aNewDomain — One thing is certain about the NBA’s Eastern Conference both in this year and the foreseeable future: Everyone but the Cleveland Cavaliers is playing for second place.
Unlike their counterparts in the West, even mediocre teams that play in this conference have a shot at the postseason. But all roads to the Finals go through Cleveland, and no other team in the East has enough to handle the Cavs.
Nothing is more certain than another Cavs trip to the Finals. The LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Love trio combined for 65 points per game last season, plenty of firepower to dominate an incredibly weak conference. J.R. Smith was a postseason star last season, but he’ll need to be satisfied with taking a serious back seat in this caste system. And it looks like a sixth consecutive trip to the Finals for LeBron.
Boom or bust? It all depends on how much Derrick Rose and, to a lesser degree, Jimmy Butler play. It’s well documented that Rose can’t stay on the court. He hasn’t played more than 51 games since the 2010-’11 season. Butler, who averaged 20 points per game last year, missed a combined 32 games the past two seasons.
A surprise entrant in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks established a tough act to follow. Losing small forward DeMarre Carroll to the Raptors creates a big hole. Getting center Tiago Splitter in a trade with the Spurs will help shore up the Hawks’ rebounding issues. They were 28th in the league in that category last season.
The aforementioned Carroll gives the Raptors a legit stopper on defense, a gaping hole for Toronto last season. DeMar DeRozan has averaged more than 20 points per game the past two years. Point guard Kyle Lowry has put up almost 18 points a game the past two seasons. Offense isn’t a problem in Toronto.
Dwyane Wade is 33 years old and entering the twilight of a Hall of Fame career. He put up 21.5 points per game last season. Forward Chris Bosh is just happy to be alive. Bosh suffered a life-threatening blood clot in his lung last season. Center Hassan Whiteside was a revelation last year, and Goran Dragic is a solid point guard. The second unit will be the biggest question.
Truth be told, the Wizards could finish anywhere between third and sixth in the conference. John Wall (17.6 points and 10 assists per game) and Bradley Beal (15.3 ppg. and 40.9 percent from 3-point range) form an outstanding young backcourt. Washington will challenge for its division title and could make a nice playoff run.
The Bucks will start five players who averaged double figures in points last season and few are household names. They have one of the most watchable guys in the league in the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has an amazing 7-foot-3 wingspan, and his dunks are becoming YouTube sensations.
Boston made the playoffs a season or two ahead of schedule last year. Coach Brad Stevens appears to be the rare coach who can successfully move from college to the pros. The Celtics will need to choose between second-year player Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas as the starter at point guard. Forward David Lee will try to get his career started again after coming over from Golden State in the off-season.
Glory days have come and gone for the Pacers. George Hill (16.1 points per game) and free-agent pickup Monta Ellis (18.9 ppg.) will provide scoring punch. Paul George can only hope for a return to good health after his horrific leg injury playing for Team USA and a strained calf muscle late last season with the Pacers.
Bad uniforms aside, Charlotte is almost good enough to challenge for the playoffs in the weak East. Al Jefferson (16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game) and Kemba Walker (17.3 ppg.) are a solid 1-2 punch.
The Pistons last made the playoffs in 2009, which equates to a lifetime in this league. Center Andre Drummond averaged a little more than 13 points and rebounds last season. He’s a beast.
Where has all the talent gone? Center Brook Lopez (17.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game) is the focus of the offense, such as it is. The New York metro region is stuck with two stiffs.
It’s going to take some serious magic for Orlando to register more than 30 victories. Center Nikola Vucevic (19.3 points, 10.9 rebounds per game), Tobias Harris (17.1 ppg.) and Victor Oladipo (17.9 ppg.) give Orlando a little punch on offense.
New York Knicks
It’s inexcusable that the Knicks are this bad. Their 17 wins last season were the fewest in franchise history. No reason to think things are going to get much better this time around.
While the Sixers will scuffle to get much more than 20-22 wins, there is hope for the future. Jahlil Okafor is the odds-on favorite to be named rookie of the year.
Photo of LeBron James courtesy of David Herrera. Photo of Kyrie Irving courtesy of Erik Drost. Photo of Dwyane Wade courtesy of Keith Allison. Photo of Kemba Walker courtesy of Pkantz.