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Toronto Raptors

With LeBron James gone, the race to the top of the Eastern Conference is now wide open

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Kawhi Leonard (NBA Getty Images)

In wake of the King's departure, the route to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference sits vacant.

For the first time in nearly a decade, LeBron James and whichever team he is a part of will not be at the front of the Eastern Conference procession. Windows open and close with blustery speed in the NBA, and the contenders aren't sitting around celebrating the void - they are digging in for the next campaign.

The Boston Celtics, who probably should've been in the NBA Finals last year, might get first crack at being the next top dog. Holding 2-0 and 3-2 leads in the Eastern Conference Finals despite zero contribution from the injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics seem like the logical suitor to yell "next!"

The Celtics are well built and well led. Comically, the primary critique from many this offseason is that they may have too much talent to co-exist in relative harmony.

However, "too much talent" is a problem 28 other teams can only dream of.

A core of Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Hayward, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes inspires plenty of confidence, but as we've seen in the past, it's often the team with the best player that advances come the playoffs. Irving has elevated his play at an opportune time before and the Celtics will call on him again come next year's postseason.

Looking North, the Toronto Raptors and Masai Ujiri have clawed together the best roster in team history. The San Antonio Spurs' loss is the Raptors' gain, as Kawhi Leonard is the best player the Raptors have ever had under contract - assuming, of course, health and cooperation.

Keep in mind, the Raptors are one of only three organizations to never have a player earn a first place MVP vote. In Leonard, they have a player who could compete not only for the MVP but the Defensive Player of the Year Award as well.

In what is now mostly looked at as a spoiled effort, the Raptors' franchise best 59-wins speaks to just how talented last year's team truly was. Add in Leonard, Danny Green and the potential for growth with the young core of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, and there's real potential to rise to new heights.

MORE: Don't sleep on what Danny Green brings to the Raptors

While the Raptors are working in their new franchise player and a rookie head coach, the Milwaukee Bucks' superstar is poised to thrive under former Coach of the Year, Mike Budenholzer.

The Bucks might be the forgotten power in the Eastern Conference. Lost under uninspiring benches, the talent of MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and potential first-time All-Star Khris Middleton has been poorly assigned until now.

The Bucks are set to have a booming turnaround season. Malcolm Brogdon, a former Rookie of the Year and key component of the core, missed half of last season due to injury. The inconsistent center play from the young Thon Maker and the veteran John Henson is getting a shot in the arm with Brook Lopez now in town. The reformed stretch-five will provide improved spacing for Antetokounmpo to soar across the floor in transition.

Eric Bledsoe should also be improved with a new system and a full year to adapt and mesh with his co-stars.

You can count on the Bucks being in the mix, just as you can count on the chaos of the Philadelphia 76ers to be an issue. Will Ben Simmons hit a 3, has Markelle Fultz shed his rookie woes and can Joel Embiid have another mostly healthy campaign? If you answered triple-yes, perhaps this is the Sixers' conference to lose.

The Process took a messy but clear shortcut to contention, and the Sixers, while volatile, have a formidable amount of talent.

Simmons is a freak. Controlling the game the way he did last year without a real jump shot shouldn't have been possible. Embiid is already in the top-10 player mix and might be the league's most complete center. Dario Saric, Robert Covington and the growth of Fultz round out the final contender for the eastern crown.

With the regular season now underway, we have entered the 2018-19 campaign. For fans who have long clamored about their desire for parity, the new Eastern Conference has delivered.

It's a race but far from a sure-shot to the summit.

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