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Even in improved East, Cavs remain tops in the class

Cleveland faces very little opposition in return to NBA Finals

POSTED: Jan 20, 2016 2:23 AM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell

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Toronto may need a big trade to push DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the rest of the Raptors past the Cavs.

If perception is indeed the rule (or at least an inevitable reality), then there's no need for a spoiler alert in the Eastern Conference. We all know how this will end.

The fully healthy Cleveland Cavaliers are sapping all suspense from the race for the East title and are two steps ahead of the pack. Or to put it in perspective: Golden State has ripped through a record start to the season, yet even if the Warriors maintain their pace and win 70-plus games, would anyone be surprised if the San Antonio Spurs emerged from the West instead? Of course not.

But in the East, the Cavs have been very good, nothing special, yet still remain heavy favorites to dismiss any challenger. For all of the rightful praise heaped upon the East this season for finally increasing the number of quality teams, there remains a comfortable gap between Cleveland and the rest based on perception.

The Cavs simply bring fewer flaws (although the ones they do have were exposed by the defending champion Warriors on Tuesday). Of course they have LeBron James, who once again is in the MVP conversation and has won five straight East titles. The last non-LeBron team to win the East was Boston and that was so long ago that Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo are no longer Celtics.

Once Kyrie Irving returned earlier this month from offseason surgery, the Cavs only strengthened their case. Even if an East team had taken advantage of Irving's absence and, let's say, used it to finish with a better regular-season record, that wouldn't change perception. The Hawks won 60 games last season and at the moment of truth — the East finals — they were swept by Cleveland. No one was fooled by Atlanta's regular season dominance.

As the season reaches its midway point, what's the status of the three-team posse chasing LeBron and hoping to at least raise the possibility of a major surprise?

Toronto Raptors

With the exception of an insatiable stretch in the Vinsanity Era, when Vince Carter became the second-most important man in Canadian basketball history (shout out to Dr. James Naismith), these are blissful times for the Raptors. They boast a top-five backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, a vastly underrated coach (Dwane Casey) and a batch of functional role players with one of the smarter GMs around, Masai Ujiri, steering it all.

Last summer, Toronto dumped Amir Johnson and Lou Williams, a pair of fixtures in the rotation, and appear to be better off for it. Great play from the usual suspects -- plus a dash from newcomer Corey Joseph -- has the Raptors are on pace for 50 wins, something the franchise has never done before.

DeMar DeRozan's 35-Point Night

DeMar Derozan scores 35 points with eight rebounds to lead the Raptors to victory.

The one area where the Raptors needed improvement was defense, and they fetched DeMarre Carroll, a bulldog with a history of guarding three positions. Overall, the Toronto defense is collectively better as they rank 11th in Defensive Rating (after finishing 23rd last season). But that growth is not just because of Carroll. A far cheaper newcomer, Bismack Biyombo, has arguably been the bigger reason.

But here's the "but": Carroll just underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and could miss most if not all of the remaining regular season for a team that fancies itself as a contender yet carries the psychological baggage of two straight first-round playoff ousters.

As for the Cleveland factor -- the Raptors have played the Cavs twice already this season. They won the first meeting, but that was without Irving. Two weeks ago, Toronto absorbed a gut-punching 22-point loss and was torched by Irving for 25 in the second meeting.

Raptors vs. Cavaliers

Kyrie Irving scores 25 points and drops eight assists to lead the Cavaliers past the Raptors, 122-100.

"They're the Eastern Conference champs for a reason," said Lowry, "so they're the team to beat."

The issue for the Raptors and Ujiri is this: Should they pull a trade and therefore make a bold-yet-risky run at Cleveland, or stand pat and hope — pray? — for the best?

Ujiri has the Knicks' No. 1 pick from the Andrea Bargnani trade to dangle, plus his own first-round pick, plus some throw-ins. There could be interesting names on the market: Kenneth Faried, Markieff Morris, and Ryan Anderson among others. Most likely, even if Toronto adds help, it'll take DeRozan, Lowry, Jonas Valenciunas and Terrence Ross all going nuts, plus a triumphant return by Carroll, to make LeBron break a serious sweat.

