The Western Conference has two clear leaders that are favored, the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors. The Eastern Conference on the other hand, is a big pile of teams looking to break free of the clutter. In fact, the top 10 teams in the conference at separated by a total of three games. Even down to the 13th seed, which happens to be the Milwaukee Bucks (a playoff team last year), is only out of first by 6.5 games and they just beat the previously undefeated Golden State Warriors. There are so many teams that can make that jump up to the front. However, in this argument two teams will be left out of the discussion. The Cleveland Cavaliers remain the best team even without Kyrie Irving so they are left out. Also, I have a severe case of “homer-itis” when it comes to the Boston Celtics, who I’ve already expressed as a contender in the East. The season is still early, so the first thing to do is separate the contenders from the pretenders. The bottom has still yet to fall out of the conference and in two weeks time it will be far more clear as to who can compete. The Charlotte Hornets, yes you read that right, are currently fourth in the conference at 14-9. They have been able to deal without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist due to the addition of Nicolas Batum in the offseason. However, this team still has Marvin Williams playing 32 minutes a game. I would expect Charlotte to fall towards the back half of the conference by the end of the year. I would also expect the Orlando Magic to fall out of the the eight seed in the East. A young team with promise, but they’re still one year away from being a true competitor.
With the two pretenders now out of the way, who are the teams remaining that can challenge Cleveland?
There are three potential teams that can challenge the Cavs, the Toronto Raptors, the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat.
The Toronto Raptors are a game behind the Cavs for first place in the Eastern Conference. The young squad is led by a dynamic All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan. With center Jonas Valenciunas manning the middle and DeMarre Carroll providing lockdown defense, the Toronto Raptors are a true contender. They also have a solid core of Patrick Patterson Luis Scola and Terrance Ross. They are led by there defense, which allows the third fewest points per game. They have the defenders to help stop LeBron and his cast of Cavaliers, but can they score enough will be the question. If they develop more on the offensive end, they could upset Cleveland.
The next team that can challenge the Cavs in the East is the Chicago Bulls. Chicago is currently tied with Toronto at one game behind Cleveland. Chicago is a team that has been in the Finals hunt for quite some time now, but hasn’t put it all together yet. Chicago is a deep team, led by a front court rotation consisting of Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic. Star wing Jimmy Butler and point Guard Derrick Rose also start in major roles on the team. The Bulls are a very strong rebounding team due to their size, as they lead the league in rebounds per game. They also share the ball well as they rank the top 10 in assists. Chicago is an elite defensive team, ranking sixth in points allowed per game. Chicago is a truly elite team that can’t be overlooked in a stacked Eastern Conference.
Even with the rising Raptors and the tough Chicago Bulls, there is still one team that truly stands a chance against Cleveland. That team is the Miami Heat. The Heat are currently in sixth in the conference, but they are on the rise. Last year’s team was expected to contend, but then injuries to Dwayne Wade, Luol Deng and Chris Bosh made it impossible for the team to compete. They acquired point guard Goran Dragic from the Suns and the emergence of Hassan Whiteside in the middle gives them a rim protector. The Heat got better through the draft, as they selected Justise Winslow out of Duke with the 10th pick and he’s added defense on the wing, youth and athleticism. In the offseason, Miami added Amar’e Stoudomire and Gerald Green to go along with Josh McRoberts on the bench. The Heat are deep and talented in the starting five and can hang with any team in the league. With Deng, Winslow and Whiteside anchoring the defense, Miami boasts the second best defense in the league. Miami has the depth to match the Cavs and have the defense to shut down LeBron. And of course, with Bosh and Wade, they know his tendencies and how to get under his skin.
The Cavaliers are the best team in the Eastern Conference, even when down an All-Star player. The rest of the East is trying to figure out where exactly they will fall. Of course less than two months into the season, there’s still plenty of time for teams to fall off and time for teams to crawl back into the race. But from now until the end of the season, the Raptors, Bulls and Miami Heat are all teams that will be there at the end in the playoffs.
Stats via ESPN
Photo via HeatNation