Projecting the NBA Eastern Conference's top five
PROJECTING THE NBA EASTERN CONFERENCE'S TOP FIVE
BOSTON – It’s hard to look at the Eastern Conference as anything more than LeBron James and a bunch of other teams that wish they had him.
James has been the only constant in the starting lineup of the NBA Finals each of the last six seasons, having come away with the Larry O’Brien trophy three times (twice in Miami and last season in Cleveland).
As defending NBA champions, the Cavs will once again be the standard by which other teams measure themselves against this season.
Based on a slew of moves made during the offseason, the gap between Cleveland and the rest of the East is slowly but surely shrinking for teams poised to finish near the top of the conference standings this season.
Here we take a look at five teams that will go into training camp with their eyes set on doing more than just get to the postseason, but make a deep and meaningful playoff run that could lead to them doing the seemingly unthinkable: Dethroning the defending champions.
5. DETROIT PISTONS
Andre Drummond (seen at left) and Reggie Jackson have proven themselves as a nice inside-outside, 1-2 punch for Detroit, which has quality players all over the floor. Drummond is one of the most dominant centers in the NBA despite being just 23 years old. He’s coming off a season in which he was named an All-Star and wound up leading the league with 66 double-doubles. Meanwhile, Jackson has improved his scoring every season in the league and was a borderline All-Star last season when he averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists, both career highs. Detroit head coach/GM Stan Van Gundy did a nice job of addressing areas of concern going forward; specifically getting a legit big man to backup Drummond. Van Gundy signed 7-foot-3, 290-pound center Boban Marjanovic to a three-year, $21 million contract after he played for San Antonio last season. Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson are all young, promising players that provide Detroit with some quality depth on the perimeter which should be enough to solidify them as a playoff team for the second year in a row and likely have them in the thick of things for home court advantage in the first round.
4. TORONTO RAPTORS
Re-signing DeMar DeRozan (left) was important when you consider he and point guard Kyle Lowry form one of the best backcourt tandems in the NBA. They lost Bismack Biyombo to free agency (he signed with Orlando). But the Raptors did a good job of filling that void by signing ex-Celtic Jared Sullinger to a one-year, $6 million deal. Even with Sullinger, whose play should exceed his contract’s value, the Raptors will be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s record-setting season in which they won 56 games. Toronto should be good enough to secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but there are at least a couple teams whose offseason additions moved them slightly ahead of a still-talented Raptors team.
3. INDIANA PACERS
No team in the East improved its roster as much as the Indiana Pacers. They acquired a much-needed point guard who can score and dish with the best of them, in Jeff Teague (left). They now have an elite back-to-the-basket scorer in ex-Celtic Al Jefferson, along with one of the steadiest hybrid forwards in Thaddeus Young. The new guys join a roster that already features All-Star Paul George, emerging star Myles Turner and veteran holdovers Rodney Stuckey and Lavoy Allen. In other words, the Pacers are really talented and deep. It may take a little time for this group to mesh under Nate McMillan, who is entering his first season as the Pacers’ head coach. But by the time the postseason arrives, the Pacers will be a legit threat to contend for a spot in the Conference finals.
2. BOSTON CELTICS
One of the reasons why the Celtics were one of the better teams in the East last season was because of their depth. Well, that depth is even deeper now with the addition of all-star Al Horford (left) via free agency -- yes, the Celtics landed an elite free agent, which as we know does not happen often -- as well as rookie Jaylen Brown, the third overall pick in the draft. They join a core unit that consists of All-Star Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder at small forward and defensive aces Avery Bradley, a first team All-NBA defender last season, and Marcus Smart. Did we mention the high-flying Gerald Green was back in the fold, too? Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko -- all starters at some point last season -- will see action as well. The Celts will wear down a lot of teams because they are so deep, but they are still a piece or two away from being a legit NBA title contender. This team is good enough to get to the Conference finals, with anything less than a trip to the second round of the playoffs being a disappointment.
1. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
They are the defending champs and return the most unstoppable force in the game not named Stephen Curry (who crashed back to earth during the NBA Finals last spring). Despite the significant upgrade Golden State made in acquiring Kevin Durant, the Cavs are still the team to beat. In addition to LeBron James, the NBA Finals last season was a coming out of sorts for Kyrie Irving. For most of the series, it was he -- not Curry -- who was the best guard in the series. And as Team USA makes its quadrennial march towards another Olympic gold medal, Irving continues to shine even when surrounded by some of the game’s biggest stars. If Irving can somehow sustain the level of play we saw during the Finals last season (and currently in the Olympics), Cleveland will be poised for a legit shot at back-to-back titles. In addition to James and Irving, the Kevin Love/Tristan Thompson frontcourt tandem will continue to cause major problems for most teams because each can significantly impact the game at a moment’s notice, whether it’s Thompson’s knack for offensive rebounding (he was tied for fourth last season in the NBA with 3.3 per game) or Kevin Love gobbling up boards on the defensive glass (his 8.0 defensive rebounds per game was eighth in the NBA last season). The East has a number of teams that have made notable improvements since last season, but the East is Cleveland’s to lose. At this point, they are head and shoulders above every team in the East.