The Eastern Conference may as well have been named the LeBron James Conference for most of the last decade. With Cleveland, Miami and back in Cleveland again, James has reigned supreme in the East.
Who are the would-be challengers to the throne in 2016-17?
The Toronto Raptors finally crawled out of the basement of playoff disappointment and made a run to the Eastern Conference finals last season behind Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. However, this season could mark the final run for the Raptors' dynamic backcourt as Lowry's contract demands – he is seeking a deal similar to DeRozan's five-year, $139million contract – might be too much for Toronto.
The Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat all finished with 48 wins last season, tying forthird, fourth, fifth and sixth place in the conference.
All four have switched up players at key positions.
Miami appear to have fully separated themselves from "The Big Three" era, allowing Dwyane Wade to go the Chicago Bulls via free agency and making it clear that Chris Bosh is no longer in their plans. Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic will be the featured players for the Heat this season. Whiteside has shown improvement every year of his career, but will that change now he has a big contract?
The Hawks let long-time centerpiece Al Horford walk in free agency, and he ended up signing with the Celtics in the offseason. Horford joins a team featuring Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder and a bunch of blue-collar talent that should be a good fit for him. Atlanta replaced Horford with Dwight Howard, a one-time all-world big man who calls the city home. Will he be able to play nice in the Hawks' team-ball concept?
Charlotte got a big contribution from Jeremy Lin, who provided scoring punch off the bench and teamed well with Kemba Walker to form a potent backcourt that could put up points in bunches. Lin is gone now, as is Al Jefferson after injuries diminished his production and role with the Hornets, who will look for more of the production they got from Nicolas Batum and some of what they expected from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to compensate for those losses.
The Bulls went from challenging the Cavaliers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference to not making the playoffs at all. They shook things up by trading former number one overall pick Derrick Rose, allowing Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol to walk and signing Rajon Rondo and Wade via free agency, but make no mistake about it, the Bulls are finally Jimmy Butler's team.
Like the Bulls, the New York Knicks did not make the playoffs last season, but they did make a big splash in the offseason by trading for Rose and adding Noah in free agency.
Add in a budding international superstar in Kristaps Porzingis and All-Star Carmelo Anthony and expectations are very high for this self-proclaimed "superteam." Failing to reach the postseason is simply not acceptable, and, frankly, anything less than an Eastern Conference finals appearance would be a big disappointment.