The Pacers, Celtics, and Raptors Look to Pose a Threat to the Cavaliers
New season, same old, boring face at the top of the Eastern Conference mountain.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are sitting pretty at 5-0 in a much improved East looking to make yet another run at the NBA Finals. If they do in fact make it to the championship round, it would be an unprecedented seventh straight Finals appearance for LeBron James.
This season though, it may not be as much of a cakewalk to the Finals for James and his squad as it usually is. Well, at least fans of teams not named the Cavs hope it won’t be. The saving grace is the East really is much improved, and general managers have bolstered their rosters for a chance of taking on the King. The goal for 14-other teams really is to just beat LeBron.
At this point in time, it seems like there are three consensus picks for Eastern Conference Finals foes for the Cavs – the Indiana Pacers, the Boston Celtics, and the Toronto Raptors.
Question now is not only who will be the last team standing in the East along with the Cavs, but more so, who has the best shot at taking the Cavaliers’ spot atop the East.
The problem is, the Cavs clearly have the best roster of the four and they will have to be beat four times in a span of seven games. They beat a team that finished the season 73-9 in seven games, so yeah; dethroning the Cavs may be harder than winning the actual championship.
They have depth, veteran leadership; three point shooters who can stretch the floor, primarily Kevin Love, Channing Frye, J.R. Smith and recently acquired Mike Dunleavy. They play strong team defence and you can make a case that they have the two best players in the Eastern Conference in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. They are also exceptionally well coached by one, Tyron Lue.
They clearly have the roster that they need to make another run and the chemistry necessary to win.
Enter the Pacers, a team that just a few years ago almost pushed LeBron’s Miami team out of contention in the East Finals. They now return with a far different roster than that of just a few seasons ago. Everything has changed, from the coach, to the core – everything except Paul George still being the cornerstone of the franchise.
There is no more Roy Hibberts or Danny Grangers or George Hills. The talent that now surrounds George is far more superior. Myles Turner is an absolute stud with star potential. He has the ability to use his size in the post, step out and hit from the mid-range, and be a valuable rim protector and defender.
Jeff Teague has now taken over the starting point guard role in Indiana. Despite a rough start to his tenure, his track record shows that he can be a star in this league, but on a team with a Paul George and a Myles Turner, he really does not have to be that guy. Maybe against the Cavs the Pacers will need the real Jeff Teague, but until then, his job will be taking some of the pressure off of George, splitting time handling the basketball, and getting his teammates involved.
The team itself has a bunch of new faces, which includes Thad Young, Al Jefferson, and Aaron Brooks as well as some old faces with Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey. The depth is there and with Paul George, there is reason to be confident albeit a 2-3 start to the regular season.
One edge the Pacers do have over the Celtics and the Raptors is that Paul George is probably the best match-up against LeBron in the entire conference. That being said, the Pacers will need to focus on gelling for the next few months, making sure the new and old faces can create chemistry on the court before the Pacers enter the postseason stretch.
The Boston Celtics are another team that made some key additions over the summer, ones that hope to push the Celtics closer to their goal at returning to the NBA Finals. The big get of the offseason apart from Kevin Durant was the Al Horford signing.
Of the three ball clubs, Brad Stevens may be the finest of the coaches, but he has to deal with the one team without a true, proven superstar. Paul George is the guy in Indiana and a case can be made the DeMar DeRozan is the guy in Toronto. In Boston, the guy is Isaiah Thomas, who although an All-Star in his own right, may have plateaued last season and will be nothing more than a really solid points guard and a star on a team that lacks a dynamic scorer.
Al Horford is a nice addition, he does give the Celtics a quality big man and a borderline All-Star who can do a lot on both ends of the court, but he will not be a guy who can consistently put up points help beat the Cavs, let alone Pacers and the Raptors in a seven game season. The Celtics will need to find one more scorer. Early on, it has been Avery Bradley who added secondary scoring, but based on the player he is, it may not be sustainable.
That is not to take anything away from the Celtics. They have depth at every position and defend very well. At the guard spot, they have Thomas, Bradley, Marcus Smart and Gerald Green, rookie Jaylen Brown may play a prominent role in the front court if Stevens finds room for him, Jae Crowder is another player who can add great and pesky defence and a three point stroke. The Celtic size is another strength of the team, having an abundance of talent with Horford, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk, and Jonas Jerebko.
With an abundance of talent comes room to make trades. Danny Ainge still has a boatload of draft picks to use at his disposable and if the Celtics really want to make a big splash in the East, Ainge will need to pull the trigger on acquiring one more star to give the Celtics a chance. Until then, the Celtics may be the weakest link out of the three contenders and their lack of a proven secondary scorer may be their greatest downfall before they even get a chance to see the 2016-17 NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
This leaves the Toronto Raptors. The only Eastern Conference team that was able to beat the Cavs in the playoffs a season ago. Similar to the Cleveland Cavaliers, most of the Toronto roster returns so it is fair to assume the Raptors will have no issues with chemistry.
Early on, the Raptors sit at 4-1 and DeMar DeRozan is on an absolute tear with 30-or more points in his first five regular season game, something that has not been accomplished since Michael Jordan did it in his first six games back in 1986.
Aside from DeKobe DeBryant, everything is running very smoothly in Toronto, even in the absence of free agent pick up Jared Sullinger. Disrespected by the American media on a daily basis, the Raptors may be the best of the three teams when matched up with the Cavaliers.
If DeMarre Carroll reaches full health and maintains it into the playoffs, he will be the Raptors’ primary defender on LeBron, Jonas Valanciunas has shown signs of being the best centre in the Eastern Conference and what if, DeRozan has finally taken the next step into superstardom?
Despite a slow start, Kyle Lowry is still a proven star point guard in this league, and Terrence Ross has been very impressive to start the season. Come playoff time, when coaches like to shorten their trust-list to eight or nine players, the Raptors easily have the depth needed to compete, especially with a healthy Sullinger back in the fold.
Improved ball movement will be key, but it seems like the Raptors can maintain their top defensive status even without the services of Bismack Biyombo. The two rookies have filled in very nicely and the Raptors even have the luxury of using guys like Norman Powell if need be.
Will it be enough to beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series? Does any of these aforementioned have a chance against LeBron James and company? A lot of things will definitely have to go right for all three teams, but as of now, based on talent and their early season start, it seems like the Raptors may have the best chance at pushing the Champs to their limit.