is what happens with their frontcourt. Both Kuzma and Harrell will want their share of minutes, and Thomas Bryant displayed serious flashes of potential before his injury. They also have talented young forwards in Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans and Deni Avdija. There are a lot of moving pieces as this roster seems very fluid, but they are much deeper and more talented than last year. The future looks bright in DC.

Perhaps no team will be more entertaining to watch next season than the Charlotte Hornets. There is talent at every position, beginning with point guard LaMelo Ball and forward Gordon Hayward. Terry Rozier, PJ Washington and Miles Bridges are exciting young players that seem to have established great chemistry together on the floor. The Hornets got two more superbly talented players in the draft with James Bouknight and Kai Jones. The arrival of Kelly Oubre Jr only adds to their incredible depth.

Yes, the Toronto Raptors lost the face of their franchise but there are brighter days ahead for the 2019 champions. For starters, the team is hoping that they can return home to play their games in their own arena after an exhausting season in Tampa Bay. They are bringing back Gary Trent Jr and landed Scottie Barnes with the fourth pick in the draft. While they may not be championship contenders, they still have plenty of talent between Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Masai Ujiri is sticking around too after just being named the vice chairman and team president.

The three teams that recently finished at the bottom of the conference standings all have a reason to smile heading into next season. The Detroit Pistons have Cade Cunningham as the cornerstone of their franchise. The Cleveland Cavaliers have Evan Mobley and the Orlando Magic got a steal with the fifth pick in Jalen Suggs.

Detroit is oozing with talent around Cunningham with Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes. Cleveland has young star players in Jarrett Allen, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro, as well as established veterans in Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr and Ricky Rubio. Even Orlando has a nice young crop of talent behind Suggs, Franz Wagner, Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Wendell Carter Jr, Mo Bamba and Cole Anthony.

Looking over all 15 teams it is difficult to pick out a team that is on a downward trajectory. The rise to the top may be slower and bumpier for some, but it is already hard to decipher which teams will make the postseason. The West may no longer be best but the injection of youth and talent across the entire league has been tremendous.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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