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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Ranking the 20 best players in the NBA’s Eastern Conference

With all the shuffling in the NBA this offseason, the common sentiment among fans is that all the talent has headed West — with the exception, of course, of Mr. LeBron Raymone James.

Earlier this summer, I swung by the Big3’s tour stop in Charlotte, and the legend Clyde Drexler had this to say: “The West, in my opinion, had the majority of the good players. After all these trades, now they’ve got all the good players. If ‘Bron comes to the West, they might as well do away with the East.”

The West has won five of the past six All-Star Games and three of the past four NBA titles. It’s unquestionably the more competitive conference, and now that Jimmy Butler and Paul George have been traded to Minnesota and Oklahoma City, respectively, it’s also leaps and bounds ahead of the East in star quality.

But really — there is a case to be made that the West has 13 out of the 14 best players in the league. ESPN made that case, and also argued that the West’s second-flight All-Stars are better than the East’s first flight.

That certainly may be true, but the East still has some studs — especially in its top five. As we rev up for the 2017-18 season, below is our ranking of the 20 best players in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

1. LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers

What more can I say about LeBron than what’s already been said? He’s the best player in our generation, and he’s unquestionably one of the three best players of all-time. What’s missing from that all-time debate is that James is still only 32, and he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

Is it out of reason to say he could play another 10 years? What if he keeps posting the same numbers for another five years — then is he the G.O.A.T.? That question will be answered in the future, but the point is this: there’s still plenty left to come before we can judge James’ career against that of the other greats.

2. John Wall, G, Washington Wizards

Wall has always had the talent to be one of the best players in the league, but he really put it all together last season. Anyone who saw his vicious charge through the playoffs knows this dude is not to be slept on — Wall will take on anyone in the league. He has that Dion Waiters “I’m the best player on the floor every time I’m on the floor” mentality.

Wall got a monster contract extension this offseason, and it appears he’s entering his prime. Last year he set career marks for points (23.1) and assists (10.7).

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks

I still don’t know how to spell his name, but man, the Greek Freak is one bad dude. Giannis is so young — 22 — and so talented. His height (6-foot-11) and versatile game have mesmerized basketball fans for years, and he’s still coming into his own.

Last year he was a starter in the All-Star Game, and Kobe Bryant thinks Giannis is headed for great things.

Watch out, LeBron — the Bucks forward may be coming for your throne as the best in the East.

4. Kyrie Irving, G, Boston Celtics

Irving is tough to rank because his ceiling is much higher than his reality. When he’s on — when it’s the playoffs, everyone is watching, and his jersey is untucked — Kyrie is unstoppable. He has the best handles I’ve ever seen, and he makes some shots that are absolutely ludicrous.

During the night-to-night grind of the season, though, he’s tough to peg. He doesn’t play hard on defense, and he can be a bit of a ball-stopper. That said: when he’s on, there’s no one in the league who’s as entertaining as Uncle Drew.

5. Kyle Lowry, G, Toronto Raptors

After flirting with the idea of leaving in free agency, Lowry is back with the Raptors for another go-round. Lowry, 31, has been statistically one of the best players in the East for the past four years, but he struggles to earn the respect of casual fans for a few reasons:

– Toronto has struggled mightily in the postseason
– He doesn’t have an entertaining style of play a la Irving
– He hasn’t been at his best in the All-Star Game
– Toronto rarely plays on national TV

That said, Lowry is a terrific guard, and true hoop heads recognize his value.

6. Gordon Hayward, F, Boston Celtics

Hayward was the most highly-sought-after free agent on the market this summer. There’s good reason the Jazz, Celtics and Heat duked it out for the former Butler Bulldog: over the past couple years, Hayward has blossomed into one of the best 3 men in the league. This year he led Utah to the postseason for the first time since 2012. He can play on or off the ball, which is why he could mesh with either Isaiah Thomas or Kyrie Irving as his point guard.

Last year the 6-foot-8 forward averaged 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds — both career bests — and he narrowly missed out on being named to an All-NBA team. It would be a surprise if he weren’t an All-Star in the East this season.

7. Kevin Love, F, Cleveland Cavaliers

Love has been unfairly made the scapegoat ever since he arrived in Cleveland. It’s true that he’s not the dominant forward we thought he was early in his career in Minnesota, but he remains one of the most all-around-competent forwards in the East. He’s a lethal outside shooter, outlet passer and rebounder.

Love does a lot of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, too. It’s rare to find a big guy who can simultaneously stretch the floor (he’s a 37 percent three-point shooter) and get offensive boards, but Love has incredible touch, timing, and court sense. He just knows how to play the game.

From my perspective, he should be thrilled with the Cavs’ trade to acquire his former AAU teammate Isaiah Thomas, whose style of play lends itself more toward utilizing and showcasing Love compared to Irving, who prefers the one-on-one, cross-him-up-and-break-him-down style.

8. Isaiah Thomas, G, Cleveland Cavaliers

Thomas just had one of the most statistically impressive seasons from an under 6-foot player…ever. He was one of the best guards in the East and a top-13-or-so MVP candidate. Really, what Thomas accomplished should not be diminished: he posted an average of 28.9 points (6.1 points higher than his previous career high) on 46 percent shooting from the field. Thomas had the second-best Player Efficiency Rating in the East last season (trailing only, of course, LeBron).

He embodied determination, too, playing through a brutal hip injury in the playoffs, in addition to staying in a game after losing a tooth, and playing just days after the tragic death of his sister. The little guy was beloved in Beantown and, though they’re sad to lose Irving, Clevelanders are fortunate to have Thomas.

9. Bradley Beal, G, Washington Wizards

Beal became a man in front of our very eyes during Washington’s semifinals matchup with Boston. In that series he and Wall were absolutely dominant, providing virtually all of Washington’s offense. Beal averaged 24 points per game in that series, including explosions of 33 and 38 in Games 6 and 7, respectively.

Washington locked Beal up to a five-year contract extension last summer. The Wizards also inked Wall to an extension this offseason, so the team’s future is wrapped up in those two guys — and we have no reason to doubt the logic. Wall is a star and Beal, who’s shown glimpses of greatness, is nearing that echelon himself.

10. DeMar Derozan, F, Toronto Raptors

Toronto is becoming DeRozan’s team as he continually improves and Lowry’s game appears to be gradually slowing down. For the time being, however, the Raptors remain a two-headed monster.

DeRozan is a force on the wing. The 28-year-old from USC is a dynamic isolation player. In addition be being an explosive athlete who will absolutely posterize you with no warning, DeRozan has an Old Man Game; his repertoire of one-on-one moves is expansive.

Last year he posted averages of 27.3 points and 5.2 rebounds, both career highs.

See Nos. 10-20 on Page 2

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