With Wizards training camp set to begin next week, we at NBC Sports Washington are counting down the five biggest storylines for the team as they start a new season. Today, at No. 3, a look at the remodeled Eastern Conference and where the Wizards fit…
The transformation of the NBA's Eastern Conference this summer was not unlike the end and beginning of a new era in presidential politics. LeBron James, who reigned over the conference for nearly a decade, is gone. His eight-year term of Finals appearances out of the East is complete. Now a wide range of candidates are lining up to be the next power-players and it's a crowded field.
Seizing the empty throne
James' departure has had a massive effect on teams in the East, whether they ran into his Cavs or Heat in the playoffs repeatedly over the years or were affected by his presence indirectly. James going West paves the way for a new East representative in the NBA Finals and that allows everyone to dream a little bigger.
Though the Wizards never faced James in the playoffs during his streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances, Washington players themselves have remarked about the opportunity created in wake of James leaving. They, along with the Celtics, Sixers, Raptors and other perennial playoff teams in the East, are gunning to pick up where James and Cleveland left off.
That arms race included significant changes for the Wizards this summer. They shook up their starting lineup by trading Marcin Gortat and signing Dwight Howard to a two-year contract. They brought in veterans like Austin Rivers and Jeff Green to shore up depth on their bench. They also kept their draft picks for the first time since 2015, using the first round selection to take Troy Brown, Jr. of Oregon.
Though questions remain about how it will all be put together, the Wizards appear to have improved themselves year-over-year. As long as John Wall is healthier than he was last season when he missed 41 games, it's logical to expect them to be back in the mix as contenders in the East. Exactly how high they are capable of going, however, is a big question entering this season.
That's because despite James leaving, the East has grown deeper at the top in recent years. The Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals in two straight seasons and last year finished one win away from the NBA Finals. They did that without Gordon Hayward, who was lost for the season on opening night, and Kyrie Irving, who missed the playoffs due to injury.
The Celtics were good enough to win 55 games last season and without their two of their best and most accomplished players. If they are healthy and guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to develop, the Celtics deserve their status as favorites in the East.
The Raptors disappointed in the playoffs this past spring by getting swept by James and the Cavs in the second round. But they still won 59 games during the regular season and should be able to maintain their success with Kawhi Leonard now in DeMar DeRozan's place.
Toronto will ultimately be judged by what they do in the playoffs and they have plenty to prove, but no one should underestimate their ability to take care of business during the regular season. The Raptors have won at least 48 games in each of the past five years and 50 or more in the last three.
The Sixers had by any measure a dreadful offseason, first with the firing of their general manager and then with a fruitless free agent period, followed by an injury to first round pick Zhaire Smith. But Philadelphia didn't really have to add much to their roster to remain in the East's elite.
The Sixers already won 52 games last season and boast two of the best young players in the NBA in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. If they, along with Markelle Fultz, can stay healthy and continue developing, the Sixers will only rise from here.
Most would probably put the Wizards in that next tier, after the trio of Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia at the top, in terms of expected playoff seeding. But they should enter the season hopeful they can supplant one of those teams because they have the talent to do so.
By any means
One problem is that history shows the Wizards have struggled to make that leap. To get there, they would probably have to win 50 games or more and they haven't done that since the 1978-79 season. They also haven't been higher than a four-seed in the playoffs since that year.
The Wizards have been the No. 4 seed as recently as 2016-17, and that comes with the nice bonus of home court advantage in the first round. But to go higher than four, they will need to demonstrate a level of consistency not seen for their franchise in almost 40 years.
Before the Wizards set their sights on the top teams in the East, they will need to separate themselves from the others who are in a similar position. Just like the Wizards, teams like the Pacers, the Bucks and Heat have dreams of a breakout year.
The Wizards definitely have the roster talent to finish ahead of that pack. Washington has two All-Stars, something those teams can't boast. But all three of those teams had better records than the Wizards did last season and Indiana and Milwaukee have All-NBA players. Giannis Antetokounmpo, in particular, is good enough to change the landscape in the East on his own, if he makes the MVP leap many have been waiting for.
In order for the Wizards to emerge from the middle of the conference and become Finals contenders, health will of course be key. They will also need to get re-establish a homecourt advantage and find a way to capitalize against lesser teams. Last season, the Wizards had the fewest home wins and victories against below-.500 opponents of any playoff team.
With James out of the picture, the Eastern Conference appears more open than it has been in years. The Wizards eye an opportunity for themselves, but they aren't alone.
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