After victoriously emerging from the NBA Finals last month, Cleveland is a city of champions again for the first time in 52 years.
LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love accomplished the goal that they set upon when they came together in the summer of 2014. The Big Three brought a title to “The Land”.
The King has long been a fixture in June. He has appeared in six of the last finals. This record extends back to his time with the Miami Heat before returning home to re-join his hometown team.
The Cavaliers will be a prohibitive favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference as long as they have number 23 suiting up for them.
But, one day, someone else will have to have a chance to compete for an NBA Championship from his side of the bracket. So here are the four most likely challengers to the throne in the coming season:
#4) The Atlanta Hawks – A New Chapter for the “Spurs of the East”
The Atlanta Hawks have seemed to come out of nowhere during the last two seasons.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer has made an intriguing replica of the Spurs’ organisation down in Phillips Arena. The winning has translated as well as the superior production in the face of a distinct lack of star-power.
Names like Jeff Teague, Demarre Carroll, Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver don’t move the needle when you think about big names in the NBA. But, the Hawks posted a 60+ win season two years ago.
After losing Carroll in free agency last summer, the infrastructure proved to hold as the Hawks remained competitive and reached the second round without their best playoff performer. Slot in Kent Bazemore at the small forward spot and no problem for the southern franchise.
First, they dealt Teague this summer and handed Dennis Schroeder the reigns of the team. Now, Horford is gone and in comes Dwight Howard to anchor the middle. They finally have a star caliber player but will that translate to continued success?
#3) The Indiana Pacers – A Return to Form for LeBron’s Former Rivals?
Naptown has seen a lot of change since King James last saw them in the postseason. Series mainstays from that era like Roy Hibbert and David West are gone.
Even the mercurial presence of Lance Stephenson is curiously missing from the roster now as he finds himself having to prove his worth to other teams.
The aforementioned Teague has had a homecoming of his own and finds himself paired with a legitimate superstar in Paul George and young center sensation, Myles Turner.
The Pacers also added versatile forward Thaddeus Young and low-post technician Al Jefferson to help their apparent scoring woes from last season.
Indiana constantly overachieved during their latest campaign. The question is will the new additions do enough to bump them into contender territory?
#2) The Boston Celtics – The Celtics Finally Get their Big Name
Celtic Pride breathed it’s last raspy breath in 2012 when The Chosen One effectively quashed the aging roster’s rebellion against the Heat’s title march.
This is the first season since then that has seen the Garden’s team in position to truly blossom.
General manager, Danny Ainge, has collected young talent and assets to put the Celtics into prime position to step into the void that will open up if Cleveland falters.
Young players like Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart have all become beloved by the green clad fans of this team. Trades for players, like the feisty Isaiah Thomas, make the Celtics a major player in every transaction as they increase their leverage to land a superstar.
During free agency, the C’s also managed to snag Al Horford from the Hawks and have a legit first option on offence besides the diminutive Thomas.
The question for them becomes is Horford a franchise-player or a placeholder until reinforcements arrive?
#1) The Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Runner Up is Still Here
Last season was, by all accounts, the most successful season in franchise history. The first Eastern Conference Finals, first time with two All-Stars since 2001, hosted the All-Star game and played Cleveland as tough as anyone outside of Oakland.
The North will be back. Kyle Lowry and DeRozan are both dynamic scorers. Jonas Valanciunas will be healthy and the addition of Jared Sullinger as a desperately-needed extra big man will pay dividends.
Don’t be surprised to see Toronto back in the Conference Finals across from Cleveland. Demarre Carroll’s health looms large for the Raptors and they will need him to slow James.
Can they make the leap and will Lowry and DeRozan be able to pick-up where they left off?