We're about halfway through the regular season and not much has changed from the beginning of the season on the landscape of the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the best team by a comfortable margin (and doing so without All-Star Kyrie Irving for a majority of the season) and the tier below them changing positions on a daily basis.
Because this is the first power rankings of the new year, it's fair to finally ask the question of who poses the biggest threat to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference? Up to four teams have laid their claim over the first 40-plus games of the season, with none of them getting ahead of the rest of the pack and all of them having questions they need answered. Can the Heat figure out how to maximize their offense with the pieces they have? WIll the Hawks be anywhere near their level of play last year? Is Derrick Rose going to show any signs of consistency, or will we consistently see only flashes from him? Can the Raptors defense be good enough to compete with Cleveland
As the playoffs continue to closer and closer after each game, and with the All-Star game slowly creeping up on us, let's take a look at this week's Eastern Conference power rankings and try to answer the question that was posed.
14. Brooklyn Nets
13. Milwaukee Bucks
11. Orlando Magic
5. Miami Heat
As far as talent goes, the Heat might have the second best in the East. Chris Bosh is flying extremely under the the radar and has earned every single ounce of consideration for the All-Star game; Hassan Whiteside, although still trying to figure things out offensively, has become the best shot-blocker in the league; and, despite having a down year by his standards, you can't count out Wade's impact when the playoffs come around. The problem for them, however, is that all of those individual pieces don't necessarily fit. If coach Erik Spoelstra can figure out how to make all those pieces work, it will be one of his finest jobs with the Heat and could make them the biggest challenge for Cleveland come playoff time.
This seems to be a common theme with the Bulls over the last two seasons: just when you think they are the biggest threat to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference, they immediately drop back in the back. Five days ago, Jesus Gomes wrote how the Bulls were finally becoming the Cavs' biggest challenge in the East, and since that article was posted, the Bulls have lost two straight, including one to a Wizards team that has been all sorts of disappointment. Once this team is finally at full strength, they could in fact be the second best team in the East, but for now, they fall behind two other teams.
3. Atlanta Hawks
What made the Hawks as good a team as they were last year was their San Antonio Spurs-like ball movement that made them so tough to plan for throughout the regular season and major reason as to why they ended up winning 60 games. Although they've been no where as good as they a year ago (due mostly to regression), they've started to find their rhythm on the offensive end in their last 10 games, where their 108.1 offensive rating in that span ranks sixth best in the league. While Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Al Horford have all shown shades of their play last year, if the Hawks want to beat the Cavs, they're gonna need Kyle Korver to break out of a season-long slump.
2. Toronto Raptors
I've never been as high on DeMar DeRozan as most have, and my opinion on him relies heavily on his shot selection. In an era where there is a large emphasis on three-pointers and attacking the rim, DeRozan's game has been somewhat the opposite, using his midrange game -- considered the worst shot analytically and not exactly a strength of his game. This year, however, DeRozan has been more aggressive toward driving to the basket more and the result has been his best year statistically of his career. Combine his play with Kyle Lowry's borderline All-Star level season, the Raptors could pose the biggest challenge for the defending Eastern Conference champions.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
A couple of weeks ago, I said on our very own podcast that this season has merely been a waiting game. First it was waiting for Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert to come back from injury, then once they were healthy it was waiting to see how this team would look at full strength. Now with all of that complete, it's a wait until the playoffs and getting to games that matter. Barring another injury, the Cavs should be able to cruise into the playoffs with home court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs.