By: Louis Prejean
For the past few seasons the Eastern Conference has been known as the weaker of the two in the NBA. Teams in the East were viewed as “easy wins” for opposing teams, but this year is proving to be different. In 2015-2016, the NBA has experienced a shift in powers. The Eastern Conference has more teams with winning records than the Western Conference. The West has only five teams with above .500 record, while the East has an unexpected ten teams. That fact alone is staggering considering that the Western Conference has been dominant in comparison to the Eastern Conference.
Entering the 2015-2016 NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were projected to be the number one seed in the Eastern Conference rather easily. However, the season is heading in an opposite direction. The NBA season is still young with only one-quarter of the games finished, but some teams in the Eastern Conference are giving the Cavaliers a hard time running away with this conference.
The Major Threats
The NBA season is still so young and unassuming that anything can happen that will change the way people think. For example, the Cleveland Cavaliers can win a game by 30 points and people will start to say they are the team to beat in the NBA. Looking at it from the other side, the Cavaliers can lose by 30 points and people will start to wonder if Cleveland can finish on top of the Eastern Conference. The NBA is always changing and teams will play well one night, then not so well the next. As good as the Cavaliers have been without some key components in their line up, there have been other teams in the Eastern Conference that provide a challenge to the reigning conference champions.
The Miami Heat are one of the serious threats to the Cavaliers’ hopes of home court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs. They are currently the number one seed with a record of 12-6, as opposed to the Cavaliers’ 13-7 record. This, of course, raises many storylines with LeBron recently leaving the Miami Heat to return to the Cavaliers a season ago. The Heat were still in good shape with the likes of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade leading the way, but there were questions if they could ever compete at a high level again. Thus far in the season, the Miami Heat have answered with a resounding “yes”. The Heat are one of the elite defensive teams in the NBA. Miami is only allowing 92.2 points per game and 98.5 points per 100 possessions, which both rank second in the league. Hassan Whiteside has anchored that defense and transformed himself into a early Defensive Player of the Year favorite. Bosh and Wade are obviously leading the team in scoring and have that championship experience under their belts. The duo is teaching the rest of the Heat’s roster how be successful in the NBA and Miami is reaping the benefits of their leadership. Goran Dragic is coming on as of late and Erik Spoelstra is doing an excellent job at managing the minutes of his players to maximize the production of his second unit. With that defense and coaching, the Miami Heat can extend their lead on the Cavaliers for the number one seed and give Cleveland something to think about throughout the NBA season.
The other major threat to Cleveland is the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls currently stand third in the Eastern Conference with a 11-6 record and are only half of a game behind the Cavaliers. The Bulls have a new coach in Fred Hoiberg and the transition for the Bulls in terms of playing style has been easier than expected. Jimmy Butler has taken over the leadership role and has been the Bulls’ best player this season. He leads Chicago in scoring with 20.5 points per game and steals with 1.9 per game. Jimmy Butler is getting the job done on both ends of the floor and has lead the Chicago Bulls to new heights. Not to mention, the Bulls have one of the deepest rosters in the entire association. That depth has helped so far with notable wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs. With such a deep group of players, Hoiberg is having a easy time being successful in the NBA. The Chicago Bulls are one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and have proved that they have the talents to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The Other Challenges for the Cavaliers
The Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls are the major challenges to the Cavaliers returning to the Eastern Conference Finals, but there are other factors in the way of Cleveland. The improved Indiana Pacers, along with the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors can provide obstacles for the Cavaliers. However, the biggest obstacle the Cavaliers will face is themselves.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been dealing with injuries to their All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and another starter in Iman Shumpert. Beyond the injuries, the Cavaliers are not performing to the best of their abilities. Cleveland still has Kevin Love and LeBron James along with a solid ensemble of teammates that can be serviceable to the success of this team. In the last three games, the Cavaliers have loss and have shown a little disinterest in the regular season. Coming out and playing flat in games can hurt later on in the season for Cleveland. David Blatt has to find a way to pull some fire out of his team, otherwise, the Eastern Conference team mentioned earlier will take away favorable positioning for the postseason.
The Cavaliers have been struggling lately, but with a leader in LeBron James, no one can doubt that this team can make a regular season run to secure the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The conference has improved tremendously and deserves credit for restoring an almost broken reputation. The other teams in the East are no joke. The Cavaliers need to worry about focusing on themselves and play like the NBA title favorites that they are. The difference from last year to this year is that the Cavaliers have some serious competition in the Eastern Conference.
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