LeBron James and Kevin Love’s team-up in Cleveland with Kyrie Irving led most to assume the Cavaliers were suddenly runaway favorites to win the Eastern Conference. After a rocky start and a necessary break for James, the Cavs got back on track and look to have the makings of a title contender. But in that time, Mike Budenholzer’s Atlanta Hawks also established themselves as an elite team with 55 wins already. As some teams try to reintegrate injured players and others just try to get everyone healthy, the Cavs and Hawks have risen to the top of the NBA’s inferior conference.
The Case for Atlanta
The Hawks’ case is fairly simple and undoubtedly strong: they’ve been the conference’s best team this season in every way. Atlanta sits fourth overall in the NBA with a 5.3 net rating, while Cleveland is second in the conference at 4.0 and Chicago third at 3.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
Those figures perhaps even undersell what the Hawks have done. Atlanta rode a dominant stretch through most of the season where they were simply unbeatable, allowing them to cruise into the All-Star break with the conference all but locked up. In doing so, the Hawks have been able to rest their players to a maximum.
Since the break, the Hawks have a net rating of just 0.1. In that time, however, Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore have played more minutes than Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague. While Teague has struggled to match his production from earlier in the season, Korver remains Atlanta’s most important player: they have a 9.9 net rating in the 2,193 minutes he has played this season. When he takes the bench, Atlanta has been outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Teague has an impressive split for the season as well, while Schroder and Bazemore have the Hawks’ two worst on/off court splits, per NBA.com.
Atlanta has taken full advantage of the opportunity they earned by building such a dominant lead. Aside from the benefits of resting Teague, Korver, and other key players to keep them fresh for the playoffs, the increased roles of the bench have yielded legitimate experience for young players. The Hawks should be at maximum energy levels and will likely have to face an under .500 eight seed and whichever inferior team emerges from Raptors-Wizards. With such an easy path to the Conference Finals, the Hawks must be considered the favorite.
The Case for Cleveland
Well, they do have LeBron James. Since leaving the Cavs initially, James has somehow only lost two playoff series: the 2011 Finals collapse to Dallas and last season’s beatdown in the Finals by San Antonio. In both cases, a deep, veteran team with a terrific coach outmanuevered the King and his teammates. While James was understandably gassed last season and had little support from his aging teammates, he was also a legendary Ray Allen three-pointer away from losing to those Spurs in six games in 2013 as well. Regardless, it’s clear that only a truly deep and intelligent team with a top notch coach even has a chance at taking down LeBron.
Atlanta fits the bill, but plenty of great teams have fallen to James. At full strength, LeBron is the most unstoppable offensive player on the planet and perhaps the most versatile defender. Earlier this season, many felt James looked older and fatigued, with a noticeable lack of athletic plays we had become accustomed to. Three weeks of rest for LeBron and turmoil for his teammates was ultimately the best decision, as LeBron and Cleveland have absolutely torn up the league since then.
Let’s start with the obvious. For the season, the Cavs have a dominant 9.8 net rating when James plays and an abysmal -6.4 rating when he sits. These numbers are skewed slightly because the Cavs had an embarrassing lack of depth even beyond LeBron’s absence during his time off, resulting in the team playing by far its worst ball of the season. Adding J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and, crucially, Timofey Mozgov plus getting James back has yielded the scariest results yet for Cleveland.
When Mozgov is on the floor, the Cavs have an electrifying 12.8 net rating that even Golden State can’t sniff. (as a whole; their top lineup combinations are bananas) The results have been similarly great when new additions Shumpert and Smith play as well. Interestingly, the embattled Kevin Love has a far better on/off court split than Tristan Thompson for both the whole season and the strech post-All Star in which Cleveland is outscoring opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions.
The Cavs are playing far better basketball than anyone else in the conference can lay claim to right now. With a seemingly fresh LeBron James on their side, Cleveland has an undoubtedly strong case for winning the East.
The Dark Horse
Don’t look now, but the Chicago Bulls have stumbled upon their most dangerous rotations yet. As Mike Prada excellently illustrated on SB Nation, Nikola Mirotic has rapidly become the best big man in the league’s deepest frontcourt. Tom Thibodeau has finally recognized this, rewarding the rookie with 30.8 minutes per game in March. And Mirotic has delivered, averaging 20.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, two combined blocks and steals, and 7.3 free throw attempts a night:
Updated CHI 2-man combos:
Caveat: Niko’s played some 3
— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) March 24, 2015
Now that Jimmy Butler is back and playing his usual array of huge minutes, the Bulls look dynamic when Mirotic and Butler are running the floor and drawing fouls. Taj Gibson finally looks to be over his ankle woes, yet he has been relegated to the fourth big role because Mirotic, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol are so good. While Thibodeau still understandably chooses to start the questionably effective pairing of Gasol and Noah, his willingness to mix and match and zest to finish with Mirotic has yielded great results for Chicago.
If Derrick Rose does actually return soon, he’ll be joined by Chicago’s deepest and most dangerous team in years. If he doesn’t, the Bulls will still feel comfortable taking it to the elites, as confidence and drive have never lacked in Tom Thibodeau’s teams.