For the first time in fifteen years, the Eastern Conference will have an opening night without LeBron James as a member. No Cleveland Cavaliers chalk toss. No Miami Heat grin and shrug. No also-rans East contenders to constantly look over their shoulder to see what LBJ is doing and, frankly, to not be scared of him.
LeBron James scared opponents like Shaquille O’Neal scared opponents. In the Eastern conference, there is a communal sigh of relief from the northeast to the Midwest to South Beach. Without LeBron, it really is a fair fight.
When you look at the top 10 players of the 2018-19 season per ESPN, only Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokunmpo and Kawhi Leonard are in the East. The stars are in the West, leaving the East with a bunch of holes, a few stars and a lot of dreaded parity.
Three teams are destined for the postseason: Celtics, Raptors, Sixers. The rest are going to slug it out and on some nights it will be ugly. When they go out west there will be losses after losses piled up like dirty laundry.
Sports- this is what we love about it- is dramatic. In all of its passion and overreactions it is about fearing and hating and conflating and demeaning the exceptional player and team that makes everyone else look ordinary. The Warriors do their part. The East, absent LeBron, is searching.
Kawhi vs. Kyrie
Kawhi Leonard has taken his quiet game and mumbling soundbites to Canada as he auditions. 430 miles away by plane, Kyrie Irving has one more weapon (Gordon Hayward) to utilize for his own benefit as he moves chess pieces around the board. Both Kawhi and Kyrie are expected to be in the Eastern Conference Finals, though the Celtics are the sure fire favorite and the Raptors are expected to go as far as emotionless Kawhi will take them. Unlike the Celtics that are grand canyon deep, the Raptors, once you get past Kawhi and Kyle Lowry, are a bunch of role players that fit into a certain system. The Raptors may dominate or they may explode. No one knows how new coach Nick Nurse is going to handle his rookie year with everything on the line. The Raptors have to prove to Kawhi he belongs and that they need him and that Toronto is worthwhile. Kyrie just has to prove he can stay healthy. Without him, the Celtics can thrive but they cannot get out of the East. Kyrie needs an injury free season. Both he and Kawhi are the best players in the conference and will lead the East in All-Star votes. But will anyone fear the Celtics and Raptors like they feared LeBron?
That would be a no. (Mallory Stith-Wheat)
Who is Markelle Fultz?
Winning 50 games and getting out of the lottery is a beautiful thing but now comes the hard part. The Sixers aren’t sneaking up on anyone. Teams are going to be prepared. The Sixers will get everyone’s best effort and out of necessity and survival are going to have to take their game up another level. Ben Simmons has to meet the moment if the Sixers are going to continue to thrive. A lot of his game is old school polished but until he can make timely jump shots the Sixers are circling the wagon. They lost a lot of their three point threat over the summer and didn’t really replace it but Nick Young is out there. He used to be a Sixer when Larry Brown was ruining things and it didn’t go well but this is the kind of team Young would thrive on. All he wants to do is shoot. The Sixers needs shooters. The X-factor is Markelle Fultz. Although this is his second year, for all intents and purposes, he is a rookie. Like last year, Fultz will be overanalyzed and overcriticized when he has a patented rookie bad game. Whenever the Sixers plays the Celtics and Jayson Tatum is in front of Sixers fans and Markelle is missing jumpers the groans will be egregious but Markelle Fultz has an opportunity to put last year behind him and begin his NBA career. He can’t outrun being the number one pick and the shooting woes and injury but the page is turned. His summer workouts are now bleeding into reality.
Who is Markelle Fultz? The Sixers hope James Harden lite. (Andrew Chang)
Kemba and the Kevin Durant Playbook
Kemba Walker will probably have a lights out dominant season and the Hornets will still miss the playoffs. In this, Walker is not special. It happened to LeBron James and Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Singular talent is coveted but on an average team it is the road to nowhere. All that effort and intensity and practice and willfulness doesn’t translate into much when the team surrounding you isn’t good enough to be a contender. Kemba is a free agent and he is saying all of the free agent things about wanting to stay with the Hornets. I’m not buying his Kevin Durant playbook. Kemba is the most underpaid player in the NBA. On his own team, five players ( Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) make more than Kemba and none of them have been All-Stars. The best player on the Hornets team is Kemba Walker and he is being paid like he is coming off the bench. But money aside, Kemba will ball out this year and will be the closest thing the Hornets have to a superhero. The team will struggle as a 9th or 10th seed and then Kemba will hit the market with Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and perhaps Anthony Davis who may be traded. Kemba has paid his dues and he can choose where he wants to go. Nothing about the Hornets past behavior leads you to believe they will be able to do anything until they get Nicolas Batums $75 million still due off the books.
Kemba needs to bounce. Like Kawhi, he is auditioning for something greater. (Omar Williams)