Welcome to the final edition of the Eastern Conference Power Rankings! We've had a blast writing this feature this year, and despite the amount of fun I've had at other teams' expense this year, I'll camp for the Eastern Conference to the end. The basketball here may not have the aesthetic qualities that Western Conference showdowns have, but the rivalries in the East are fun, and this playoffs feels just as unpredictable as the West should be, except instead of unpredictable in a "All of these teams are so good that it's going to be a bloodbath" way, the East will be unpredictable in a "We're lighting these illegal fireworks off and are prepared to send someone to the hospital" way. That is, someone's done gettin' blowed up real good this spring, and I'm not saying it's going to be the Brooklyn Nets, but it's probably going to be the Nets.
ANYWAY. This week we're going to do something a little different, in order to make this a more Cleveland Cavaliers-centric power rankings. I'll be ranking each team that's still in contention for a playoff spot in terms of how dangerous I feel a potential playoff matchup would be for the Cavs. Now, I should say that I'm not really that nervous about many teams in the Eastern Conference; I have watched the post-January 15th Cavs play, after all. However, there are matchups that would be favorable and ones that would be not be so fun. So without further ado, in reverse order, here's how dangerous I'd say the rest of the East is to the Cavs:
10. Charlotte Hornets (33-43, 11th in East)
While it's a long shot that the Hornets will climb up to the 7th seed, they are only two games behind the Nets with five to go, so it's still theoretically possible. And oh, do I want that theoretical situation to become reality. The Hornets don't match up well with Cleveland at all. Charlotte would be guarding Kyrie Irving with a still-hobbled Kemba Walker, Mo Williams, and Brian Roberts. An injured MKG would have to check LeBron James. Mozgov would probably struggle with Al Jefferson, but the Cavs haven't had issues clogging the Hornets' offense this year, even if big Al is cooking. We'd get LeBron punking the Artist Formerly Known as Lance Stephenson again. David would get mad that we'd make fun of Brian Roberts getting cooked constantly. It'd be a great time for everyone, really. When it comes down to it, just remember that Charlotte's scored 88, 87, and 90 points in three games against this Cavs defense this year, and got blasted 129-90 in their one post-1/15 showdown. Reeeeeally hope Charlotte can get lucky here.
9. Boston Celtics (35-42, 8th in East)
They're scrappy and have a fluid offense run by a brilliant coach, yes. Both those things are true. However, this team is not good at shooting from outside, hitting just 32.5 percent as a team for the season, and I'm not sure they can keep up with the Cavaliers offensively. They'll create some mismatches, sure, because Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko can both drag Kevin Love and/or Timofey Mozgov to the perimeter to open up driving lanes for Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart, and their ball movement can create some problems for the Cavs by generating switches. But you have to be able to knock down perimeter shots against the Cavs, and this team hasn't proven they can do that. On the other end, the Cavs should be able to pound Boston inside by putting LeBron and/or Kevin Love on the block, and while their backcourt can create some problems for Kyrie, The Cavs should be able to punish the C's from outside. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have size and quickness advantages over Avery Bradley and Evan Turner, respectively, and I'd expect the Cavs to use the post to open up open spot-up looks for their three-point shooters.
Boston, in theory, could probably be an annoying matchup for the Cavs. However, their offense isn't good enough, and they're too inexperienced, to be able to cause any real issues for the Cavs, in my opinion.
8. Brooklyn Nets (36-41, East 7th Seed)
The current most likely opponent, fresh off punking the Portland Trail Blazers at home, are above the Celtics for two reasons: Joe Johnson and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Both of these guys can create matchup problems for the Cavs because they can post up guys like Shump and J.R. In particular I'm nervous about the Seven-Time All Star, because he's killed playoff teams that have seemed to have answers for him before, like last year, when he posted 21.2 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting despite spending a majority of both series being guarded by Demar DeRozan and LeBron. Lionel Hollins is also a good coach, and can probably do some damage in spite of his roster just by letting JJ cook.
Then again, the Nets are old. They also play Jarrett Jack A LOT. And they just signed Earl Clark. Nevermind, Kyrie's going to spite Chris Grant one last time and average 40 points per game for the series.
