Cast around LeBron James has changed but Cleveland Cavaliers remain kings of the East

Jay Asser 07:00 16/10/2017
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The King in the East: LeBron James. Picture: Getty Images.

LeBron James, and the Cleveland Cavaliers by extension, are a sponge for drama.

For a player who has reached seven straight NBA Finals – only former team-mate James Jones has played in June as often in the modern era – there has been no shortage of volatility.

This season, the Cavaliers will deal with new wrinkles that could see the theatre at its highest since their prodigal son returned in 2014.

Kyrie Irving, who was James’ trusty sidekick for three years, is no longer around to flank him and provide relief. On the contrary, he’s now plying his slick handles and acrobatic finishes on James’ main rival in the East, with his focus squarely on taking down the King as the head of the snake in Boston.

In his place after the great point guard swap of the summer is the jilted Isaiah Thomas, who now has a fresh source of motivation but first has to recover from a hip injury that is expected to keep him out until after the turn of the calendar.

The diminutive dynamo is coming off a hyper-efficient, high-volume scoring season in which he averaged 28.9 points to earn a spot on the All-NBA Second Team and a fifth-placed finish in MVP voting.

If he can return to the floor healthy and near his same effectiveness – a big ‘if’ – the Cavaliers should once again be the class of the East, especially considering what came with Thomas from Boston: valuable 3-and-D wing Jae Crowder, young big man Ante Zizic and two draft picks, most notably Brooklyn’s 2018 unprotected first.

The Nets’ coveted pick is indirectly tied into the underlying drama that will not-so-subtly bubble under the surface all season: James’ impending free agency.

James has maintained his flexibility since returning to Cleveland by inking short-term deals with opt outs to maximise his financial worth, but for the first time since donning the wine and gold again, his future appears truly uncertain.

The rumours linking James to Los Angeles and a fourth act with the Lakers have already swirled and until he exercises his player option for the 2018-19 season, they’ll continue to circulate.

Which gives this season added importance for the Cavaliers, who can’t afford to be taken down by anyone other than reigning champions Golden State if they want to continue to provide James the path of least resistance to the Finals.

The Celtics, however, may finally have their opening with the cracks in Cleveland’s foundation beginning to form.

By trading for Irving and inking the marquee free agent to switch teams in Gordon Hayward, Boston have positioned themselves to take over the throne in the post-LeBron era. The question is, are they ready to make their move right now?

Dynamic duo: Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Picture: Getty Images.

Dynamic duo: Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Picture: Getty Images.

Only a staggering four players are back from the 53-win squad that captured the top seed in the conference last season, with much of their hard-nosed identity leaving along with Thomas, Crowder and Avery Bradley, now in Detroit.

Under coach Brad Stevens, the Celtics have improved every season since 2013-14, upping their win total from 25 to 40 to 48 to 53. But fitting so many new puzzles pieces together in the face of heightened expectations may be Stevens’ greatest challenge yet.

And no one in the East outside of LeBron will have more eyes fixed on him and be held more responsible than Irving, who asked for a separation from the greatest player in the world with the intention of fulfilling any untapped potential.

The rest of the conference, meanwhile, hosts a glut of middle-class teams in Washington, Toronto, Charlotte, Miami and Milwaukee, but is otherwise up for grabs in terms of the final playoff spots.

While the East can’t match the sheer quality of the other side of the league, the narratives at the top are just as juicy.


Atlantic division

Boston Celtics
Star player: Kyrie Irving
Coach: Brad Stevens
Last season: 53-29, lost in Easter Conference Finals
Key ins: Kyrie Irving (CLE), Gordon Hayward (UTA), Marcus Morris (DET), Aron Baynes (DET), Jayson Tatum (R)
Key outs: Isaiah Thomas (CLE), Jae Crowder (CLE), Avery Bradley (DET), Kelly Olynyk (MIA)
Strengths: Versatility on offence will be downright scary.
Weaknesses: Only four players return from last season’s 53-win team.
Verdict: Cleveland’s biggest threat.

