In the NBA, it’s clear that the Eastern Conference isn’t nearly as powerful or competitive as the Western Conference. While up to eight teams out West consistently win 50-plus games every season, the East usually has one or two teams that make the postseason despite losing records. The imbalance of power in the league has caused many to suggest implementing a postseason that is seeded based off of the teams with the 16 best records, regardless of conference. That’s probably an idea worth exploring, but for the foreseeable future the current system isn’t going anywhere.
Despite it’s inferiority, the East does have at least one viable championship-level team at the top of the conference: the Cleveland Cavaliers. Once LeBron James walked back into the picture last season, we all knew this team would be a perennial contender. Then you add the likes of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving (the latter has yet to play this season after the knee injury he suffered in the Finals last June) and you have a heavyweight team that presents plenty of difficulties for the East. After making it to the NBA Finals one season prior, the Cavs appear hungrier than ever to win a title, which is obvious thanks to their terrific 8-2 start this season.
With how stacked the Cavs are, coupled with their competition in their conference, it seems pretty clear that the team is a heavy favorite to win the East once again. However, a few teams could give them fits as the season goes on and the playoffs arrive. Let’s analyze those teams and rank their odds of dethroning the mighty Cavs.
3. Indiana Pacers
A season ago, the Indiana Pacers fell from grace, failing to make the postseason after two straight conference finals appearances. Many of their struggles during that difficult campaign were due (in large part) to the absence of their superstar small forward Paul George. He missed nearly the entire season after breaking his leg, playing in only six games at the end of the year. Now that he’s back and healthy, the Pacers seem ready to make a push once again.
Alongside George, Monta Ellis, and George Hill provide a nice backcourt duo for Indiana; each player has the ability to pass and score. While the rest of the Pacers’ roster may seem nullified of talent and potential, pieces are in place that could help this team be successful.
Based off the early season product that the Pacers put on the floor, you have to say that the team is still figuring things out. They came out of the gate slow, losing their first three games. However, they rebounded since then to win 6 of 7. George is playing an outstanding brand of basketball, and the team should only get better from here. Once March and April come around, Indiana will be ready to challenge LeBron and the Cavs, although they are probably one or two players away from having enough skill to get past them successfully.
2. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat have built a nice roster since their old friend LeBron left town. In fact, their players may be ready to give the Cavs everything they can handle in the East. Dwyane Wade has been with the Heat for over a decade now, and despite his fair share of struggles in recent seasons, he looks fresh in 2015, averaging 18 points per game and about 4.5 assists so far. Alongside Wade is the crafty point guard Goran Dragic, a man who Miami made a priority to keep around during the offseason. The talented backcourt duo is only the beginning of the Heat’s depth.
In the frontcourt, third-year pro Hassan Whiteside is turning into an impressive player, putting up close to 15 points, 11 boards, and 4 blocks per game through 9 games. Whiteside’s development is a big factor in the Heat’s high ceiling this season. With seasoned veterans Luol Deng and Chris Bosh (the latter putting up about 19 points per game right now) joining Whiteside, you have a legitimate NBA starting five in Miami. They even have good talent off the bench, with the likes of Gerald Green, Chris Andersen, and rookie Justise Winslow. Clearly, this team is loaded with good players, giving them enough assets to be successful most nights.
Maybe more than any team in the East, the Heat are ready to challenge Cleveland. However, something seems to be missing. Maybe it’s a reliable closer in crunch-time situations. Maybe it’s the fact that LeBron and the Cavs are just too good. Regardless, Cleveland needs to pay attention to Miami through the season.
1. Atlanta Hawks
Nobody gives any love to the Atlanta Hawks, but when you look at their success from last season you have to give the team some respect. The reason people don’t talk about Atlanta is probably because their brand of basketball isn’t particularly sexy — but it is effective.
Led by Jeff Teague, the Hawks average the second-most assists in the league with nearly 27 per game. They also average the sixth-most points and shoot the fourth-highest field goal percentage. In short, they do a lot of things well, and despite not having “big name” players, this style of offense will allow Atlanta to win a bunch of games and sit near the top of the East once again.
Of course, when discussing whether or not the Hawks are a worthy opponent to Cleveland in the East, you have to discuss what happened in last season’s conference finals. Atlanta was steamrolled by James and the Cavs; they were swept in the series despite holding home-court advantage. Although there were some tight battles in that set, the Hawks simply couldn’t contain James.
There’s no question that Atlanta will receive a top 2 or 3 seed in the playoffs. They are also a big contender to make it back to the conference finals. However, once they get there and the Cavs (in all likelihood) are their opposition, it’s worth wondering if the Hawks could overcome that obstacle. Still, it appears that no team is more built and ready to challenge Cleveland in the East.