Injuries in Cleveland, Raptors trade and All-NBA type seasons make the Eastern Conference the most open race since the return of the King.
Kevin Love will be sidelined for six weeks with a left knee injury. Meanwhile the Toronto raptors have traded for Serge Ibaka in an eventful period for several teams in the Eastern Conference.
Cavs – Kevin Love
Love will be back in time for the playoffs, but the injury will force the Cavaliers to give more minutes to veterans and change the entire rotation. This may interrupt the momentum for the Cavs going into the playoffs and require Lebron James to carry even more of the workload.
Lebron is currently ranked equal first in the league for minutes per game with 37.6 and with the injury to Love, that doesn’t look like slowing down anytime soon. This will leave Lebron and Kyrie Irving with most the workload before the playoffs, which is not ideal for Cleveland. They would prefer to have the option to rest them and manage their minutes.
LeBron’s foot stays on the gas pedal pic.twitter.com/oJjwCnqx4N
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 14, 2017
The biggest issue for the Cavaliers will be conditioning. Love is out for six weeks and JR smith has been out since Dec. 20. Both players won’t be in game condition once they return, forcing the team to play at a slower pace and use more rotations. The Cavs may need to look at the trade table once again, as their depth at power forward and Centre is looking extremely thin with Love’s injury.
This puts the Cavs in a vulnerable position, as teams in the East will try and impose themselves while Cleveland are searching for injury replacements and back-ups. This has resulted in the trade of Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors. We may see other Eastern Conference teams do the same and trade in for talent.
Raptors – Serge Ibaka
The addition of Serge Ibaka gives the Toronto Raptors some added shot blocking, outside shooting and an inside presence on defence. This will be a good pairing with current centre Jonas Valanciunas, by adding a defensive element to the Raptors front-court. The Raptors have lost 10 of the last 14 games, making this a timely trade to improve the team before the playoffs.
— Khudija Ali (@K_dot_ali) February 15, 2017
This addition makes the Raptors contenders in the East. It gives them that extra defensive anchor they need if they are a chance to beat the Cavs. The road to the Eastern Conference finals will not be as straightforward as it was last year for the Raptors. There are several teams with more talent and experience this year who could also cause the Cavaliers some problems in the playoffs.
Celtics – Isaiah Thomas
The rise of Isaiah Thomas has put the Boston Celtics on the radar. Thomas is currently ranked #2 in the league in points per game with 29.8. He has been setting the league on fire with his three-point range and ability to close out games. His production has lifted Boston to the second seed in the Eastern Conference, 2 games behind the Cavs.
The biggest question mark surrounding Boston is their reliance on Thomas and the lack of star power for the rest of the team. Al Horford has been a success so far, but Boston must find more help at the centre and power forward positions. They have defensive assets that will work well against Cleveland and have performed well away from home, with a record of 17-11.
The Celtics currently have a number of trade chips they can use before the deadline, including the Brooklyn Nets unprotected first round pick which will most likely be in the top 5 of the draft. It is unlikely that Boston will trade this pick, unless they get a star player like Paul George or Jimmy Butler in return.
Boston will contend for the East this year, becoming a threat to Cleveland with their incredible toughness and defensive ability. If they can add Paul George or Jimmy Butler to the team before the trade deadline, they will become the stand out contender and may cause some serious problems for the Cavs in the playoffs. Isaiah Thomas’ form proves that the performance of one player can jolt a team into contention, something that has also happened with the Washington Wizards.
Washington – John Wall
With a rise in production from John Wall, the Washington Wizards have become a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. Wall is having a career year, averaging 23 points and 10.5 assist per game, while the rest of the starting five have improved significantly. Otto Porter Jr. has become a sharpshooter with a balanced overall game and Bradly Beal has turned into a scoring machine. They are great complimentary pieces for John Wall on offence but defence remains the problem for Washington.
The Wizards will need to rely on star production from Wall and Beal if they want to knock off the Cavs and make the finals. This could happen if Wall continues his stellar production and Beal can improve his defence in the playoffs. Washington will also have to improve their production when playing away from home. Their record is sitting at 9-14 on the road this year. This may be too much for the Wizards to overcome, as wins on the road are vital for winning a playoff series.
Summary – Raptors trade is the key
The injury to Kevin Love and the addition of Serge Ibaka has closed the gap between Cleveland and the other contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs have dealt with injury problems before but they are up against more talented and more experienced teams this time around. The latest Raptors trade has drastically improved Toronto at the power forward position, Boston have the most clutch player in the league and Washington have stars who are firing on all cylinders.
Each team would need everything to go right if they have a chance to beat Cleveland in a seven-game series. But playing them injured or out of condition is the best time to beat them. If each contending team do not make any moves before the deadline, I would say Toronto has the biggest chance to knock off the Cavs with the addition of Ibaka. The Wizards seem like they need to learn how to win on the road and the Celtics are one star away from having the team to do it.