The Cleveland Cavaliers are the big bad wolf of the Eastern Conference, in fact that’s been the case of LeBron’s teams since his first season in Miami in 2010-11. LeBron’s return to Cleveland was followed by his full endorsement of making the deal for Kevin Love, which hasn’t always been pitch perfect, but LeBron understood the value of having a Big 3 formed with himself, Love, and Kyrie Irving.
In the last two regular seasons the Cavs are 110-54. The team hadn’t cracked 35 wins in the prior four seasons during LeBron’s absence. Over the last five years the Eastern Conference simply hasn’t featured the likes of any formidable challengers against LeBron. The Pierce-Ray-KG Boston Celtics were the last true powerhouse outside of LeBron in the East — we did see Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah’s Bulls and Paul George’s Pacers emerge as mere pests against LeBron’s Miami teams, and last season we saw the Atlanta Hawks erupt for a franchise-best 60-win season only to be swept by the Cavaliers in the conference finals.
This season the Eastern Conference took an interesting and diverse competitive shape. While there still isn’t one team with the depth of talent to fully match Cleveland’s, we have four core teams in the East that are capable of hurting the Cavs for different reasons.
The Miami Heat probably have the most talent to combat Cleveland with, which would be even more so the case if they had Chris Bosh. Dragic, Wade, and Whiteside plus Joe Johnson is still pretty high grade firepower.
The Toronto Raptors rightfully earned their place as the East’s second best team in the regular season. Their discouraging first round Game 1 loss at the hands of the Pacers might have dropped their potential stock, but the East’s best backcourt in Lowry/DeRozan is what gives them a chance against the Cavs.
The Boston Celtics are resilient, deep, and disciplined. What gives them a fighting chance against any team in the league is their commitment to team basketball and execution. Their style of play and internal toughness makes them a hard out for the Cavs, like they showed on Feb. 5 when they won in Cleveland on an Avery Bradley buzzer-beating three-pointer.
The Atlanta Hawks, like the Celtics, play with that fortitude and discipline needed to contend with top-tier talent. As opposed to last season, which was emphasized by their dynamic offense, the Hawks are now more defensive-minded, but are still efficient and balanced offensively.
Each of these teams presents a different kind of test for Cleveland. Are any of them prepared to match up with the Cavs talent-wise? Again, I think Miami would be the only team you could say that about if they had Chris Bosh, but the Heat are still the closest to it.
Like we saw on Sunday, the Cavaliers can win games solely on the production of their Big 3. What we also saw was an eighth-seeded Pistons team that had success going right at the Cavs, who still aren’t an elite defensive team. It would take a massive effort by any of these teams to actually beat the Cavs four out of seven times, but while the Cavs are clearly the dominant force in the East, we know by now that they’re not unbeatable.
With the Cavs healthy, yes, they’re safe to make it out of the East, but I do feel that this year’s conference foes are more capable of testing LeBron than in years past, meaning if Cleveland provides the slightest bit of breathing room in future rounds, they might not be as safe as we think.