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NBA Sunday: Are The Cavaliers The Favorites In The East?

With LeBron James and Kevin Love heading to Cleveland, are the Cavaliers the best team in the Eastern Conference?

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Are The Cavaliers The Favorites In The East?

When LeBron James announced that he would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after four seasons with the Miami HEAT, Cleveland fans celebrated as if they had just won an NBA championship. The return of LeBron would usher in a new era for the Cavaliers, who had just drafted number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins. However, soon after LeBron’s announcement, reports surfaced that the Cavaliers were in position to acquire disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love in a deal that would include Wiggins.

After weeks of speculation, on Thursday Adrian Wojnarowksi of Yahoo Sports reported that the Cavaliers and Timberwolves had an agreement in place to send Love to Cleveland. Due to league rules the trade cannot be made official until August 23, since that is 30 days after Andrew Wiggins signed his rookie contract with Cavaliers.

When the deal does happen, Love will officially join LeBron and Kyrie Irving to form arguably the most formidable big three in the league. Now the question is, are the Cavaliers the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference and reach the NBA Finals next season?

For the last two seasons, the Indiana Pacers have been the biggest challenger to James and the HEAT in the East. However, with the gruesome leg injury to Paul George, which is expected to keep him out for the entire 2014- 15 season and the loss of Lance Stephenson, the Pacers are no longer the threat they once were. While the additions of C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey somewhat help fill the void left by Stephenson, there is simply no way the Pacers can make up for the loss of George. This is especially true considering that Wojnarowski is reporting that veteran free agent forward Shawn Marion is heavily leaning towards taking a veteran’s minimum deal to join LeBron in Cleveland, rather than taking more money to join the Pacers.

The Chicago Bulls have been without Derrick Rose for the last two seasons, yet without the former MVP they nearly won 50 games through disciplined team-defense. Now, Rose is reportedly 100 percent healthy, competing with Team USA, and is set to rejoin the Bulls for the upcoming season. All reports coming out of the USA camp have been positive, and by all accounts Rose has recaptured his explosiveness. He will be rejoining center Joakim Noah and head coach Tom Thibodeau, who together made Chicago one of the toughest defensive teams in the NBA for the last few years.

Noah was last season’s Defensive Player of the Year and is one of the biggest difference makers in the league. Thibodeau is one of the best defensive coaches in the league and has arguably done the most out of all NBA coaches with the talent available to him these last few seasons. So while defense has not been an issue for the Bulls these last two years, the offense has been a different story.

Last season, the Bulls scored 99.7 points per 100 possessions, which was tied for third-worst in the league with the Boston Celtics. However, this offseason the Bulls landed free agent power forward Pau Gasol, who even at age 34 remains one of the most productive big men in the league. Last season, in 60 games with the Los Angeles Lakers, Gasol averaged 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 blocks, and shot 48 percent from the field. Gasol is an effective post scorer and mid-range shooter and next to Noah forms one of the best passing frontcourts in the NBA.

In addition, the Bulls are bringing over star European forward Nikola Mirotic, who is a good shooter, adding a stretch-four to the offense to backup Taj Gibson. The Bulls also acquired the draft rights to rookie forward Doug McDermott out of Creighton. McDermott led the nation in scoring last year, is the fifth-highest scoring college player in NCAA history and is more ready to contribute than other rookies from this class after playing four years of college basketball.

With these significant additions, it is not hard to imagine that the Bulls will significantly outpace their 48-win season from last year and compete for the title of best overall team in the East.

The Toronto Raptors, just like the Bulls, won 48 games last season and made it to the playoffs. The big question entering this summer for the Raptors was whether they would be able to retain free agent point guard Kyle Lowry. The Raptors stepped up and offered Lowry a four-year, $48 million contract, which Lowry accepted. With Lowry’s return, and the continued development of players like DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, and another year under head coach Dwane Casey, the Raptors are again a threat to compete at a high level.

Another team that the Cavaliers will have to watch out for are the Washington Wizards. Led by John Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards proved to be a stingy defensive team last season (102.4 points per 100 possessions) and have an interesting mix of young developing talent and veteran leadership, including recently acquired long-time Celtic and former Brooklyn Net Paul Pierce. Pierce brings with him playoff experience and clutch shooting, and he is expected to help fill the void left by small forward Trevor Ariza, who signed a free agent deal with the Houston Rockets this offseason.

Wall and Beal are the Wizards’ best young players and both competed with the USA national team this summer, but were recently dismissed. However, their inclusion with the program and improved play last year are reason enough to believe that this backcourt combo will only be better next year. Otto Porter, drafted with the third overall pick last year, showed flashes of an improved overall game at the Las Vegas Summer League.

Another tough team in the Eastern Conference is the rising Charlotte Hornets, who signed Lance Stephenson away from the Pacers this offseason.

Stephenson joins a team featuring talented players like Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and young developing players like Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Headed by coach Steve Clifford, the Hornets were one of the best defensive teams in the league last year. Like the Wizards, Charlotte features bright young talent mixed in with veteran leaders that plays tough defense, giving up only 101.2 points per 100 possessions last season. That was good for sixth-best in the NBA.

