LeBron has dominated the Eastern conference for literally the last 6 years. At some point, he is bound to not go to the finals, so what teams are most likely to knock him off? Keep in mind, this is not necessarily just this coming season, this is just the first team who might do it at some point, whether next year or 5 years from now.
5 - Boston Celtics
At number 5, because they figure to be the 3rd best team in the East for at least the next couple of seasons with the addition of Al Horford. But I am not really on the Celtics bandwagon. First off, the Hawks had Al Horford the last 2 years and got swept by LeBron each time, and on top of that, I'm not sure the Celtics now are better than the Hawks were the last two seasons. The biggest problem the Celtics have with Horford as their best player is that their timeline is not far behind LeBron's. And I don't really see another team beating LeBron over the next couple of years, and while this team has a lot of young talent, it is not enough to put them above the others on this list.
Essentially, the Celtics will be good, and if something were to go wrong in Cleveland (whether it be injuries or just poor play) they will have a chance to beat them, but I don't see enough firepower on this team to make it very likely over the next couple of years, and I don't see enough young talent to overthrow him in the future as he ages. (But enough in both categories to make the list.)
4 - Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are on this list for the same reason as the 2 teams that follow them. The Bucks have a (likely) superstar on their team in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and with Jabari Parker and Kris Middleton flanking him, they could well have the best young trio of wings in basketball. Also on the plus side, they figure to start to peak (in 2 or 3 years) at the same time that LeBron will figure to be declining. Making them in an ideal situation. They are at #4 only because they are not as proven as next 3 challengers, but they have a great core and could well end up being the best team in the East in a few years.
3 - Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are here for the same reason as the Bucks, in Paul George they have a legit star and foundational player to build around. And unlike the Bucks, George is not a “probable” star, he is one right now. And he has shown that he is able to play toe to toe with LeBron over the course of a 7 game series, even if he often has bad slumps over the season. Add in the fact that the Pacers have been a well-run team who is consistently solid and there is good reason to believe in the latest team building that Larry Bird has done with the Pacers. They could well be #1 on this list before the coming season is over, but if this new team doesn't work (which is possible that they are just an “ok” team like last season's Pacers) then they will not have a clear path out of the middle of the pack to the top. HOWEVA, as long as they have Paul George, they will have a chance.
2 - Detroit Pistons
Like the Bucks and Pacers, the Pistons have a legit star and foundational player on their team in Andre Drummond, and unlike the Pacers, they have an excellent young core around him with the oldest player in their starting lineup figuring to be Marcus Morris at 27. Reggie Jackson is an in the 2nd tier of top Point Guards in basketball, and between Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Stanley Johnson, they have 3 more young players who could also become all star caliber guys. And unlike the Bucks, this team was already pretty good last year winning 44 games, and they have a lot fewer questions surrounding them. Essentially the Pistons have the best of both of the Bucks and Pacers, like the Bucks they are overflowing with young talent that will start to really peak just as LeBron (theoretically) starts to decline, and like the Pacers they are already a decent team now and are more proven. Although, these 3 teams are admittedly, fairly interchangeable.
1 - Toronto Raptors
I know what you're thinking. “The Raptors? No one thinks the Raptors are more than a cute story?” That is where people are wrong. They have been a good team for 3 straight years, and emerged as the clear #2 team in the East last year, they also were the only East team to beat the Cavs in the playoffs. They have the best PG in the East, probably the best SG, Jonas Valančiūnas is only going to get better (and a matchup nightmare in today's NBA of small ball), not to mention that if DeMarre Carroll is healthy they have a great 2-way wing.
On top of the fact that they are the 2nd best team in the East right now, is that they are also young. JV and Terrence Ross are both just coming off their rookie contracts, Norman Powell showed flashes, and they just drafted Jakob Poeltl. Not that their youth is on the same level as the Pistons or Bucks, but it is enough that there is no reason to believe they will drop off any time soon. They are likely to be the best challengers over the next 3 seasons, and can reasonably be expected to still be there as LeBron declines.
(Honorable mentions: Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets.)
What do you think? How would you order them? Let me know! We all get smarter!