February 16, 2017
By Matt Magill
With word that Kevin Love is out for six weeks with a knee injury (I bet LeBron wishes they traded Love away when the Knicks were hot on his heels now) and the recent acquisition of Serge Ibaka by the Toronto Raptors, the “Cleveland and everyone else” ways of the NBA’s Eastern Conference may finally be a thing of the past. Boston has been steadily creeping up the standings and great play by Isaiah Thomas and Company has them ready to challenge the Cavs in the playoffs, but will it matter, regardless of how Toronto or Boston improves?
For the last few years, the NBA has been a two-horse race, one in the East (Cleveland) and one in the West (Golden State). San Antonio is always going to keep things interesting, but everyone else is basically just playing out the string from game one through game 82 as those two powers get ready to square off in the finals. With Kevin Durant heading to the Bay Area this offseason, the separation of powers in the West is even more apparent, and while LeBron whines about not having any help, the help that he does have seems to find ways of getting injured. Remember, a Kyrie Irving injury early in the finals the first time the Cavs and Warriors met was probably the turning point that swung that series in Golden State’s favor. The Warriors had no real answer last year when the Cavs were at full strength. Now that the Cavs are again dealing with a Kevin Love injury, is it possible that they slip back to the pack and give up home court in the East?
This year, the Cavs are doing their best sleepwalk maneuver through the regular season (despite LeBron’s very public pleas), while everyone around them is trying to get better. Nothing is more apparent in that regard than the Ibaka trade in Toronto. It’s obvious that the Raptors are going all-in this year, trying to dethrone the Cavs and get to the finals. With the team that they have, it’s entirely possible that it happens, too. While the top three in the East will probably be (in some order) Cleveland, Boston and Toronto, the one seed will be in the prime position of only having to play one of those two teams (and hopefully after a seven-game series that tires the winner out). So while in years past, the one seed in the East may not have been as much of a prize, this year it could prove to be the difference between a finals trip and going home. Toronto is preparing themselves for a deep playoff run, and if they can nab that one seed, they may just make the finals for the first time in team history. Boston has arrived at a good place through quality minutes from a well-constructed team. While they may have the best chance to challenge the Cavs for years to come, Toronto feels like the better pick to take Cleveland down this year with the addition of Ibaka to an already good lineup. Yes, Washington and Atlanta are in the mix as well, and should fill out the top five in the East, but if Toronto can get hot, they can rocket up the standings quickly, and provide the best matchup against the Cavs, in my opinion.
This wheeling and dealing mid-season could all be a moot point though because somehow, someway, the Cavs turn it on when they need to in the playoffs. Whether it’s LeBron whining to the refs and the zebras relenting, or whether it’s through actual basketball skill, Cleveland has often found a way to get it done. The best bet for the rest of the East is that this Kevin Love injury forces LeBron to play more minutes in the regular season than he normally would just to get the one-seed, causing him to tire out at the tail end of the playoffs (unless he can rest through the first round, which is entirely possible).
Of course, no matter who gets to the finals out of the East, they’ll be too tired and over-matched to do anything against the buzz saw of the Warriors awaiting them out of the West.