Our Insiders answer the big questions about Finals favorites, dark-horse contenders and more.
1. Fact or fiction: The Kawhi trade makes the Raptors the favorites in the East.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: Fiction. Even now, as the dust has settled and it's clear where Kawhi is going, we still don't know if he's 100 percent healthy or how many games he may have to miss to get himself right for next season. The Boston Celtics should have a slight leg up, if only because they'll get Gordon Hayward back. But Brad Stevens' coaching is more a sure thing than Nick Nurse's for the time being, too.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Faction. Ranking Boston and Toronto is tough, particularly with the uncertain health of some of their respective best players. Both have incredibly deep perimeter rotations -- do you prefer the defensive stylings and versatility of Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, among others, or the dynamism and outrageous talents of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (and maybe Marcus Smart)? The Raptors have greater frontcourt depth, yet the Celtics have the finest individual frontcourt player. Call it the Celtics by a nose, but the healthier team will be the better one, as is usually the case.
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: Faction. If Kawhi Leonard is healthy and engaged for the Raptors, he should make them the co-favorites in the East along with the Celtics. But there are way too many unknowns about Leonard's health and commitment level to the Raptors to etch that in stone. The Celtics project as an extremely strong team that in normal years would be considered a legitimate championship contender. If everything goes well with Leonard in Toronto, that now becomes their upside, as well.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Fiction. I can't say that yet without knowing how Kawhi will play. If he's the Kawhi of two years ago, then I'd have to change this answer. The Raptors are pretty loaded.
Jeremias Engelmann, ESPN Insider: Fact. The Raptors had significantly more Pythagorean wins -- a better indicator of future success than straight win percentage, as it factors in point differential -- than the Celtics last season. Assuming the Raptors will improve through this trade, even the return of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving won't be enough to fully bridge the gap.
2. Fact or fiction: The Celtics or Sixers should have topped Toronto's offer for Kawhi.
Arnovitz: Without the certainty or even probability that Leonard is more than a one-year rental, neither the Celtics nor Sixers should've broken up their core to accommodate a trade -- and that's before considering the condition of Leonard's health. With guys like Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, there's the added matter of having near-elite players who get paid a small fraction of what Leonard earns. Guys with that kind of value relative to salary are vital to constructing champions in a cap system.
Herring: In theory? Fact. I would've considered trading away Gordon Hayward if I were Danny Ainge. And I would've been open to moving Markelle Fultz if I were Philly. The catch is that you'd obviously want a firm sense of commitment from Kawhi before pulling the trigger. There was no indication that Kawhi was going to offer that, so it might have been in both teams' best interest to pass.
Snellings: Fact. A package built around last year's No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington and/or future draft considerations would have been a stronger offer and still allowed the 76ers to retain a championship core -- if the Spurs were interested in younger pieces than DeMar DeRozan. Reports have suggested that Leonard may have considered Philadelphia a destination of interest outside of L.A., and a team built around Leonard, Joel Embiid, Simmons and whatever other rotation players the 76ers retained would have also been a championship favorite this season with a reasonable chance to continue into the future.
Engelmann: Fiction. The Celtics and 76ers have great futures thanks to fielding two of the best young rosters in the NBA and the long list of picks they're owed. There was little reason to give that up for a one-year rental of Kawhi in the worst-case scenario, especially given that the Warriors' dominance is unlikely to end in 2018-19.
Windhorst: Fiction. I just can't say that at this point. We really don't know how open Kawhi is to staying. For Boston and Philly, who in my opinion had rosier futures than the Raptors before this deal, a trade may have been a bit too much risk. The risk profile is a little more in line for Toronto.
3. Which player will be the biggest factor in the East race?
Snellings: Essentially, Kawhi Leonard. The three main contenders in the East are now the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers. The Celtics have remarkable depth, as shown by this season's conference finals run without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The 76ers are still young and developing, which will make it difficult for them to seriously contend for the championship this season. But the Raptors, as mentioned above, have upside to challenge the Warriors and Rockets for the best team in the league this season if the Leonard deal works out.
Windhorst: Kawhi is pretty compelling in this regard, and then you have Kyrie Irving. Both guys are coming back from injury, affecting the relative ceiling of their teams.
