Eastern Conference Preview

Pat Higgins | Sports Editor

The dog days of watching ESPN NBA reporter and LeBron James fanboy Brian Windhorst chase the 2-time NBA champion wherever he may be in the world during the offseason are over. Basketball is back, and James has returned to Northeast Ohio, which of course means Windhorst has too.

Just as the Heat became the favorites to win the East the day after James announced his decision to head to South Beach, the Cavs lifted themselves from the cellar of the Eastern Conference to the forefront of the conversation of contenders in just two months over the summer.

They signed All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to a max contract extension at the beginning of the offseason and hired Israeli basketball mind David Blatt to coach the team. They re-acquired James in July, of course, after James and owner Dan Gilbert made up over their nasty breakup in 2011. To top things off, they traded the top picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, to bring all-around good guy and All-Star power forward Kevin Love from one basketball purgatory (Minnesota) to another one in Cleveland.

For these reasons, the Cavs will be the favorites to blow through the Eastern Conference onto the Finals, and give Love an opportunity to show if he can perform in crunch time and not garbage time.

The teams to challenge the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Playoffs will be the most interesting storyline of the season, aside from the Cavs and Bulls themselves. If Derrick Rose can manage to play a full season at anywhere near the caliber he played during his MVP campaign in 2010-2011, the Bulls will have an opportunity to give the Cavs everything they can handle come spring time. Center Joakim Noah has solidified himself as the best center in the East in his time without Rose, and the addition of power forward Pau Gasol should give the Bulls the most formidable frontcourt in the East. With a number of solid pieces in place around Gasol, Noah and Rose, the Bulls can challenge the Cavs. That is highly contingent on Rose proving he can stay healthy for a full season and return to somewhere near the MVP he was in 2011.

Paul George’s leg snapped as quickly as the Pacers’ title hopes evaporated in a Team USA intra-squad scrimmage in the offseason. For that reason, Indiana will likely not be able to compete with James and company when crunch time rolls around.

The team at the top of the “rest” of the teams in the Conference is the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks made a number of moves in the offseason to complement a core of point guard Jeff Teague and center Al Horford. They acquired power forward Paul Millsap, shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha and drafted power forward Adreian Payne out of Michigan State.

Behind the Hawks as teams who have some sort of shot at maybe advancing past the second round are the Toronto Raptors. With Demar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Kyle Lowry manning the backcourt, the Raptors are a bit weak in the paint, but they still managed to win the Atlantic Division last year, mostly by virtue of how bad the division was.

The rest of the conference is filled with teams with a number of pieces that fit well together in theory, but no glue to elevate any team to contender status. The Hawks will likely finish atop the pack of the rest of the East. The Wizards show signs of life with young talent to complement a veteran presence. They added Paul Pierce in the offseason to help John Wall in the backcourt. In the frontcourt, they have Marcin Gortat, Nene Hilario, Dejuan Blair. The Heat still have Wade and Bosh, but they’ll likely finish in the second tier of the playoff chase. The Nets and Knicks both stink, but the Knicks hold the advantage moving forward with Phil Jackson in the front office.

As for the 76ers, Tankadelphia resumes this season, until Joel Embiid and a top-5 pick in next year’s draft are ready to play.