Seeking A Challenger To The Cleveland Cavaliers In The East

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the betting favorites to win the NBA championship as we stand on the brink of a new season next Tuesday night. The Cavs are a 14-5 bet to win it all. San Antonio, in spite of its championship pedigree and amazing offseason where they added Lamarcus Aldridge and David West, are behind Cleveland at 4-1. The reason has to be the weakness of the Eastern Conference.

Five teams from the Western Conference are considered Cleveland’s challengers for the crown. Golden State is a 5-1 shot to repeat. Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant presumably healthy is 8-1. The Los Angeles Clippers, with the addition of Paul Pierce for some postseason toughness, is 13-1. Houston is at 20-1. Not until we find Chicago at 22-1 is there a team that could block Cleveland’s entry into the 2016 NBA Finals next June.

That’s why, even though I don’t know that I would pick Cleveland in a best-of-seven against the top Western powers individually (I’d definitely pick the Spurs or Warriors), the landscape of the NBA makes the Cavaliers the only logical favorite at this time of year. It’s like betting the presidential race. You might not be sure if Hillary Clinton can beat the Republican nominee, but at least you know Hillary’s going to be in the finals.

So the most pertinent question in the NBA title race right now is whether or not any team in the East can even make Cleveland sweat? The outlook isn’t promising…

*Chicago might have Derrick Rose for now, but at this stage of his career, we know that doesn’t last. I like the Bulls’ offense, especially with Nikola Mirotic’s ability to space the floor, but we also have to see if Fred Hoiberg can coach defense the way Tom Thibodeau did. Nothing against Hoiberg, but I would not be optimistic.

*Atlanta was the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last year before an injury to DeMarre Carroll took away whatever chance they had against Cleveland. Carroll is now in Toronto and replacement Thabo Sefolosha never fulfilled his potential in Oklahoma City. The Hawks will regress.

*Carroll’s arrival in Toronto makes the Raptors better and this is a team that has been in the East’s top half each of the last two regular seasons. They have a good backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But the low post isn’t championship-quality and in the NBA you don’t go from never winning a postseason series (at least with this core group) to upending LeBron James in one year.

*Washington has made a lot of progress and would probably have made the conference finals last year if John Wall’s hand hadn’t been injured in the playoffs. But they lose Pierce and all his clutch shots. This is still a good team and if you want to argue them as the second-best in the East, I can buy it. But if that’s the case, it underscores the huge gap that exists between Cleveland and the rest of this conference.

*Indiana brings Paul George back, but George returns to a team that’s vastly different from the one that made consecutive Eastern Conference finals before running into LeBron’s Miami Heat in 2013-14. West is in San Antonio. Roy Hibbert fell apart and moved on. The interior presence that defined the Pacers in those years is long gone. And we don’t know how healthy George will be after missing last year with that awful leg injury.

*Milwaukee and Boston are playoff teams from last year and have good young talent. They’re the teams to watch for when LeBron starts to show his age, not the ones to beat him this year.

*Now we come to LeBron’s old employer, the Miami Heat. This is the one that’s interesting. The Heat had a disastrous year last season with Dwayne Wade never healthy and Chris Bosh shutting it down with a heart condition. Both are healthy this season. If that holds, Miami has both talent and guys with championship moxie. They also have Luol Deng at small forward and Goran Dragic running the show at point guard, acquired at last season’s trade deadline.

The Heat are slotted as a 40-1 shot, third-best in the East behind Cleveland and Chicago. If they get some punch inside—either from improvement from Hassam Whiteside or consistent health from Amare Stoudamire, or both—they’ll have all the pieces.

If you’re only interest in the NBA is who makes the Finals, then Miami represents your best shot at seeing the East become compelling. But even that’s a longshot at best.