LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are heavy favorites to defend their Eastern Conference title. In fact, according to VegasInsider.com, Cleveland’s odds to make the Finals are 1-3 (not 3-1, which are the Golden State Warriors‘ odds to repeat as West champs).
After the Cavs, who’s the second best team in the East?
The first 2015-16 edition of Marc Stein’s NBA power rankings for ESPN.com illustrates the great disparity between Cleveland and the rest of the conference. The Cavs are No. 2 league-wide (after the Warriors), but the third through eighth spots all belong to Western Conference clubs.
Stein pegs the Atlanta Hawks No. 9 overall, second in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta went 60-22 last year, but finished just 20-14 after taking everybody by surprise with 40-8 start. This offseason the Hawks lost DeMarre Carroll, their defensive stopper and all-around glue guy. A continued regression to the mean seems quite likely for a squad that landed two first-time All Stars (Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver) in 2014-15.
Could the Miami Heat rise up and challenge the Cavs? They’re starting five of Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside has the potential to compete with anybody. However, relying on Wade’s health (he hasn’t played 70 games since 2010-11) and Whiteside’s head may be too much to ask.
How about the Chicago Bulls? It’s hard to envision Derrick Rose ever returning to his MVP form. He’s suited up for only 100 regular season contests in four years and is now on the shelf again. Rookie coach Fred Hoiberg is also a wild card.
Can any of these clubs stake a definitive claim to being No. 2 in the East?
Chicago, Miami and Atlanta are the front runners, but each would need a variety of things to break the right way in order to get there. A betting man might be wise to wager on the field of the other five teams mentioned, rather than pick any of those three.
To answer the question posed in the title, no.