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#pounditTuesday, December 6, 2022

Five teams with the best shot of knocking off the Cavs in the East

Danny Ainge Celtics

Cleveland has found itself in an unexpected position this offseason. Following the team’s second NBA Finals loss in three years to the Golden State Warriors, the general NBA populace entered the summer months assuming the Cavs would retain their core and take another stab at Golden State next June.

Despite all the inevitable offseason jockeying, in the end we’d have LeBron, Kyrie, and Kevin Love versus the 2K Team for the title…again.

But, wait, what’s that?

Life comes at you fast. Though we may still find ourselves with a rematch in the Finals, the odds of that happening now appear slimmer than they did just one month ago.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert chose not to re-sign general manager David Griffin — a decision that was unpopular with the players. The Cavs feverishly tried to trade for Paul George — and thought they had an agreement in place to do so — but fell short. And lastly, of course, ESPN discovered the news that has the NBA spinning — Kyrie Irving, tired of playing second banana to LeBron James, has made it very clear he wants to be traded.

Irving reportedly gave the Cavs a list of four teams that he’d be willing to go to: the Knicks (his hometown team), Timberwolves (an organization on the rise with an established head coach), Spurs (stability), and Heat (stability).

Regardless of whether the Cavs are able to remedy the Irving-James situation (don’t count on it) and retain Kyrie, it seems Cleveland will be vulnerable next season. After making it seven years in a row, could this be the year LeBron finally misses the Finals?

Below are the five teams with the best shot to overtake the Cavs in the East.

5. Toronto Raptors

It seems everyone is down on the Raptors right now, and with good reason. Though Toronto has been a top-three regular season team in the East for the past two seasons, the squad has faltered in the postseason. They’ll get their 50 wins, sure, but nobody considers them a legitimate threat.

This offseason, the Raptors somewhat surprisingly doubled down on the present. Some expected a rebuild. Instead, the team signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to big deals (which some might say were too big).

Though these decisions were questionable from a long-term perspective, Toronto’s free agency strategy ensured the team would be competitive with the best of the East for the foreseeable future.

The Raptors likely do not currently have the talent to dethrone Cleveland. In the 2015-16 Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto pushed the Cavs to six games, but anyone who watched the series knows it wasn’t that close. In the 2016-17 semifinals, the Cavs played full-throttle from the outset, and they coasted to a sweep.

Cleveland has clearly been the superior team in this matchup. So, what could change?

For one, the rosters could change. Toronto has been shopping big man Jonas Valanciunas. If a couple pieces move, there’s an outside shot the tide of this head-to-head matchup could turn.

And while Cleveland is in the midst of such chaos, you can’t undersell the importance of stability. Toronto’s core (Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, coach Dwane Casey) has been together since 2012. That’s an eternity in the modern NBA.

Maybe this is the year everything clicks, the Raptors make some shrewd moves before the deadline, and they capitalize on a weakened Cleveland squad. But probably not. This is a longshot.

4. Miami Heat

As I mentioned above, the Heat were one of four teams Irving said he would be willing to go to.

But, they missed the playoffs. So, why would Irving have interest in them?

Well, they have a stable front office (Pat Riley), a top-tier head coach (Erik Spoelstra), and some solid role players on good contracts. They’re competitive every year and are in a good place financially for the coming years. Oh, and it’s South Beach.

Forget the irony of Irving bolting Cleveland for Miami and consider this: if you’re a free agent or just an unhappy player, is there any franchise/city combination more appealing than that of Miami? If you were in his shoes, why wouldn’t you want to go there?

The Heat have a decent core — Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters have blossomed together in the backcourt, Hassan Whiteside is a dominant force inside, and Kelly Olynyk was a good signing — and they flourished down the stretch this spring, but they’re this high on the list because they’re so well positioned to make a move.

Though the Heat missed out on the marquee free agent targets they coveted in Gordon Hayward (Boston) and Blake Griffin (back with the Clippers), they’re lurking.

The Heat already had tons of cap space, then they were relieved of Chris Bosh’s hit against the cap.

Miami has all of its chess pieces positioned to make a big move. It may not come this offseason, but they’re a team to watch until the trade deadline in February. With some small changes, they’d be a scary second-round matchup.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks’ present dreams of what could be. This team appears to be the future of the East, as anyone who watched this year’s first round of the playoffs could contend.

Milwaukee has positioned itself brilliantly. It has a promising coach (Jason Kidd) and a stable of good young players under contract for years to come.

This team is centered on Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 22-year-old “Greek Freak.” In this year’s playoffs, Antetokounmpo showed how close he is to “being there.” He turned heads in the team’s first-round loss to Toronto, averaging 24.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game.

He led the Bucks in all five categories this season and became the first NBA player ever to finish the season in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. How about that? This kid’s special.

It’s not just about Giannis, though. Milwaukee has Malcolm Brogdon (the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and future U.S. President), Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, and a promising big in Thon Maker, in addition to some solid complementary players.

The Bucks are still a bit raw, and they might not be ready this year, but they’re coming soon. Their length and skill — they can switch so effortlessly on D — has the whole NBA on notice.

2. Washington Wizards

The Wizards’ long-term prognosis is now clear, as John Wall recently re-signed — finally! He agreed to a four-year, $170 million extension.

So, why did he take so long to make up his mind? It might have been a little bit of vengeance for Washington re-signing Bradley Beal to a max deal before him.

That’s all history at this point. Beal is under contract through 2020-21, and Wall is now inked through 2022-23. That means this backcourt is the organization’s centerpiece for the next four years.

Does Washington have enough right now to knock off Cleveland? Doubtful. But if the Wizards gain a piece, or Cleveland loses a piece, a series between these teams could get really interesting.

Imagine the disparity in the backcourt if the Cavs didn’t have Kyrie and were instead trotting out the injury-riddled Derrick Rose and J.R. Smith to try to hang with Wall and Beal. The Wall/Beal duo might outscore them by 60.

The Wizards also brought back Otto Porter Jr. and have a budding young wing in Kelly Oubre Jr. (Kelly Olynyk’s nemesis). Though it would take a herculean effort from Washington’s 1A and 1B options, they’re good enough to be considered a legitimate challenger.

1. Boston Celtics

The Celtics just get it. Danny Ainge knows how to run an organization.

Look at the moves he’s made over the years and, with perhaps the exception of the Fab Melo/Jared Sullinger 2012 draft, Ainge has a nearly flawless track record. Consider the Isaiah Thomas trade, picking up Jae Crowder as a throwaway in the Rajon Rondo deal, and — of course — the Paul Pierce/KG deal with the Nets.

This summer, Ainge has shined yet again. In addition to snagging Jayson Tatum in the draft — a pick that looks even better after Summer League — Boston added Gordon Hayward, an All-NBA caliber player who’s still improving.

The team also made a sneaky-good trade in flipping Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris. Though Bradley may be the better player head-to-head, Morris’ contract situation is superior (Bradley is going to get paid next summer, while the 27-year-old Morris is on a bargain deal), and Morris provides something the Celtics sorely needed: toughness inside. Boston may have improved in the short-term and long-term as a result of the trade.

Even if the Cavs retain Kyrie, the new-look Celtics should be able to give them a run for their money. If Cleveland loses Irving, however, and does not improve as a result of the trade, Boston could very well advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

Though the Cavs remain the favorites in the East, the Celtics should make Cleveland fans anxious.

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