Now that the dust has started to settle a bit following the frenzy of free agency, the landscape of the 2019-20 season is coming into focus and it appears to include an open path through the Eastern Conference to the NBA Finals for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Sixers were a couple unfriendly bounces – or a fully healthy Joel Embiid - away from a likely Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season, and though the Sixers look [a lot] different than they did in May, the argument can be made that they got better, while the rest of the conference largely stood pat, or went in the other direction.

Traditionally, a conference runs through the defending champion, but for the second straight season, the best player on the defending Eastern Conference champion has migrated west, leaving a vacancy at the top of the conference’s power structure. The Cyborg that stalled the Sixers in the semifinals is now a Clipper, and the throne that LeBron sat on at the top of the East for the better part of the past decade, also gone. There is no dragon to be slayed in order to advance, just open opportunity.

Sure, the tough-minded Raptors could still be a playoff team, but they can’t be viewed as a legitimate contender without Kawhi Leonard, or an adequate replacement for what he brought to the team. The Nets made a huge splash over the offseason by acquiring both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in free agency, but until Durant returns from the Achilles injury that he suffered during the NBA Finals, Brooklyn will be an afterthought.

The Milwaukee Bucks probably represent the biggest threat to Philadelphia’s ‘top team in the East’ title for the upcoming season, as they advanced further than the Sixers did last season, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is now [arguably] the best player in the conference following Leonard’s departure. However, their most noteworthy move over the offseason was re-signing Khris Middleton to a max deal. Otherwise, they did little to improve the roster around Antetokounmpo. In fact, by losing Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, you could argue that they got worse.

Giannis is a beast, but at this point in time, the Sixers project as the more talented – and deeper - team, on paper at least.

The same could be said for the Boston Celtics, who saw Irving and now-Sixer Al Horford walk away from the franchise in free agency, leaving them with depleted depth and an overall less talented team than they’ve had during the past several seasons. Kemba Walker is an excellent replacement for Irving, but it’s tough to see Boston being better than they were each of the last two seasons.

Like the Bucks, the Celtics can’t be overlooked, but again, the Sixers project as the more talented team.

The Indiana Pacers are another team that the Sixers will need to keep an eye on, as the return of Victor Oladipo coupled with the addition of Brogdon provides them with a respectable backcourt to pair with an already-formidable frontcourt comprised of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. They’re lacking a bit in star power compared to some of the other potential contenders, but they could ultimately prove to be a difficult out. The Miami Heat – led by former friend turned new nemesis Jimmy Butler could be a tough team too, especially if they are able to acquire disgruntled All-Star guard Russell Westbrook from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But, while all of these teams will be in the mix, none have the sheer talent, or the ceiling of Philadelphia’s starting five-man unit comprised of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson. Yes, Embiid needs to remain healthy, and the development of a perimeter game for Simmons is crucial, but the potential of the team, especially on the defensive end, is enormous.

Sixers reserve forward James Ennis agrees that the team has an excellent opportunity to come out of the East.

“The East is going to wide open,” Ennis said when discussing why he decided to re-sign with the Sixers in free agency. “We had a good chance last year. Kawhi is gone. He went to the West. So we are going to walk to the Finals in the East."

It certainly won’t be as easy as Ennis made it sound, and nothing is set in stone in the league, as a timely trade or injury issue could drastically change the outlook of the season in the blink of an eye. But with that said, the Sixers should feel very good about their opportunity to end their 19-year long Finals drought heading into the ’19-20 season.

 

Follow Michael Kaskey-Blomain on Twitter @therealmikekb.