While Clifford had Charlotte playing top-level defense last season, it was their offense that was below league average. However, Stephenson, who was the Pacers’ best playmaker last season, brings with him a mix of ball-handling and creative passing that will add a new element to the Charlotte offense.

The HEAT may also pose a challenge to the Cavaliers. While losing James is a crushing blow to the franchise, team president Pat Riley managed to bring back Chris Bosh, re-sign Dwyane Wade and add other solid players like Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger.

Wade has reportedly lost weight in an attempt to recapture his old form and Bosh will be featured more so than he was the last four years, which means he may look more like the 20-10 player he was in Toronto at the beginning of his career.

So after sizing up Cleveland’s competition for this upcoming season, how do the Cavaliers stack up in the East?

The Cavaliers finished 33-49 last season, falling well short of the playoffs. The team was inconsistent throughout the season, relying on relatively inexperienced players like Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, role players like C.J. Miles and experimenting early in the season with the mercurial Andrew Bynum. Even veteran small forward Luol Deng, who was acquired mid-season, was inconsistent.

After the season, the Cavaliers fired (for a second time) head coach Mike Brown and subsequently hired David Blatt, who has coached overseas for several years, but has no prior NBA coaching experience. Blatt is noted as an offensive guru and comes to Cleveland with a reputation for getting along with his players. However, similar to Erik Spoelstra four years ago, Blatt will have the task of meshing together three star players along with a cast of supporting players.

It is impossible to know what exactly the Cavaliers’ offense and defense will look like under Blatt, especially with the addition of players as talented as James and Love. However, we can surmise that Blatt will look to run a fast-paced offense that utilizes floor spacing, which will be generated from players like Irving, Love, Waiters and recent acquisitions Mike Miller and James Jones. Blatt will also likely use Love’s underrated post-up game to draw double teams and find open shooters. When there isn’t an open shot on the perimeter, James, Waiters or Irving can drive to the rim to suck defenses in and either finish at the rim or look for kick-outs on the perimeter, something that each player is well suited to do.

Also, Love’s rebounding and elite outlet passing will give James and Irving, who are both very dangerous in transition, the opportunity to leak out for full-court passes before defenses can get set. Think of how effective Love was out-letting the ball to Corey Brewer in Minnesota, and then replace Brewer with James and you can imagine the potential this Cavaliers team has in transition. Even Anderson Varejao, who is another very good rebounder, is a good enough passer to hit James or Irving in stride to put pressure on opposing teams. While the Cavaliers did not play at a particularly fast-pace last season (they ranked 18th in pace last season), the presence of Blatt and players like Irving, James, Waiters and Love make an up-tempo attack a natural weapon to use against opponents.

The Cavaliers’ defense may be a little harder to predict. Last year, the Cavaliers averaged the second-fewest blocks per game in the league (3.6) and had no one to anchor the defense and protect the rim. Varejao has only averaged more than one block per game once in his 10-year career, and there is no reason to expect that will change next season. There is no indication that Cleveland will be able to bring in a rim protector before the season starts. This is a similar problem that the Timberwolves had last year with Love playing next to Nikola Pekovic. Neither big man could stop players from attacking the rim, which put pressure on all other aspects of the Minnesota defense, an issue that will likely continue in Cleveland with Love playing next to Varejao. Thus, Blatt will likely look to use James, and perhaps Marion (if he signs with Cleveland), to pressure wing players and prevent penetration at the rim. However, while James and Marion are noted perimeter defenders, Irving and Waiters are average at best, and Miller and Jones are both well over 30 years old and past their physical primes. For this reason, the Cavaliers, as they did last year, will at times sag off of wing players and give up a large number of three pointers in order to keep opponents from penetrating and scoring at the rim. It will be a calculated gamble – one that represents the difficulties of playing team defense when there is no defensive anchor protecting the basket.

Nevertheless, with James, Irving and Love together in Cleveland playing under an offensive-minded coach, we can predict that the Cavaliers will be one of the best offensive teams in the league next year. What is not clear is whether that offense will be enough to overcome other teams like the Bulls, considering the likely shortcomings of the Cleveland defense.

As of now, it seems as though the Bulls are best situated to stand between the Cavaliers and the NBA Finals. But from a talent standpoint, it seems the Cavaliers are the favorites in the East heading into next season. The Bulls, as they do every year, will be tough competition and may have added enough offensive firepower to overcome the Cavaliers this upcoming season. The Bulls also have the advantage of years of experience playing with one another, and being coached by one of the best proven coaches in the league. Other teams like the Hornets, Wizards, HEAT and Raptors will also challenge the Cavaliers, but there is a big talent gap between those teams and Cleveland.

We won’t know for sure how good Cleveland can be next year until the season starts, but, as of now, it looks like it may be a two-team race in the East between the Bulls and the Cavaliers.

Up Close With Jerryd Bayless

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Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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