51Q: Who’s the second-best team in the East -- and does it matter?
We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.
The Bulls have just Taj Gibson left from 2011. The Celtics have only Avery Bradley left from 2012. The Pacers are down to just Paul George from 2013 and 2014. The Hawks have already moved on from three starters (Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll and Al Horford) from 2015. The Raptors are largely in tact from 2016, but for how long?
LeBron James hasn’t just won the last six Eastern Conference titles. He has torn apart his conference-finals opposition.
LeBron is going for a seventh straight conference title this year, and his Cavaliers are heavily favored to get it.
Toronto will take another stab at unseating Cleveland, and a new-look Boston appears formidable. But the rest of the East lags well behind the Cavs.
LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love form an untouchable trio in the conference. Tristan Thompson is an excellent fourth wheel, and assuming J.R. Smith eventually signs, he’ll fit well as a 3-point sniper and push Iman Shumpert into being an effective sixth man.
But there are cracks in the foundation. Cleveland is short a reliable backup point guard after losing Matthew Dellavedova to the Bucks and Mo Williams to retirement. Several key contributors – Channing Frye (33), Mike Dunleavy (36), Richard Jefferson (36) and Chris Andersen (38) – are old. This is where LeBron’s Heat teams got into trouble, asking too much of over-the-hill veterans no longer capable of providing quality depth.
Again, though, it didn’t matter until the Finals, if it did at all. Miami still won the East all four years LeBron played there.
LeBron been so dominant within his conference, there’s virtue in second place.
The Raptors should probably be thrilled with repeating last season’s results (a franchise-best 56 wins and their first two victorious best-of-seven playoff series). With Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas returning, it’s possible not to slip. A healthier DeMarre Carroll could even make Toronto more threatening, though losing Bismack Biyombo hurts.
The Celtics should be better with Al Horford, a true-way contributor built for the playoffs. A solid core with Horford, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, a treasure trove of extra draft picks and plenty of cap flexibility have Boston well-positioned for the next several years. If that means finishing second in the East this year, that’s an excellent step in the right direction – one that could help the Celtics lure their much-coveted next star.
Other teams – like the Pistons, Hawks, Pacers and Hornets – should be over the moon with losing to the Cavs in the conference finals. That’d be a major breakthrough for those upstarts.
But it’s still likely to be Cleveland in the end – even if there’s room for false hope first. LeBron’s teams have fallen short of the No. 1 seed most years of his NBA Finals streak. They’re just good enough to win in the playoffs regardless.
LeBron is 72-20 Eastern Conference playoff games and 18-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series the last six years. His Cavaliers had won 17 straight Eastern Conference playoff games before dropping its guard against Toronto last season. Cleveland still regrouped to dominate the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals and advance to face the Warriors.
The Warriors could be even better this year, with Kevin Durant joining Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But Golden State might not even be the most likely team to win its conference. The Cavs are that much ahead of their Eastern Conference foes.
Everyone is fighting to face Cleveland in the conference finals – to be the last team standing in case. In case LeBron gets hurt, in case the Cavs’ shooters go cold, in case Kevin Love fits out, in case…
In case the longshot pulls through.
But we know the resounding favorite.