After eight honestly painful seasons for Pacers fans, the Eastern Conference could be poised for a new non-LeBron James winner in 2019. As of today, there are three teams (Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia) and one player (LeBron James) who feel that no matter what happens this offseason, they can win the next conference finals.
Then there is another tier made up of Milwaukee and Washington, both of whom have all-stars but their rosters are too flawed as currently constructed to win the East. The Pacers fall somewhere between these tiers but are most likely closer to the second group than the first.
The first tier of teams is distinguished by their All-NBA players. The Celtics and Raptors all have at least two players who made All-NBA teams the past two seasons. The 76ers will join this team next year when Ben Simmons inevitably makes an All-NBA team.
Each team is constructed a little differently, though. In 2019 Boston is hoping to play positionless basketball much like the Golden State Warriors. Assuming the healthy return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics should be able to do that thanks to the rest of their lineup that includes Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford.
Philadelphia’s roster is built around their two young stars in Joel Embiid and Simmons. The 76ers also have cap space and the assets needed to add another All-NBA player this summer. But even if Philly doesn’t make a move they have two more young players in Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz who have shown a lot of potential.
Toronto is the worst team in this group because despite winning 59 games this season they were swept out of playoffs in the second round. The Raptors have two All-NBA guards in Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, plus a 10-man deep rotation.
Washington has a similar roster construction to Toronto but younger. The Wizards have two potentially All-NBA guards in John Wall and Bradley Beal. But their bench is a lot thinner and their cap situation is not very good.
Lastly, Milwaukee is the wildcard team in the East because of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s potential and their new coach Mike Budenholzer. Just like the Cavaliers with James, the Bucks have a once-in-a-generation talent in Antetokounmpo but have struggled to surround him with other talented players.
As of today, the Pacers fall somewhere between the first group and second group because they have Victor Oladipo, potentially the best guard in the Eastern conference -- if he can prove his 2017-18 season wasn’t a fluke.
Oladipo and DeRozan both made All-NBA teams and if not for injuries Irving, Wall and Hayward might have been able to take their spots.
Outside of Oladipo Indiana doesn’t have a distinguishable number two player, unlike every team in the East except Milwaukee. This season the Pacers won as a collective unit because each night a different Indiana player acted as the Robin to Oladipo’s Batman.
The Pacers had a cluster of five players who averaged between 11.6 and 14.3 points per game.
But Indiana needs a consistent number two to compete in the playoffs, as shown by Cleveland’s ability to trap and double team Oladipo. There’s a reason every team besides Milwaukee and Indiana have won at least one playoff series over the past two years. Having that number two go-to scorer can change the dynamic of a playoff series.
If the Pacers are able to acquire someone like Mike Conley, CJ McCollum, Kemba Walker or any other former All-NBA point guard without having to give up too many assets, they can jump into the first group of teams that will have a legitimate shot at winning the Eastern Conference.
But hell, Lebron might just go to Philly and then the whole Eastern Conference will be screwed.