Last year’s Eastern Conference champions look to repeat and take down the best in the West again this year, but are the Cavs a better team, or has the competition gotten stronger? Here’s a rundown on where things stand headed into the meat of the NBA season.
Last year the Cavaliers struggled with depth until their mid-season trade that netted them Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Re-signing those players, disgruntled forward Tristan Thompson, fan-favorite Matthew Dellavedova (not to mention Kevin Love and LeBron James) meant the team that made the NBA Finals is largely intact. They added other pieces, including veteran guard Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson, that upgrade their bench significantly. Andersen Varejao, lost for most of last season, provides energy and rebounding off the bench. All in all, this Cavs team is much deeper than the one that nearly claimed the title last year, despite LeBron’s persistent back issues and star guard Kyrie Irving’s knee rehab that may take a significant amount of time. That depth should allow them to rest James, Love, and Irving over the course of the season without sacrificing wins. The team might be better as a whole: but can the stars stay healthy?
Can the #1 seed show its mettle?
The beast team in the East during the regular season last year was the Atlanta Hawks, who executed offensive sets to perfection rivaling that of the Spurs, to the tune of near historic proportions, only to bow out meekly to the Cavs in four. They added guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and Center Tiago Splitter in the offseason, but lost defensive linchpin DeMarre Carroll. The addition of Splitter gives them another rim protector, but the loss of Carroll–particularly as an on-ball defender against James–will hurt, especially with defensive ace Thabo Selaflosha’s injury. Coach Budenholzer has earned a reputation as a coach that can get the most out of his players, but a certain regression is to be expected given the change and a year of film opponents can adjust to. While the Hawks can certainly give the Cavs a test, it does not appear they have made any moves that would definitively put them over the top: but be wary of this Hawks squad, Ohio.
father’s slightly older brother’s Bulls:
With the change in coaches from defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau to the offensive emphasizing Fred Hoiberg means the Bulls teams of the last 5 years or so who played smothering defense and stagnant offense are gone. So far it seems we can expect lots of shots (particularly threes) and an uptempo pace from these new-look Bulls. The Bulls gave the Cavs perhaps their best test in Eastern Conference playoffs, threatening to take a 3-1 series lead before James buried a corner jumper to steal the game at the buzzer, flipping the momentum irreversibly in the Cavs favor. The Bulls have interior defenders in Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson to bother James in the paint, and Jimmy Butler is perhaps the best individual defender of LeBron there is, especially when his growing offensive prowess is taken into account. They have shooters in 2nd year forward Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott to make the Hoiberg system work, as well as offensive creators in Rose and Butler. They eked out a win over the Irving-less Cavs to open the season, but were pounded on the glass, a trend they need to correct if they want to take the Cavs out come playoff time. Will the Bulls adjust to Hoiberg’s offense, and will they still have enough defense to win games late? That, and the omnipresent concerns about the health of Derrick Rose loom over the Bulls as they try to leapfrog the Cavs as the best team in the East.
The Buck stops here?
A popular preseason darkhorse in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks boast a long, athletic squad that surprised many by making it to the playoffs and giving the aforementioned Bulls a tough first round series. They did all of that without former No. 2 pick Jabari Parker, who was lost for a hefty portion of the season to a torn ACL. The Bucks were an outstanding defensive team last year, but often lacked a consistent way to score baskets, relying on out-of-control drives and jacked up threes. They addressed that this off-season by signing forward Greg Monroe, who should provide a low-post scoring presence the Bucks lacked last year. Add in the re-signing of sharpshooter Kris Middleton and drafting the offensively gifted Rashad Vaughn, and the Bucks are more potent offensively than they were last year. Admittedly, there are a lot of new parts Milwaukee must integrate, and there is no denying this team is still young and raw, but woe betide the high seed that draws them as a first round opponent should they start to gel towards the end of the season. They could test a team like the Cavs if taken too lightly, and force the Cavaliers to exert a lot of energy in an early round series.