The Biggest Threats in the East
LeBron James has been the hallmark for consistent excellence in the NBA. In the past 12 years, he has eclipsed 25 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds every single season. There have only been a measly thirty-six individual seasons by players that have surpassed the 25/6/6 plateau in all of NBA history, and LeBron has a third of them. Not only does he dominate on the court, but he rarely steps off it; he has appeared in an unbelievable 94% of his team’s regular season games during his career. This consistency, coupled with being surrounded by other great players has resulted in LeBron James making an appearance in 6 straight NBA Finals. You know who else has done that in the past 50 years? No one. Year after year, experts pencil LeBron’s team in as the East representative in the NBA Finals, because who in their right mind would bet against LeBron? But this year’s Eastern Conference is not just going to roll over and hand the Cavaliers a coveted spot in the NBA Finals.
There are a few teams who believe that if they could make a difference making trade or catch a little luck at the right time that they could be the Eastern Conference champions. Below, we will take a look into the two biggest challengers to the Cavs in the East, and how they could possibly usurp the reigning champs.
The Celtics were one of the biggest surprises of last season - as they totaled forty-eight wins - and they will look to build on that record this year. Keyed by their excellent guard play and stingy defense, Brad Stevens put together a very impressive coaching displays, as he has shown time and time again that he can get the most out of his players. The C’s came up just short when it came to landing Kevin Durant, but they settled for an excellent consolation prize in Al Horford. Horford will bring a veteran presence, as well as rim-protecting skills to an already stout defense. They did lose the crafty Evan Turner and a young bigs in Jared Sullinger, but Horford, compounded with another year of the main core still intact should push the Celtics into the mid-50s win range. The Celtics will definitely push the Cavaliers when it comes to the playoffs, but they might still be a piece away from truly contending.
Everyone knows that Danny Ainge will be an active player in this year’s trade market, as he should be. The Celtics own a plethora of young tradeable assets (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, or RJ Hunter) and draft picks (extra first rounders in 2018 and 2019) that could be used as trade bait. There is simply not enough time on the floor for all of their young prospects to develop, especially as Brad Stevens will be tightening up his rotation for the playoff push. Offloading a few of these players and picks for a more established player will push the Celtics from being a possible East Finals participant to maybe challenging the Cavs for a spot in the NBA Finals. The Celtics feel like they are one more offensive-minded big man away from being a legitimate contender. They should aim to target players on rebuilding teams such as Kenneth Faried or Danilo Gallinari. Having someone of the likes of Faried/Gallinari to pair with their incumbent strong defensive starter in Amir Johnson would give the Celtics lots of flexibility down the stretch and in the playoffs. They could also look for a larger haul in someone like DeMarcus Cousins. The Celtics have a treasure chest full of assets that could entice the Kings if Cousins seems permanently unhappy and wants out. This doesn’t seem too farfetched, as the Kings seem to bracing for his departure based on their continual drafting of big men (e.g. Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein). If the Celtics could pull off adding a second big man to the established core of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford, they could evolve into one of the most potent starting lineups in the NBA.
The NBA has always been a league that has been dominated by its stars; cultivating, acquiring, and retaining superstars should be the main goal of any franchise that has the chance. The Raptors were confronted with one of these chances to retain a superstar and they did everything in their power to re-sign DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors bestowed a monstrous 5 year/$139 million contract on DeRozan to ensure another few years of Raptors relevance in the Eastern Conference. Though the contract was chided by some as an overspend, the deal kept a core intact that won fifty-six games last year and made it to the East Finals. The Raptors had the best season in franchise history while their biggest free agent signing of 2015, DeMarre Carroll, only playing 26 games and they lost their starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, for nearly half the games during the playoffs. If their All-Stars (DeRozan and Kyle Lowry) can stay healthy, and the younger weapons on the roster continue to develop, the Raptors should make a strong push for the second seed in the Eastern Conference again.
The Raptors’ biggest problem in recent history has been finding a solid starter at the power forward position. They have tried to plug the hole with a defensive sieve in Luis Scola and an offensively limited Amir Johnson. Quite similar to the Celtics, the Raptors are a balanced and established power forward away from having a very formidable starting lineup. Though the Raptors picked up two big men this summer in Jakob Poeltl and Jared Sullinger, neither move feels very reassuring as a long-term option at the four spot. The Raptors need to be aggressive at the deadline in looking for a big man to pair with Valanciunas. If players like a Kevin Love or Nikola Mirotic become unhappy with their roles, the Raptors should pounce on the possibility of wooing them with picks and some of their younger talent (e.g. Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl). If the Raptors cannot find a reasonable trade target this season, they should simply move DeMarre Carroll to power forward and insert Terrence Ross back into the starting lineup. In a league where few teams still play two traditional bigs for large portions of the game, the Raptors could embrace the trend and just have Carroll play stretch four. This would make the Raptors extremely versatile, as they could start three long, athletic defenders who can also stretch the floor in DeRozan, Ross, and Carroll. Yes, Carroll might struggle against some bigger power forwards, but the Raptors would have the ability to switch nearly every screen imaginable on defense, and would have one of the most athletic starting lineups in the league.
Both the Celtics and the Raptors will be hard-pressed this season overtake the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. However, if they stay healthy, continue to develop chemistry within their core, and make a strong deal at the deadline, it is very conceivable that either team could push the Cavs to their limit when the playoffs roll around. In the past two years, the Cavaliers have struggled against teams that defend the three-pointer well, throw multiple versatile defenders at LeBron, and attack the rim, as the Cavaliers have a dearth of rim protectors. The Celtics and Raptors have the personnel to punish the Cavs on those fronts, but they need to be able to do it for a full seven game series. Granted, this will be an extremely tall task, as LeBron has not lost a playoff series since returning to the Cavs when Kyrie Irving has been healthy. Although the odds of defeating the Cavs may be slim, the Celtics and the Raptors are the best shot the Eastern Conference has at unseating LeBron.