Conventional wisdom and history would seem to be conspiring against the Cleveland Cavaliers in their hopes of maintaining any real sense of competitiveness in the Eastern Conference.
When you have a roster built expressly for the talents of the NBA’s best player, supporting cast to the league’s brightest star, losing that guy is like pulling the center piece out in a game of Jenga. And if anyone had any doubts about that, look at what happened the last time James vamoosed.
In 2010-11, the Cavaliers literally went topsy-turvy, from a 61-21 record the year before to a miserable 19-63. Sure, it earned them the most draft lottery chances and No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving, but the Cavs never got above water again until James mercifully returned four years later.
Cleveland’s gain was Miami’s loss. The Heat won 17 fewer games without James in 2014-15, dropping from 54 victories to 37 and missing the postseason entirely. They’ve been back twice since then, a testament to boss Pat Riley’s ambitions, Erik Spoelstra’s coaching staff and the roster’s replenishment and resiliency. But until Miami lands another star, it appears maxed out as a contender.
All of which is a way of suggesting that Cleveland this season – despite Tristan Thompson’s bold talk and the commitment to refurbishing a Minnesota-style Kevin Love as cornerstone guy – faces a tough go. If that’s how this plays out, with the Cavs sinking as a natural first step in their second post-LeBron era, some other team has a shot to rise from the Eastern Conference’s depths.
Here are the likeliest suspects (sorry, Brooklyn, Orlando and Atlanta):
Detroit has the onus of underachievement on its side. The Pistons took a big step forward two years ago, improving from 32 to 44 victories in what looked to be early progress in former coach/POBO Stan Van Gundy’s master plan. Two lottery finishes brought change, though, with Dwane Casey brought in as coach and Blake Griffin (acquired last season) getting established this fall as star flickering back on. Big man Andre Drummond extending his range, some strides by young help and, presumably, a healthier Reggie Jackson playing with his teammates in mind can get these guys back to late-April games.
If Charlotte is going to elbow into consideration for a low East seed, its season will have to be about more than guard Kemba Walker’s future. The Hornets have promising pieces in search of a hole, and fresher air around them thanks to new coach James Borrego’s arrival and Dwight Howard’s departure. There’s a lot riding on Cody Zeller in the middle, as well as Nicolas Batum’s return and impact in versatility.
The signs of what Chicago can become, sooner rather than later, were revealed in the Bulls’ solid play after their 3-20 start last season. They sort of scared themselves, actually, by nearly spoiling their draft-lottery plan. But their yield from 2017’s Jimmy Butler trade – Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine – delivered real talent, and young bigs Bobby Portis and Wendell Carter Jr. look like keepers who just need time. Trying to win rather than lose should be good for a step up, too.
New York Knicks
The only legit way for New York to push into the battle for the No. 8 seed would be for the other competitors to lag, the Knicks’ role players to overachieve and Kristaps Porzingis to hurry back sooner and better than most expect in his rehab from ACL surgery. New coach David Fizdale might be eager to make a Madison Square Garden splash and youngsters Frank Ntilikina and lottery pick Kevin Knox represent a good start.
And then there is Cleveland, which has made noise that it won’t easily relinquish one of the East’s eight playoff berths. Rookie guard Collin Sexton has generated excitement already that he can update Irving’s impact from eight years ago, and it will be nice to see Love unbound from his third-wheel role. The thing is, with aging vets who could appeal to serious contenders, it might be tempting for the Cavs come February to sell off parts rather than push for a quick first-round ouster.
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