The Eastern Conference will look very, very different next season. That much is certain after the breakup of the Big Three in Miami, the return of Derrick Rose in Chicago and the surprising Lance Stephenson signing in Charlotte. The field is as open as its been since the Heat first rose to power in 2010, and several teams have been aggressive in arranging pieces to make a run.
It’s pretty clear who should be the East’s favorite, however. While LeBron James tempered expectations during his written announcement, his presence on any team changes the dynamic of the entire discussion. For all the moves that the other contenders made, nobody can top adding the best player on the planet.
That’s why the Cavaliers should be considered the East’s team to beat next season, Kevin Love or not.
LeBron isn’t the only reason Cleveland should be considered the conference’s favorite next season, but he is the best one. James’ teams have reached the NBA Finals in four consecutive seasons and five of the past seven. While the run with the Heat was obviously bolstered by a pair of All-Stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James was clearly the team’s best player by the end of the run.
Last season, Miami was still the best team in the conference, almost entirely because of James and Bosh. While we can expect some stiffer competition next season, including an improved Bulls team bolstered by Rose’s return and an intriguing group down Toronto, all of those teams have question marks and limitations. Cleveland does, too, but LeBron isn’t one of them.
Right now, the Cavaliers are looking at a lineup of James, Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao. The prime guys coming off the bench will be Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, Matthew Dellavedova, Mike Miller and any additional reinforcements that are signed between now and the beginning of the season.
That group isn’t going to take over the world, but lineups featuring James, Irving, Thompson and Varejao as the core should be really dangerous. Last season, Cleveland lineups that included the Irving-Thompson-Varejao trio were outscored by just 1.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, and they were typically being surrounded by below-average players.
LeBron should quickly make any lineup he’s included in a plus, and it’s not like the Cavaliers were without some effective looks last season. Weeding out some of the less successful lineups, including those that leaned heavily on the Irving-Waiters backcourt, will quickly make Cleveland a significantly more dangerous team.
And elsewhere around the Eastern Conference, the competition should be strong but not overwhelming. Rose looked quite good in the Team USA scrimmage on Friday night and appears ready to make Chicago a contender, but we still have no idea how he’ll look in real games and the Bulls are no closer to a title if he’s not playing at an All-Star level.
The team closest to Miami the past few years, Indiana, will likely be a shell of its former self after losing Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to that gruesome leg injury on Friday night. The Pacers still have David West and Roy Hibbert leading the frontcourt, but nobody knows what to expect from the latter, and nobody can replace the big names on the wings.
One possible contender, a team that’s probably not getting talked about enough, is Toronto. The Raptors were one of the better teams in the NBA last season after trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento, and retained essentially the same group to make a run towards the Finals next season.
Toronto has the athletic wings to combat LeBron in DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, plus a sizable advantage in the post with Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson leading the way. The Raptors are deep, too, with Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and others leading a pretty impressive bench for next season.
That team lacks elite-caliber players, however, and the combination of James, Wiggins and Waiters should give opponents fits, even the ones with wings like DeRozan and Ross. LeBron is the kind of player who’s smart enough and talented enough to find ways to succeed regardless of the looks being given by the defense.
And ultimately, LeBron is what separates Cleveland from the rest of the league. Last season, we often saw a LeBron who coasted through parts of games, lacked his usually overwhelming defensive intensity and generally seemed content to turn it on for the playoffs. That won’t be the LeBron we see on the Cavs, not when the team needs so much and winning could mean so much.
We’re going to see maximum LeBron for 80-plus games next season, and it’s going to be horrifying. As long as Kyrie makes some progress as a well-rounded point guard, Varejao doesn’t blow out both his knees in a water skiing accident and the rest of the guys find their roles, this team shouldn’t be underestimated. David Blatt, too, because while he’s inexperienced at the NBA level, all indications are that the former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach is one of the sharpest basketball minds out there.
In his letter for SI, James wrote:
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.
That may not be true, though. Back in 2010, the Heat reached the NBA Finals by beating a tough Rose-led Bulls team before losing to a brutal Western Conference foe. The following year, Miami and James won their first title. Entering next season, a similar path — beating Rose’s Bulls before a losing Finals effort, then returning even better the next year — wouldn’t be so crazy for Cleveland.
James also wrote in the letter “what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.” He seems to believe it will take a while to accomplish that, and given what’s going on out West, he’s probably right. But that impressive streak of Finals appearances? That’s something he can continue in 2014-15.