7. Indiana Pacers (34-43, 9th in East)
I'm not as afraid of Indiana as many Cavs fans might be in the first round. Sure, they play inspired defense, Frank Vogel's been great this year, they're physical, and Paul George just came back. However, The Pacers have some glaring issues that I think the Cavs can expose. The Cavs have some great small-ball lineups that can negate the Pacers' defensive presence on the interior, and Kevin Love will also help with that a lot. I also wonder if the Pacers might rely too much on George offensively, as they did in George's limited minutes against the Miami Heat on Sunday. George took 12 shots in 14 minutes of action, and while that's not anything to extrapolate too far, the Pacers' offense does tend to get a little one-dimensional at times and just go with what they think will work, regardless of results. The combination of the Cavs' offense stretching the Pacers' defense and the Pacers' offense being what it is mean that I think this would be a lot cleaner series than people think, unless George, C.J. Miles, or George Hill just do ridiculous things again.
Indiana's definitely good enough to pick up a game against the Cavs, especially if they aren't locked in. However, I can't see a series here going more than six.
6. Milwaukee Bucks (38-39, East 6th Seed)
The Bucks would probably give the Cavs similar problems to the Pacers. They have a lot of length, a great defensive scheme, and a few guys who can swing games with their shooting, like Khris Middleton. The Cavs have had some difficulty getting penetration on the Bucks this season, and while I'm not exactly scared of their offense with Michael Carter-Williams at the helm, he is going to be a tough cover for the Cavs due to his length, even if he only hits 38 percent of his shots.
Again, this game probably comes down to the Cavs' outside shooting. The Bucks do a good job of cutting off the dribble drive and PNR, but they struggle to defend plays like dribble hand-offs and plays where shooters can spring free off screens, and these are plays where Kyrie and J.R. can do a lot of damage. This is another team where LeBron can do a lot of damage at the four, as well, because small-ball lineups will force Ersan Ilyasova or Giannis Antetokuonmpo onto James, and he can destroy either of those two in the PNR. The Bucks might make things a little messy for the Cavs due to their athleticism, especially if they beat the Bulls and catch the Cavs coming off a rough series against, say, the Heat. But they probably can't totally rely on their offense to score consistently throughout a series.
5. Miami Heat (34-43, 10th in East)
If they were only missing Chris Bosh, they might be the 3rd or 4th team on this list. But Dwyane Wade's knee has flared up again, Hassan Whiteside has a nagging hand injury, Shabazz Napier's done for the year, and Chris Andersen has a foot injury. I mean, even Michael Beasley's hurt. That's just how this season's gone for the Heat.
So why are they above the Pacers and Bucks? Because even if they are missing half their team, they still have a gimpy Wade and a healthy Luol Deng and Goran Dragic. Those two present some issues for the Cavs, thanks to Dragic's ability to drive and kick, and Deng's two-way stabilizing force on the perimeter. They also have the best coach in the East in Erik Spoelstra, who happens to be the one guy besides Wade who knows LeBron the best in the league. The Cavs have plenty of firepower inside, and if Whiteside isn't 100%, the Heat might not have a good answer for Mozgov and Tristan Thompson on the glass and in the frontcourt defensively to swing the series. However, I think Miami will definitely give Cleveland some issues, and at least make it a very, very tight 5 games or steal two.
4. Chicago Bulls (46-31, East 3rd Seed)
There were many Bulls fans who watched Sunday's Cavs/Bulls game and came away thinking, "The Bulls only lost by 5! They can totally hang with the Cavs in a series!"
But the final quarter didn't tell the whole story, of a game where the Bulls, they of the legendary defensive scheme, got wrecked by the Cavs offense. LeBron worked Jimmy Butler from the block. The Cavs killed the Bulls in transition. J.R. Smith was unconscious. The Cavs may have only scored 99 points, but the pace was gummed down by the Bulls......Bulls-ness, and the Cavs have had success against the Bulls defense every time they've played this year.
Now, the Bulls do present some issues. The Love/Mozgov combo struggles to account for both Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol inside, and Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell are tough covers for anyone on the Cavs bench. And the Bulls always have the ability to turn things into a rock fight, which is going to favor the team that admittedly has more frontcourt depth and plays more sound defense.