Arnovitz: Leonard, because there are so many variables that will determine his worth: Will he be healthy? Will he be happy and motivated? Will he be easily integrated into the Raptors' system and culture? Will he have function as a lame-duck rental knowing that, barring a disastrous season, maximum dollars will be waiting for him from any number of suitors, including his preferred ones in Los Angeles? With the exception of Gordon Hayward, who played only a few minutes as a Celtic last season, no other player presents a greater variance headed into 2018-19.
Engelmann: Kawhi Leonard. Both Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum, who played one of the best seasons for a 19-year-old ever, will have a word to say here. But Kawhi is the best player of the group on what will probably be the best East team, so his recovery and commitment to the Raptors will decide who makes it out of the conference.
Herring: I'll take the bait here and answer Kawhi Leonard. If he's fully healthy, playing 75 games or more, Toronto goes from simply being a top-three or top-four club in the East to arguably the best one. Similarly, if he's not healthy enough to play consistently, that's problematic and Philly and Boston get to start their newfound rivalry unencumbered.
4. Which team outside of Boston, Philly and Toronto do you find most intriguing as an East contender?
Windhorst: The Bucks remain a team on the fringe that we're all keeping half an eye on. Giannis Antetokounmpo still has room to grow, and he's got a new coach in Mike Budenholzer who has a history of jump-starting a team. Bud is going to spread the floor and increase passing to open things for Giannis. The Cavs are out of the way, there's room to move, and the Bucks are there.
Herring: Indiana had a really nice summer and didn't lose anyone who produces consistently (sorry, Lance!), picking up scoring with Doug McDermott and Tyreke Evans and a low-post bruiser in Kyle O'Quinn. Based on how close they were to knocking out the Cavs and their solid roster, the Pacers have a chance to surprise the league for a second season in a row.
Snellings: The Milwaukee Bucks. Antetokounmpo was right on the verge of being the best player in the NBA last season, and at age 23 he's still developing rapidly every season. With the team around Giannis more established -- featuring contributing veterans and shooting at most other positions -- the Bucks could vault into the upper echelon in the conference and give the big boys pause.
Engelmann: The Pacers. Already the fourth-best East team by default after LeBron's departure from Cleveland, Indiana managed to further upgrade its roster by adding Tyreke Evans. The 2009 No. 4 draft pick had a career-best true shooting percentage last season, which is part of why real plus-minus (RPM) ranked him as the third-best shooting guard in the entire league.
Arnovitz: The Bucks. Antetokounmpo isn't done growing as a player, and Budenholzer demonstrated a knack for taking a collection of imperfect players in Atlanta and turning them into a 60-win juggernaut. Transform that defense with some discipline to go along with that length, and sculpt a smart offensive system that creates space and movement around Antetokounmpo, and it's not outlandish to imagine the Bucks finishing as a top-eight team in both categories.
5. Fact or fiction: The East will have a top-three team in the league next season.
Herring: Fact. For much of this past season, fans talked about Golden State and Houston looking like they were in a different stratosphere altogether from the rest of the league. The Celtics at full strength should be a sight to behold, as well. If the young players continue to mature alongside Kyrie, Hayward and Al Horford, they'll be a tough matchup for any opponent.
Windhorst: Fact. Boston and Toronto both will have a legitimate shot at this, in my opinion. I'm not sure Philly significantly improved, but Boston is getting two stars back and the Raptors may have really upgraded. Toronto could have the league's best defense.
Snellings: Fact. Both the Celtics and the Raptors have very legitimate top-three upside, and the 76ers project as only a step behind with upside that their youngsters will develop faster than anticipated. The Warriors and Rockets both project into that top three barring major injury, but I'd be surprised if at least one Eastern Conference team isn't on that serious contender level, as well.
Arnovitz: Yes, if only because the Western Conference will be a bloodbath with teams beating each other nightly. Meanwhile, several Eastern teams will be actively tanking, passively tanking, taking their lumps as a youth movement or just demonstrating plain old incompetence. The Celtics and Raptors probably are already 3 and 4, or 4 and 3. Unleash them on those bottom-feeders and one of them is destined to win 60.
Engelmann: It depends if we're talking regular season or playoffs. Looking at just the regular season, the Raptors were already the second-best team in the league last year, and they just got better. The playoffs are a different story, though, as that's the time when LeBron and the Warriors switch to another gear -- one the Raptors haven't yet shown they have.