Brooklyn Nets
Star player: Jeremy Lin
Coach: Kenny Atkinson
Last season: 20-62
Key ins: D’Angelo Russell (LAL), DeMarre Carroll (TOR), Allen Crabbe (POR), Timofey Mozgov (LAL), Jarrett Allen (R)
Key outs: Brook Lopez (LAL)
Strengths: Led the league in pace last year with 103.58 possessions so points should be expected.
Weaknesses: Their defensive issues aren’t likely to be fixed, especially with their turnstyle backcourt.
Verdict: It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them crack 30 wins as they’re no longer the worst team.

New York Knicks
Star player: Kristaps Porzingis
Coach: Jeff Hornacek
Last season: 31-51
Key ins: Enes Kanter (OKC), Tim Hardaway Jr (ATL), Ramon Sessions (CHA), Doug McDermott (OKC), Michael Beasley (MIL), Frank Ntilikina (R)
Key outs: Carmelo Anthony (OKC), Derrick Rose (CLE), Justin Holiday (CHI)
Strengths: Stocked with capable roll/pop big men.
Weaknesses: Were 25th in def. rating last year and could get worse.
Verdict: Lottery bound again, but finally fully building for the future.

Philadelphia 76ers
Star player: Joel Embiid
Coach: Brett Brown
Last season: 28-54
Key ins: J.J. Redick (LAC), Markelle Fultz (R)
Key outs: Gerald Henderson (FA)
Strengths: Possess a fountain of youth and young talent.
Weaknesses: Their inexperience will also work against them, especially when it comes to taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers.
Verdict: Even in a cakewalk of an Eastern Conference, they’re not ready to challenge seriously in the playoffs. Reaching the postseason isn’t out of the question though.

Toronto Raptors
Star player: Kyle Lowry
Coach: Dwane Casey
Last season: 51-31
Key ins: C.J. Miles (IND), Ogugua Anunoby (R)
Key outs: DeMarre Carroll (BKN), Cory Joseph (IND), Patrick Patterson (OKC), P.J. Tucker (HOU)
Strengths: Have one of the best backcourts in the league and can often live at the free throw line.
Weaknesses: Notorious for falling in love with mid-range shots but early returns in preseason show promising signs of shooting more 3s.
Verdict: Mostly running it back again, but always lurk behind Cavs.

Central division

Chicago Bulls
Star player: Zach LaVine
Coach: Fred Hoiberg
Last season: 41-41
Key ins: Zach LaVine (MIN), Kris Dunn (MIN), Justin Holiday (NYK), Lauri Markkanen (R)
Key outs: Jimmy Butler (MIN), Dwyane Wade (CLE), Rajon Rondo (NOP)
Strengths: Gobbled rebounds at the fourth-best rate last season (51.7 per cent).
Weaknesses: Have little talent.
Verdict: They could well end up with the worst record.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Star player: LeBron James
Coach: Tyronn Lue
Last season: 51-31, lost in NBA Finals
Key ins: Isaiah Thomas (BOS), Jae Crowder (BOS), Derrick Rose (NYK), Dwyane Wade (CHI), Jose Calderon (ATL), Jeff Green (ORL), Cedi Osman (R)
Key outs: Kyrie Irving (BOS)
Strengths: An offensive juggernaut, from inside and out.
Weaknesses: Defensive lapses.
Verdict: Ceiling is tied to Thomas’ health and the Warriors still being strong favourites.

Detroit Pistons
Star player: Andre Drummond
Coach: Stan Van Gundy
Last season: 37-45
Key ins: Avery Bradley (BOS), Anthony Tolliver (SAC), Luke Kennard (R)
Key outs: Aron Baynes (BOS), Marcus Morris (BOS), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (LAL)
Strengths: Owned defensive glass at a league-best rate last year (81.2 per cent).
Weaknesses: Struggle to score and highly inefficient.
Verdict: In the mix for playoffs.

