With Cleveland settled at top, race for second remains murky

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell


Dec 1, 2016 9:58 AM ET


They’re competing for an honor that sounds defeatist in nature, a designation that elevates them beyond the interior yet also gives them a closer view of someone’s posterior.

We’re talking about the race for second-best team in the East. Who exactly is that lucky team?

But first, an appreciation for the Cavaliers. They were tops last year, last spring, early summer, fall and now as winter beckons, the defending champs are once again putting the competition on ice. LeBron James and friends are lording the conference and unlike last year, are being coached by Tyronn Lue from the jump. Kevin Love is playing with the flavor he had in Minnesota and Kyrie Irving remains intoxicated from that Golden State-slaying jumper in the Finals. Through the first month of the season they’ve shown an unsurprising ability to withstand any and all threats to their dominance and focus, including a dap-seeking JR Smith.

OK, on to the pack. The crowd forming behind the Cavs, along with the plot, is starting to thicken. The would-be runner-ups are all flawed and motivated, willing to put distance between themselves and the others yet unable to do so, at least so far. And even if someone, say the Hawks, manage to slip past four or five others jostling for position behind Cleveland, who’s to say that team will remain in the mix when the playoffs get deep?

Honestly, there’s not much that separates Atlanta and Toronto and Chicago and Boston, and if you believe something’s brewing in Charlotte, then toss in the Hornets, too. Basically, none of them have LeBron and Cleveland does. Therein lies the difference. It’s not complicated.

That said, here’s an examination of the present state of the five teams with the most realistic shot at crashing Cleveland’s rear view mirror:


DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry carry a heavy load for Toronto.

Toronto won 56 games last year and had a spirited series against the Cavs in the East finals and … wait a minute. What in the heck has gotten into DeMar DeRozan? He signed a monster free agent deal to stay and yet is playing like his last meal depended on it. In his first dozen games he averaged 33.0 points and made half his shots, all the while showing the forgotten value of the mid-range game. The true test for DeRozan will be if he can keep up the pace, which might not be realistic, but still.

Otherwise, this remains The Typical Toronto Experience, with heavy-duty guard play from DeRozan and Kyle Lowry supplemented by a swarm of supporting players who chip in where and how they can. There are some nit-picking issues: DeMarre Carroll still hasn’t gained any traction as a Raptor and more was expected from Norman Powell. Otherwise, this group seems well-equipped to be No. 2. They’re home for a while after a lengthy road trip (don’t remind them of that night in Sacramento) and so a win streak is possible.


Can Jimmy Butler help Bulls remain in contention?

Don’t you love how Jimmy Butler, at an age where most stars settle into a comfort zone, is pushing the boundaries again? He’s scratching the 26-points-per-game surface while giving 6.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists to boot. This is a player who was lightly regarded out of Marquette, then made his name as a defender only, then developed a taste for scoring, and now is a full-blown force. Even better is how Dwyane Wade, whose career accomplishments Butler can only hope to duplicate, is not only helping but encouraging Butler to be all that he can be. It’s another example of selflessness from Wade, who allowed Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron and Chris Bosh all the room they needed in Miami.

Wade is once again defying age and his body, averaging 30.5 minutes a night and scoring nearly 19 points. He didn’t come to Chicago to see his career die, at least not this season. However, can the same be said for Rajon Rondo? It hasn’t been the best of starts for Rondo and his decline from the point guard elite remains steady once again. How can he be among the league leaders in assists last season in an outpost like Sacramento but get 7.4 on a team with Butler and Wade and a few others who can score? Doug McDermott is learning how to score off the dribble rather than settle for jumpers, which is a positive. Then there’s the negative: Bobby Portis is lost.


Celtics GM Danny Ainge has the chips necessary to make a move to improve Boston.

Let’s be fair here; Al Horford missed 10 games with concussion symptoms and the birth of his daughter, and that’s a major reason the Celtics aren’t leading the pack. But the Celtics didn’t have him last season and still pulled off a few handfuls of surprises. That’s what seems to be missing; the Celtics have dropped few delicious hints of taking the next step in their development.

Speaking of which, they’re still waiting on Marcus Smart to be more confident with the ball and looking for his shot; Smart is at 35.2 percent and has no range on his jumper. He’s getting 31.1 minutes mainly because of defense and intangibles, but until he balances out his game with some offensive weaponry, he’ll remain a project of sorts.

Of all the teams chasing Cleveland, the Celtics have the most intrigue because they own most of the trade chips. With those Brooklyn first-round picks and a handful of young players at his disposal, GM Danny Ainge is equipped to pull off a deal prior to the deadline if he feels a mid-season “shakeup” is necessary.


It has been an uneven debut for Dennis Schroder as the starting point guard.

They took some lumps on the road recently in Utah, L.A., Oakland, Phoenix and even stumbled at home to New Orleans and that conspired to lower the temperature of the Dwight Howard Homecoming a bit. Plus, the Dennis Schroder era is off to an inconsistent start, which was perhaps to be expected when a young point guard gets the car keys. And finally, Kent Bazemore, a role player who cashed in last summer in free agency, is still trying to find his voice at the swing position, which requires someone who can score in bunches, not at 11.6 points a game.

But these two players, whom the Hawks took time to develop the last few years, aren’t hurting for confidence. That bodes well for them and the Hawks, and should one or both press the accelerator anytime soon, that could be the difference-maker on a team with Paul Millsap and the rejuvenated Howard.


Can Jeremy Lamb stay healthy to help provide offensive punch for Hornets?

It hasn’t been a smooth ride since they began 8-3 and Kemba Walker made a strong pivot toward true stardom. What followed were growing pains, losing to the Pelicans and Knicks (both in OT) and then getting thumped by 23 to Detroit. Their next eight games are soft; all but the Cavs have a losing record, so we’ll know more about the Hornets and whether they’re serious about leading this pack instead of bringing up the rear.

There’s a lot of fight in this team, though, despite what they showed against the Pistons. Steve Clifford demands and usually gets an honest effort and the pieces are starting to fit better than last season. Much of that is due to athletic big man Cody Zeller, who’s finally realizing that he can be a very productive player instead of a role player, and Frank Kaminsky.

When healthy, Jeremy Lamb (18 points against the Knicks, 21 vs, Memphis) adds some much-needed scoring gusto, and he and Nic Batum can give the Hornets options besides Walker. Make no mistake, this team depends on Walker to keep them in games and bail them out in the final seconds if necessary. The Hornets are going in the right direction; everyone can see that. But No. 2 in the East? They’ve got the steepest climb.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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