Atlanta Hawks

The basketball folks in Atlanta were so starved for an entertaining winner that even after the 60-win Hawks were bulldozed last spring by the Cavaliers — and an injured Irving only had a cameo in that series — the season was still considered a major success. This year there hasn't been an undefeated month (Atlanta ran the table last January), the Hawks won't have four All-Stars and, from a personnel standpoint, the Hawks haven't upgraded from a year ago. Which means they have no shot at Cleveland, correct?

You'd certainly like the Hawks' small chances better if Kyle Korver was back to being nearly automatic from deep, except Korver has been spooked by nagging injuries and remains untracked. Without his defense-stretching shooting, the Hawks have lost a bit of their soul and Cleveland has one less reason to worry about Atlanta.

And don't expect the Hawks to pull a trade that shakes up the roster. First of all, after years of trying to climb to this level of respectability, Atlanta's not in a hurry to risk anything with something that could backfire. Plus, coach/GM Mike Budenholzer comes from an organization (San Antonio) that rarely deals. Besides, his two signature deals in Atlanta -- last summer's trades for Tim Hardaway Jr. and Tiago Splitter -- have fizzled. He might be a bit gun shy.

Hawks vs. Cavaliers

Kevin Love scores 25 points with 11 rebounds, LeBron James ends up with two assists shy of a triple-double as Cleveland wins it 109-97.

Here's what has worked: Dennis Schroder, the change-of-pace point guard whose play has forced Budenholzer to use him at the same time with Jeff Teague (with mostly solid results); and Gumby-like Kent Bazemore, who has replaced Carroll and done better than expected, especially offensively.

Sure, the Hawks could swap Schroder ... plenty of teams want him. But does that bring a big man who could ease the load from All-Stars Paul Millsap and Al Horford? Rarely do you see quality centers traded for smaller players without bringing some sort of baggage, and even then, teams would be crazy to do so. Put it this way: Sacramento's not giving DeMarcus Cousins for Schroder.

The gut says the Hawks won't admit that they're just happy to be in the mix, so we'll do that for them: They're just happy to be in the mix.

Chicago Bulls

Chicago is the only member of the posse bringing an A-list star to the table, unless you insist it's too early to give Jimmy Butler that kind of love. Fair enough. But it'll take a beast, if not two, to get the attention of LeBron and the Cavs. Of the three most qualified teams chasing the Cavs, the Bulls can build the best argument for themselves from the standpoint of stars.

What a breakout season for Butler. Remember, just two years ago he was a Shotgun Rider, a defensive specialist who occasionally could be counted on to score 20. This year, he has a 53-pointer, a team-record 40-point half (against Toronto) and a fair number of plays run for him. This team belongs to him, not Derrick Rose, not even a healthy Rose. There is no argument about that anymore.

Nightly Notable: Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler scores a career high 53 points along with 10 rebounds and six assists to lead the comeback victory for the Bulls.

That said: It'll take plenty from Rose and also Pau Gasol to give the Bulls the ammo they'll need to stare down LeBron-Kyrie-Kevin Love, so Rose is a major factor. Without a healthy impact from him, the burden on Butler and teammates becomes greater. Perhaps if the Bulls played defense as they did in the early Tom Thibodeau era, they could abuse their razor-thin margin for error. But they don't, so they can't.

They'll be in Cleveland for an East showdown Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and while they did beat the Cavs in the season opener, that was without Irving. This time, the missing piece belongs to Chicago, but the degree of importance regarding the absence of Joakim Noah is more debatable. Done for four to six months with a bum shoulder — and perhaps done as a Bull — Noah's presence when healthy was functional at best. No player in the league has fallen so far and so quickly; just two years ago Noah was an MVP candidate. And so the Bulls are victims of horrible timing if nothing else. Suppose they had the Rose of 2011 and the Noah of 2014 to go with the Butler of 2016? Oh, the possibilities.

The Starters: Harden Or Butler?

Jimmy Butler just had a 40-point second half, but is he the NBA's best shooting guard?

Instead, Chicago must forge forward with a rookie coach (Fred Hoiberg) and the air of uncertainty from Rose, along with a playing rotation that still being tweaked here at midseason.

Winning the East won't be automatic for the Cavs, but nothing has happened in the first half of the season that reduces their very heavy chances. This sounds crazy, but they stand a better shot at returning to the NBA Finals than the team that opened the season with 24 straight wins.

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 on Twitter.

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