Padanilam: Cleveland should feel threatened in Eastern Conference
Benjamin Padanilam | Wednesday, February 15, 2017
The Cleveland Cavaliers need to be worried about getting past the rest of the Eastern Conference.
At the beginning of the season, such a statement would have been thought absurd. A team led by LeBron James has represented the East in the NBA Finals each of the last six years. The Cavaliers were the reigning NBA champs, and there were no immediate threats to that reign in their conference.
Simply put, a third installment to the Cleveland-Golden State rivalry seemed inevitable at the start of the season.
But that’s why they play a regular season — things can change quickly, and they often do.
There’s no doubt that, when healthy, Cleveland has the most talented roster in the East. With the trio of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, they boast the best “big three” in the conference, and the addition of Kyle Korver midway through the year to add to the already strong shooting core of J.R. Smith and Channing Frye and rebounding machine in Tristan Thompson rightly earned them the expectations they had at the start of the season.
But those two words “when healthy” are important, because right now Cleveland is anything but whole.
Smith went down in December with a fractured right thumb, which is less than ideal for a shooter. Then the team found out Monday that Love would be out for six weeks after his knee required arthroscopic surgery. And while he might be healthy, James is putting a lot of miles on his engine — he is currently tied for the league lead in minutes per game — despite his requests at the beginning of the season to lower his minutes in preparation for the playoffs.
And all of that adds up to a slim lead — currently two games over Boston — in the Eastern Conference with a lot of concern on the horizon.
So sure, as long as James is on the roster, the Cavaliers will probably remain the favorites in the East. But they need to evaluate their hold on that claim, because while they have more questions than answers ahead of them, the teams looking to catch them are in much better places.
The second-place Celtics are a less talented but deeper team than the Cavaliers right now. They have the game’s best fourth-quarter player in Isaiah Thomas, boast the defensive players at the wing which could give a Love-less Cavaliers squad fits and are the only contending team who possess valuable trade assets that could land them the type of player — such as Jimmy Butler or Paul George — that would push them over the top in the East.
The other major threat in the East is the Toronto Raptors. Although they currently sit in fifth place in the conference due to a recent skid, the Raptors were the East’s second best team last season, return the same core from that team to this year’s squad and added Serge Ibaka to the mix Monday in a trade that gives them a legitimate two-way playmaker at the power forward spot. With a top-five offense already and now a premier shot blocker anchoring the already 11th-best defense in the league, the Raptors have launched themselves back into the discussion as a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers, even when healthy.
The point here is that Cleveland needs to make a move. While fellow columnist Marek Mazurek was a bit off in his calling for the Cavaliers to completely restructure their roster around James, he was not wrong to point out their need for some change. The backup point guard and big man James keeps asking for is a start, but it could require an additional playmaker either off the bench or an even bigger splash for the starting lineup beyond that.
But the reason is not simply because they have to worry about competing with the Warriors for a title anymore; the truth is that the East is catching up to them, and they have to make sure they still have the pieces to ensure they stay in Finals conversation.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.