The Cleveland Cavaliers have made back-to-back NBA Finals while experiencing a relatively low volume of push back from the other teams in the East. Detractors like to talk about how the East is a weaker conference and the Cavs just don’t play a high level of competition until they reach the Finals. What that ignores is LeBron has dominated the East for over half a decade. The dominance of LeBron is less about the talent level of the teams he is defeating and more about his individual greatness. LeBron is aiming to make a seventh straight NBA Finals this spring and it begs the question, can anyone in the East stop him?
While it is early in the Cavaliers title defense, the picture of the eastern conference is starting to come into clearer focus. The Cavaliers are still top of the class in the east and, barring injuries, will be heavy favorites to reach a third consecutive NBA Finals. What teams, if any, pose a threat to LeBron James run of seven straight NBA Finals appearances?
Based off of early returns the Atlanta Hawks are the biggest threat to end LeBron’s run of dominance. While the words “Atlanta” “threat” and “playoffs” might seem foreign to many Cavs fans given the two teams recent histories this Hawks team is different than the past iterations. Al Horford and Jeff Teague are no longer with the team much to the dismay of Tristan Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Cavs fans everywhere. The Hawks brought in Dwight Howard to play center next to the criminally underrated Paul Millsap and in the team’s first matchup this year Howard’s presence was felt mightily. The former defensive player of the year was a monster on the boards for Atlanta grabbing 17 rebounds and helping the Hawks to a four point win in Cleveland. Tristan Thompson is a superb player but Howard is a bad matchup for Thompson. Offensively Tristan does not draw enough attention which allows Howard to protect the rim for Atlanta and defensively Howard can bully Tristan down low.
It is not just Dwight Howard that can cause the Cavs issues though. The Hawks are deep in the front court with Kris Humphries and Mike Muscala to compliment Howard and Millsap. The Hawks will be able to throw multiple looks and fresh bodies at the Cavs in a seven game series while it’s likely that the Cavs will have to ask a lot of Tristan, Kevin Love and Channing Frye. Through the Hawks first 13 games this season they lead the eastern conference in point differential and are allowing the third least points per game.
The Hawks are the biggest threat to the Cavaliers in the East but they are not the only team that looks as though they might be a tough out in the playoffs. Both the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors have flashed the type of play needed to beat the Cavaliers in the playoffs. The Raptors have great guard play but suffer in the front court and we have already seen the Cavaliers beat the Raptors twice this season. The Raptors offense is elite so far this year, but defensively they are allowing over 104 points per game and relying on offense to simply outscore the Cavaliers is not a recipe for success.
The Bulls are a threat for the opposite reason of the Raptors. Defensively, Fred Hoiberg has the Bulls play extremely well. The Bulls are allowing just 98.9 points per game and sport the conference’s third best point differential, behind Cleveland and Atlanta, because of it. The three headed monster of Rajon Rondo, Dwayne Wade and Jimmy Butler have, early on, coexisted to some degree, and the acquisition of Robin Lopez has given the Bulls a defensive anchor in the middle. Both the Bulls and Raptors would be underdogs in a playoff series with the Cavs (as will everyone in the East) but when each team is hitting on all cylinders they can be dangerous.
The Eastern Conference is doing everything it can to get out from beneath the thumb of its overlord LeBron James. Teams like the Hawks and Bulls have made roster altering moves to try and get past their regular playoff foil, while the Raptors are trying to perfect a style that beat the Cavs twice in the playoffs last season. In all honesty it probably won’t be enough but perhaps for the east the seventh time will be the charm.
*all stats via NBA.com