The Eastern Conference will undoubtedly be determined between Chicago and Cleveland, and the NBA knows it. What better way could the NBA begin this season than for LeBron James and the Cavaliers to go to Chicago and face the team that gave Cleveland their biggest scare in the East last postseason?
The Bulls should be much improved as well. Photos of Nikola Mirotic at practices in Spain alongside Pau Gasol show a much stronger upper body for the Montenegrin forward. With added weight while sustaining his mobility, Mirotic will improve defensively and be able to finish easier in the paint.
If Mirotic is able to improve considerably on his perimeter jump shot, he could be in line for the starting job for the Bulls. Mirotic said in an interview with hoopshype that he has a lot of growing to do:
“Some people may have been surprised with my performance, but those who know me know the best Mirotic is yet to come.”
That was easy to see last year, and now with an offensive-oriented coach like Fred Hoiberg, look for Mirotic to increase his production and efficiency even more. The Bulls will also need other internal growth to try and match Cleveland in the postseason, with players like forward Doug McDermott and swingman Tony Snell taking steps to become significant contributors.
It’s going to be tough to match Cleveland, especially after making a big upgrade at back up point guard with a former LeBron teammate in Mo Williams. This insures starting point guard Kyrie Irving in case he deals with injuries like this past postseason, while also maintaining the defensive-minded Matthew Dellavedova to bring a different element to the backcourt.
Regardless of whether or not Tristan Thompson re-signs for next year, it’s clear the Cavaliers are the favorites in the East with LeBron James at the helm. Heck, the Bulls only won two games while the Cavs had a hobbled Irving and no Kevin Love, who they also brought back with a max contract this offseason.
That’s probably the most interesting part of this Eastern Conference; the Cavs are far and beyond the best team in the conference now that the Atlanta Hawks seem destined to fade a bit after the loss of two-way swingman DeMarre Carroll. Atlanta won’t be sneaking up on people this year, and their perimeter defense could stronger without the versatility of Carroll.
The Miami Heat are also a team that could threaten the top two in the East if they’re able to stay healthy. There are five legit above-average starters for Miami, with an injection of much-needed youth into the roster that should help carry the Heat long-term. Could center Hassan Whiteside turn into an All-Star? He put up big time numbers late last season.
How will big man Chris Bosh return after missing most of last season? Dwyane Wade should play well for another 60+ games while being a mentor for young swingman Justise Winslow. Forward Luol Deng should be solid on both ends for another season. Point guard Goran Dragic has shown he’s an above average point guard in the NBA, and will continue to do so next year.
But in the end, I expect Cleveland and Chicago to decide the Eastern Conference’s fate next year in the playoffs. LeBron is a perfect 4-0 against the Bulls in the playoffs, each of the first three series were decided in five games a piece, while last year was finished in six games. I expect much of the same, although Hoiberg should do a better job constructing an offense that won’t go through as many cold spells as last season.
When all is said and done, look for Cleveland to represent the Eastern Conference next season, as they have the best player in the world in LeBron with an improved roster in the weaker of the two conferences. Miami, Chicago and even Milwaukee provide some intrigue as challengers, but none have a player who can impact and carry a team like LeBron James.