Just 6.5 games stand between the 3rd and tenth seed in the East, something not unusual this time of year in the playoff hunt. However, what is unusual, is that every seed between them, with the exception of the tenth seeded Washington Wizards, have a winning record, an accolade that not even the historically better West can boast.
The Cavaliers, long thought to have an easy way to the Finals and likely in a rematch with the Golden State Warriors, now see that they won’t be able to waltz through the playoffs in a conference that now has gained some toughness.
With February losses to Eastern Conference playoff foes Charlotte, Boston, Detroit, Toronto, and 10th seeded Washington, and even a close Overtime victory to Indiana, the Cavaliers have some dysfunction right now, and its showing in their inner-conference games.
Stephen A. Smith, a controversial reporter / sports personality, made headlines this week saying that Cavalier star point guard Kyrie Irving is unhappy in Cleveland and would prefer to play elsewhere.
While the legitimacy of these rumors deserves questioning, the fact that its a story may very well cause more tension among a Cavalier locker room not known for its brotherhood. J.R. Smith came out and said, after their loss to Washington, this (Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN):
“We can’t play basketball like this going down the stretch. There’s 24, 25 games left in the year and you talk about contending, being a championship contender and get blown out by a team. … After losing a game to the No. 2 team in the East then you come out and get thrashed and make it look good at the end.
We can’t do that. If we’re serious about who we’re supposed to be, then we can’t do this.”
The struggles on and off the court that the Cavs are facing are roadblocks for them, but opportunities for their fellow Eastern Conference contenders.
Toronto has emerged as one of the best teams in the East in the last few seasons, and they seem to be serious about reaching the Finals. Led by a splashcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both averaging over 21 points a game, the Raptors pose matchup problems for any team without good defensive guards.
The rest of the team, made up of mostly overachieving role players like Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, and Luis Scola, and young guns like DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross, and Jonas Valanciunas, and its these folks who make me doubt this team could actually compete with the Warriors if they made it to the Finals. However, an appearance is very possible.
In the same boat as the Raptors, the star-led teams of the Pacers, Hornets, and Heat could find themselves hitting their strides in the playoffs, and all three of them could potentially beat the Cavaliers in a second round matchup.
The Pacers have seen a resurgent version of Paul George storm back and lead this team to some key victories so far this season. He’s scoring over 23 points, almost 5 assists, and 7 boards, and if his team was competing for the number one seed rather than the 6th or 7th, we could find him in the MVP conversation.
Myles Turner has shown flashes stardom, and Monta Ellis and George Hill are good complementary scorers.
The Hornets also have relied heavily on hero play from point guard and Franchise favorite Kemba Walker. One of the more clutch players in the league, Kemba is scoring 20.6 PPG along with 5.2 APG and 4.4 RPG, along with a healthy 1.7 SPG.
They also have seen newcomer Nicolas Batum have an amazing season, being a veteran leader alongside a still young Kemba. His jack-of-all-trades skill-set have provided the Hornets much more than the package of Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh, whom they traded for him this past summer.
With Al Jefferson healthy, Jeremy Lin playing like a sixth man of the year candidate, and Jeremy Lamb, Cody Zeller, and Marvin Williams playing well, the Hornets could be a wild card pick to make a run.
Lastly, the star studded Miami Heat team find themselves in fourth place in the East. Unfortunately, the team is made up of some older veterans like Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, A’Mare Stoudemire, Luol Deng, and Chris Bosh. While these guys can still play, I am not sure how they would fare in a seven game series.
The youth of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Gerald Green and Justise Winslow is nice, but they alone can’t beat the Cavs four times. Also, with a very real possibility of blood clots shutting down Chris Bosh’s season once again, this team could hobble into the playoffs with real injury woes.
Aside from the star led teams, the Hawks, Celtics, Bulls, and Pistons are all fighting for positioning. The Hawks and Celtics have a third seed in their sights, and the Bulls and Pistons are jostling for the 7th and 8th seed.
I worry about the Bulls. Their starters don’t click, they have logjams at the big man positions, and their team is made up of mostly veterans. Jimmy Butler is their young stud, but how many games can you put on his back?
The Bulls always show up to play, though, which is why if I am the Cavaliers I am hoping for anyone but the Bulls to be that eighth seed. The Bulls-Cavs rivalry is real, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bulls took out the Cavs in the first round, only to lose to the winner of the 4-5 seed matchup in the second round.
The Pistons made a huge move at the deadline to bring in star swingman Tobias Harris. Stan Van Gundy is building something real in Detroit around Andre Drummond, and a supporting cast of flashy Reggie Jackson, rookie Stanley Johnson, shooters Jodie Meeks, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Marcus Morris, and now Harris makes for a team no-one wants to see in April.
They won their last four games in February and seem to really be clicking at the right time.
The Hawks are still the Spurs of the East, even if their record isn’t as pristine as last season.
They are two deep at every position, and despite being swept by the Cavs last year in the Conference Finals, I do think they could dethrone LeBron and his crew were they to meet again in the postseason.
I’m happy that they didn’t blow up the team at the deadline like many predicted, because this core has been together for a while now and hasn’t even reached its peak. Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague and Al Horford make up one of the best starting lineups in the league, and their bench has weapons too. Whatever seed Atlanta is in April, part of me expects them to get back to the Conference Finals.
Finally, the Boston Celtics get some press. The Celtics have overachieved this season after not making noise in the playoffs last year, and a lot of credit for that should go to head coach and mastermind Brad Stevens.
The team has a ragtag bunch of gritty defenders, three and D wings, and awkward footed big men. But it works.
Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart make up a mean three headed monster of ball handlers, while Evan Turner and the beloved Jae Crowder give opposing wings trouble.
Their big men is the weakness that I think could break them, though. Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, two very talented scorers, aren’t defensively gifted. Amir Johnson, whom they grossly overpaid to come in and address their defensive deficiencies, is no savior.
This team tried to address their big man problems at the deadline, but they will have to revisit it this summer with yet another call to the Kings asking for DeMarcus Cousins. It still won’t work. They do have Brooklyns first round pick though, which could turn into something better.
Its apparent now that the Cavaliers have more than a few obstacles in their way before they can rematch with the splash brothers in June. I wouldn’t rule out a second round exit for the Cavs, and that would blow the entire league wide open.
Just imagine the drama- Cavs lose in second round with LeBron becoming a free agent – oh the possibilities.
Worst case, they trade the unhappy Kyrie Irving, watch LeBron walk away and rejoin the Heat (or, even worse, the Warriors or Spurs), build around a very stable Kevin Love and fall back into the graces of a consistent 9th seeded finish. Kevin Love knows all too much about that.
That, of course, is goofy speculation. But with the Cavs demise this April, who would step up?
My bet would be on the Raptors, but then again the Hawks, Pacers, and Hornets all could throw us a curveball and reach the Finals.
It doesn’t really matter, though.
No-one except Cleveland has a shot against GSW, so its fair to say the Eastern conference representative would simply be there for the experience.
I don’t mean to discount the skill of Toronto, Atlanta, Indy and so on, but the only guys who could phase Steph Curry would be the monster of a team in Cleveland led by King James. Let’s just see if Cleveland can come together to get there first.