Indiana Pacers
Star player: Myles Turner
Coach: Nate McMillan
Last season: 42-40, lost in first round
Key ins: Victor Oladipo (OKC), Domantas Sabonis (OKC), Darren Collison (SAC), Cory Joseph (TOR), Bojan Bogdanovic (WSH), Ike Anigbogu (R)
Key outs: Paul George (OKC), Jeff Teague (MIN), C.J. Miles (TOR), Monta Ellis (FA)
Strengths: Floor-spacing bigs.
Weaknesses: Shot selection.
Verdict: In no man’s land.

Milwaukee Bucks
Star player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Coach: Jason Kidd
Last season: 42-40, lost in first round
Key ins: Brandon Rush (MIN), D.J. Wilson (R)
Key outs: Michael Beasley (NYK)
Strengths: Full of long, athletic players who can wreak havoc.
Weaknesses: Grabbed the second-fewest rebounds in the league last year (40.4).
Verdict: Capable of taking a leap, but still not there yet.

Southeast division

Atlanta Hawks
Star player: Dennis Schroder
Coach: Mike Budenholzer
Last season: 43-39, lost in first round
Key ins: Dewayne Dedmon (SAS), John Collins (R), Marco Belinelli (CHA), Luke Babbitt (MIA), Miles Plumlee (CHA)
Key outs: Paul Millsap (DEN), Dwight Howard (CHA), Tim Hardaway Jr (NYK), Thabo Sefolosha (UTA), Mike Scott (WSH), Jose Calderon (CLE)
Strengths: Always defensively stout under Budenholzer.
Weaknesses: Will be hard-pressed to find consistent scoring.
Verdict: Shifting to a rebuild.

Charlotte Hornets
Star player: Kemba Walker
Coach: 36-46
Last season: Steve Clifford
Key ins: Dwight Howard (ATL), Dwayne Bacon (R), Malik Monk (R)
Key outs: Marco Belinelli (ATL), Miles Plumlee (ATL), Ramon Sessions (NYK)
Strengths: Take care of the ball by limiting turnovers and are solid overall, rarely beating themselves.
Weaknesses: Lack depth and are already dealing with injuries.
Verdict: They’re an unsexy team, but have enough in the East to be a borderline top-four squad.

Miami Heat
Star player: Hassan Whiteside
Coach: Erik Spoelstra
Last season: 41-41
Key ins: Kelly Olynyk (BOS), Bam Adebayo (R)
Key outs: Josh McRoberts (DAL), Willie Reed (LAC), Luke Babbitt (ATL)
Strengths: Sound defensively, had the fifth-best defensive rating last year (104.1).
Weaknesses: Due for a regression on outside shooting efficiency after uptick for several players.
Verdict: Somewhere between the team that started 11-30 last season and the one that finished 30-11.

Orlando Magic
Star player: Aaron Gordon
Coach: Frank Vogel
Last season: 29-53
Key ins: Arron Afflalo (SAC), Marreese Speights (LAC), Jonathon Simmons (SAS), Jonathan Isaac (R)
Key outs: Jeff Green (CLE), Jodie Meeks (WSH), C.J. Watson (FA)
Strengths: Are young and athletic.
Weaknesses: Have a hard time scoring and spacing the floor, finished second-last in offensive rating last year (101.2).
Verdict: They’re well overdue for some wins but until proven otherwise, primed for the lottery again.

Washington Wizards
Star player: John Wall
Coach: Scott Brooks
Last season: 49-33, lost in second round
Key ins: Jodie Meeks (ORL), Mike Scott (ATL), Tim Frazier (NOP)
Key outs: Bojan Bogdanovic (IND)
Strengths: Dynamic backcourt of Wall and Beal keeps getting better.
Weaknesses: One of the best starting lineups in the entire NBA is contrasted by a weak second unit, which didn’t improve all that much.
Verdict: They talk tough and act like contenders, but unless injuries plague Cleveland or Boston, they’ll remain third in the pecking order.

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