However, at the end of the season, coming off what could be another bloodbath against the Bucks or Washington Wizards, with Derrick Rose trying to reassimilate to the lineup YET AGAIN.......the Cavs really aren't in threat of losing a potential series against Chicago. I just can't see it.
3. Toronto Raptors (45-32, East 4th Seed)
They've played like absolute crap for two months, sure. And the Cavs have had no problem dispatching them before this season, yes. But I still don't really like the idea of squaring off with the Raptors in the second round as much as I like the idea of the Bulls. The reason? Toronto's offense might be good enough to make up for their defensive struggles.
Toronto gets to the line a ton, and they convert at a 79 percent rate while there. They're incredibly deep, and their bench is full of guys who can create problems for the Cavs; Lou Williams is their J.R., Patrick Patterson is the most underrated stretch four in the league (Not named James Jones, of course), and James Johnson, now that he's not in his winter funk, can defend LeBron pretty well. And even though the Raptors defense has been just dreadful for the last three months, they are good at rotating and recovering and forcing secondary actions out of an offense, which might stress the Cavs' offense a tad.
Ultimately a series probably comes down to Kyrie's ability to score on Kyle Lowry, and Mozgov's ability to contain Jonas Valanciunas, both of which I feel comfortable the Cavs have an advantage. Lowry can defend well, but Kyrie always seems to frustrate him, and JV shies away from guys who can create physicality that equals his. Well, here's the Mozgovernor, here to veto your baby hooks and turn them into transition looks for the Cavs.
I think a Cavs/Raptors series would be much better than many anticipate, but again, we're probably talking about a series that goes seven, not the Cavs being in any crucial danger.
2. Washington Wizards (44-33, East 5th Seed)
We wrote them off, we created many a joke in their name, we disregarded them as a threat.....and here they are. They've won four of five, just beat Memphis at Memphis, and have a chance to make a huge statement down the stretch, finishing out against the Hawks, Pacers, and Cavs. John Wall's been solid of late, Bradley Beal's rounding into form, and even #Wittman is finally figuring things out, like "What if we played our best frontcourt player in the 4th quarter?" and "What if Otto Porter got minutes instead of playing three power forwards at once?" Things could be heating up for the Wizards.
Now, the Cavs have plenty that can make the Wizards squirm. Love drags Nene or Gortat away from the interior, and Beal's still somewhat one-dimensional, which should allow J.R. or Shump to handle him comfortably. Nene and Paul Pierce are also banged up currently, which means LeBron should be feasting on either. And against Randy Wittman, LeBron could actually player-coach his way to outperforming him on the bench.
But this is the Wizards. The arch-nemesis. The team we've belittled joked about all season. I haven't considered them a real threat against the Cavs all season.......but wouldn't it be at least slightly fitting if the Wizards made me eat crow forever by playing their way to the three seed and upending the Cavs in a 7-game blood bath in the second round?
1. Atlanta Hawks (57-19, East 1st Seed)
Obviously. The Hawks are the greatest threat to the Cavs in the playoffs. They have a very efficient offensive system, a quirky defense built around quickness and length in the frontcourt and annoyance on the perimeter, and they have given the Cavs many, many problems in their games this season. Even if they've gone through a little bit of a swoon as of late, they're still the most balanced team in the conference, one that can give the Cavs fits on both ends.
The Cavs do have some advantages against the Hawks. For one, the Hawks aren't a rebounding team on either end, and the Cavs can take advantage of that, especially on the offensive glass, to give an extra boost to their offense. The Cavs can also hurt the Hawks with their interior passing out of the post if they bring LeBron or Love down on the block, and their PNR coverage gave the Hawks fits in the second half of their last game. The Cavs also have the cliche, "We know who our crunch-time scorers are, you don't" argument, but whether that has any validity remains to be seen.
There aren't many East teams who have both offensive weapons to attack the Cavs defense and answers for the Cavs' best offensive tactics. The Hawks can do both of those things, and have some weapons (i.e., Kyle Korver going off and Mike Scott) who the Cavs really don't have answers for. That's why they're number one, and that's why I'm still not sure the Cavs can beat the Hawks in a potential conference finals matchup.