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Eastern Conference preview: Is this Cleveland’s year?

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It has been 50 years since the city of Cleveland celebrated any type of major sports championship. LeBron James is hoping to throw quite an anniversary party next summer.

James’ return to the Cavaliers, and his subsequent construction of a new Big Three, dominated another turbulent NBA offseason. The Eastern Conference still lags far behind the West in terms of firepower, but the Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls offer two viable contenders to dethrone the San Antonio Spurs and win a championship.

James’ move back to Cleveland, coupled with Kyrie Irving’s contract extension and the trade for Kevin Love, gives the Cavs arguably the most powerful offensive team in the league. Defense (and injury concerns) will linger throughout the regular season, and in David Blatt, the Cavs are breaking in their third coach in as many years. Still they believe they have the talent and roster depth to compete for a title after wallowing as the worst team in the league over the last four years.

“What’s funny is the team was a small thing of me coming back,” James said. “It had nothing much to do with the team, it was more about these fans and the city and the people here and the people who watched me grow from when I first picked up a basketball at age 8 to now at 29.

“I felt like me coming, we could hopefully add some pieces. Obviously it happened quicker than I thought.”

Any talk of the Bulls as legitimate threats begins and ends with Derrick Rose, who is trying yet again to recover from another knee surgery. Rose struggled during FIBA World Cup games in September, but scorched the Cavs during a preseason game for 30 points and showed the type of burst and range that made him a Most Valuable Player three years ago.

A healthy Rose, coupled with newcomers Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott and holdover Joakim Noah, should make the Bulls no worse than second in the East. James and the Bulls have history, beginning with James ending the Bulls seasons in the playoffs three of the last five years and LeBron bristling at the Bulls’ attacking, physical style of defending him the last few years.

All of that could make for an intriguing conference finals if Rose’s health allows the Bulls to get there.

“He’s our big gun,” Noah said. “I know how hard he’s worked to get there. I just feel like if we keep improving, we can do something special.”

The rest of the East is cluttered by young up-and-comers such as the Wizards and Raptors and old hangers-on such as the Knicks and Nets.

The Wizards advanced to the conference semifinals last season, then essentially traded Trevor Ariza for Paul Pierce in a shrewd move that should help during their next postseason run. The Raptors bring back all of the key pieces from last season’s surprise team that earned the No. 3 seed in the East before being eliminated in seven games by the Nets.

Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, returned to New York, but has little help around him, and the Nets will pay a lot of money to be little more than .500.

Somewhere in the middle of all that are the Indiana Pacers, who are caught in purgatory after losing Lance Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to a season-ending leg injury during World Cup practices. The Pacers are still a good defensive team, but they’re not elite without George and they still owe $15 million to Roy Hibbert this season after his disturbing postseason collapse.

The biggest winner of the offseason, next to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, might be Chris Bosh. James’ departure earned him an extra $30 million — the difference between the Heat’s offers to him before and after James’ decision. But all that cash won’t buy him any more titles. After James’ departure, South Beach might be quiet for quite a while.

Predicted order of finish

Atlantic Division

1. Toronto (46-36): No longer the surprise of the conference, the next step is advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs.

2. Brooklyn (42-40): If the Nets go .500, they’ll pay more than $2.2 million in payroll per victory.

3. New York (35-47): Carmelo Anthony can’t run the triangle by himself, although he might have to try.

4. Boston (26-56): If they trade Rajon Rondo, this projected win total will (somehow) plummet.

5. Philadelphia (18-64): The Sixers have been collecting injured centers for years (Andrew Bynum, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid). Sooner or later, they’re certain it will pay off.

Central Division

1. Cleveland (59-23): Cause for concern: Two-thirds of their Big Three have missed 22 percent of their teams’ games and have never appeared in the postseason.

2. Chicago (54-28): Key is Derrick Rose, but also this: Tom Thibodeau never uses more than two post players at a time, so what do they do with Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic?

3. Indiana (41-41): If Roy Hibbert doesn’t bounce back this season, things could unravel quickly.

4. Detroit (33-49): Stan Van Gundy is Pistons’ third coach since start of last season. Counting interims, they’ve had six head coaches in the last six seasons.

5. Milwaukee (20-62): Jabari Parker early favorite to win Rookie of the Year just based on the amount of shots he’ll get up.

Southeast Division

1. Washington (48-34): Wizards haven’t won a division title since 1979 when they were the Bullets.

2. Miami (44-38): Dwyane Wade forfeited $10 million in salary and LeBron James still left. Yet Wade still considers him a friend.

3. Charlotte (43-39): With Lance Stephenson as their newly anointed star, Hornets trying to win first playoff series since 2002.

4. Atlanta (41-41): The Hawks were the third seed in the East when they lost Al Horford last year, triggering a cavalcade of injuries.

5. Orlando (22-60): With LeBron back in Cleveland, how long until Dwight Howard returns to Orlando? Nevermind.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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