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BEAST OF THE EAST?
July 10, 2014
By Anthony J. Fredella
NEW YORK, New York - So we finally – FINALLY – have confirmation that LeBron James is heading back to his original team, back to his home state, to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron is the first, in a series of dominoes, now expected to fall in the free agency landscape. Carmelo Anthony is most likely – DEFINITELY – headed back to the Knicks, and I would wager that Chris Bosh is now going to get paid by the Houston Rockets. With that being the case, the Miami Heat will now fade into obscurity, whether or not they retain Dwyane Wade and his aging knees. So, who will be the new Beast of the East? LeBron and Co. in Miami had won the Eastern Conference the last 4 seasons. It can be guaranteed that the Heat will not win number 5 in 2015. So which team is now the odds on favorite to face the mighty Western Conference in the next NBA Finals?
Well, we obviously have to start with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 11 seasons in the NBA, LeBron James has taken his team to the NBA Finals 5 times. Not bad. And although King James has a young – and inexperienced – team around him, his also has a lot of talent. Point guard Kyrie Irving is one of the most talented young PG’s in the league who has the ability to control his team’s offensive flow and score in bunches. The #1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins is an explosive athletic talent that has the potential to be an incredible star in the league. He’ll need time to develop a more consistent perimeter game and the ability to create his own shot. But what better way to work on your game than having the best player on the planet in the lineup with you. In fact, the best possible thing for Andrew Wiggins’ career thus far is having LeBron come back to Cleveland to play alongside him. Without such, Wiggins would have been expected to contribute mightily from day one as a #1 overall pick. Now he won't have to, even though he may. Wiggins will essentially be a 3rd or 4th option for the Cavs next season. And that’s only if Cleveland decides to keep the young phenom and not involve him in a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves to bring in PF Kevin Love.
Surrounding James, Irving and Wiggins will most likely be SG Dion Waiters and either C Anderson Varejao or PF Tristan Thompson. If the Cavs make a move for Love, the deal will probably involve both Wiggins, Thompson and a draft pick or two. With Love, Cleveland has to be the favorite to capture the Eastern Conference crown. A LeBron, Irving and Love Big 3 is arguably much better than the MIA trio of the last 4 seasons. Should Cleveland just stick with what it has now – keeping both Wiggins and Thompson – well then I think the Cavs are still in the mix, but will have their hands full with veteran teams like Indiana and Chicago.
The biggest threat to Cleveland’s future dominance of the East will without a doubt be the Indiana Pacers. Involved with some free agency drama of their own – Lance Stephenson – the Pacers will still return a core of players that have helped them reach back to back Eastern Conference Finals. Losing Stephenson to free agency will obviously be a blow to the lineup, as will the continued decline of C Roy Hibbert. But assuming Larry Bird retains both young players, next season could be the year the Pacers break through into the NBA Finals. Led by budding superstar Paul George, the Pacers are the type of team that have all of the pieces to make run at an NBA title. The inconsistency down the stretch last season was definitely a cause for concern, but if the Pacers can get back to form, it’s hard to argue that they are not in the discussion to be the next Eastern Conference champions.
The Chicago Bulls are a team that everyone loves on paper, but who have not yet lived up to all of the lofty expectations. With back-to-back seasons seeing a devastating injury to star PG Derrick Rose, it is quite understandable why they have not yet gotten over that playoff hump. Next season, however, if Rose can be even 80% as effective as he was prior to the injuries, the Bulls are a team that can really make some serious noise. And that is because Rose has a roster around him that devotes itself to winning basketball games and leaving it all out on the floor. And that starts with C Joakim Noah, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and 1st Team All-NBA. Noah is that player that all championship teams need that do the intangible things like diving for loose balls and blocking out mercilessly for defensive rebounds. The Bulls, right now, also have a roster that include SG Jimmy Butler, PF Taj Gibson and PF Carlos Boozer, not to mention 1st round draft pick Doug McDermott and an excellent coach in Tom Thibodeau. If healthy, the Bulls are a legitimate contender in the East.
Other than Cleveland, Chicago and Indiana, the East drops off a bit to the next level of teams which includes the Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards. While each boast talented players and playoff experience, neither have what it takes next season, without some serious maneuvering, to make a bid for the Finals.